November 2008 Archives

a lawley thanksgiving

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Perfect weather, wonderful company, delicious food. A lovely day all around.


rediscovering movable type

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This blog has been running on Movable Type ever since I started it in back in the fall of 2002. But in recent years I've stopped building new sites with MT because I found it increasingly complex and convoluted--from the install process to the templating tools.

Unfortunately, I haven't had much luck finding a replacement to straddle the line between blogging and CMS. I gave WordPress a try, but it's too limited. Creating non-blog sites on a WP backend requires complex hacks, and not being able to run multiple sites/blogs from a single install is aggravating. My next stop was Drupal, but the learning curve for Drupal is just too freaking hard. I don't want to spend days poring over reference texts just to be able to put up a quick and easily edited site.

Faced with a new web site building project over this holiday break, I reluctantly decided to take another look at Movable Type in its latest incarnation. And I must say, I've been pleasantly surprised. The included templates for a "professional website," along with an easier install process and a clearer template/module implementation, made it fun for me again.

Yes, the documentation is still woefully lacking. And yes, it's still a bit of pain to customize templates. But compared to learning Drupal or creating my own custom CMS, it was a walk in the park. It took me about two days to figure out how to significantly hack the basic professional templates to provide things I needed (like automatically-generated drop-down menu navigation using folder and subfolder names). And in the process, I gained enough comfort with the overall templating language that I feel as though I could easily build something more customized now.

The best part of all this is that I now feel comfortable updating and expanding my original Movable Type courseware system for packaging and distribution using the new version of MT (which is free for personal and educational use, so there are no price obstacles, either). I suspect I won't get a chance to work on that for a few months, most likely over the summer, but you can plan on a new version being available for download and install in plenty of time for the 2009-2010 academic year.

(As an aside, in case you were going to ask, the site I'm building now will be public in about a week. I'll post about it, and the extremely cool company I'm building it for, when it goes live.)

n95 to the rescue!

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I'm in Alabama this week for Thanksgiving with the Lawley side of the family. Usually, being on the farm means no internet access (other than occasional dial-up via my mother-in-law's computer), which makes it hard to get work done--or play WoW, which I've returned to with a vengeance now that the expansion is out.

On the way down, however, I remembered JoikuSpot--the software for my Nokia n95 phone that allows me to turn it into a mobile wifi hotspot. The "lite" version I'd been using only supported http protocols, but I downloaded a trial of the premium version and it provides full online access.

The family farm used to be a cellphone dead zone, but in the two years since I was last here, the cell coverage has improved markedly. We can now get Edge data over AT&T; the signal isn't terribly strong, but if you prop your phone in a window it improves markedly. And if you pick the right window, you can then access the JoikuSpot wifi from most places in the house.

Remarkably, even the shaky Edge connection is sufficient to play WoW. It also allows several of us to access the web and/or email at the same time--meaning I don't have to trek the 20 miles into Centreville or Montevallo in order to get online and do some work.

It makes me reluctant to "upgrade" to an iPhone now, because the convenience of wifi anywhere via the n95 is pretty awesome. Anyone know if I can put my iPhone's SIM card into my n95 if/when I need that capability? That would make the iPhone upgrade more attractive. Then again, I may just wait until the next gen iPhone makes an appearance, since I"m happy enough with the n95 for now...


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"We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no
matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can withstand the
power of millions of voices calling for change.

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics who will
only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks to come. We've been
asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against
offering the people of this nation false hope.

But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been
anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible
odds; when we've been told that we're not ready, or that we shouldn't
try, or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a
simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people.

Yes we can."

- Barack Obama

the prescience of leonard cohen

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The song, Democracy, was released on his album The Future in November of 1992.

using microsoft office to generate student gradesheets

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For years now, I've been using a combination of Microsoft Excel, Office, and Entourage to record student grades and then generate gradesheets for the students. After conversation with a few academic colleagues, I've realized that many people aren't aware of how helpful Office's mail merge functionality is for this process, so I thought I'd document what I've been doing.

At the beginning of the quarter, I grab the students' first and last names and RIT user IDs using our student records system. This is a little clunky, since there's no easy import--I have to copy and paste from the tabular data on the website and then clean it up in BBEdit before importing to Excel. That takes me 15-20 minutes, after which I can easily use Excel's concatenation functions to add columns for their email address ( and required website URL ( I use the classlist spreadsheet to generate a web page with the student names linked to their URLs. I do this by using the mail merge function in "catalog" mode, like this:

image of mail merge document for classlist

I've got a standard Excel spreadsheet for each assignment that my students do. The first few columns are for their first and last names, email address, and URL, which I cut and paste from the classlist. The rest are for the various graded components of the assignment I'm grading--organization, design, content, mechanics, etc.

I grade the projects using the spreadsheet (which I can email to a grader if I'm having them do part of the work). Once all the projects are graded, I open up a Word document I've created that serves as the nicely-formatted gradesheet, with spaces for each of the individual point values, the total grade, and any comments from me or my grader. I used to then print these out and hand them out in class. Last year, however, I realized that I could use the merge function to send attached documents to email addresses, rather than outputting to the printer. Here's what the document looks like, along with the merge tool window. (Click on it to see a larger version.)

Once I've checked it over to make sure it's formatting properly (I can use the icon labeled ABC in the preview portion of the merge window to see what any given gradesheet looks like when output), I use the merge to email option in the last pane of the merge window. It gives me this dialog box:

mail merge options

Selecting "Mail Merge to Outbox" will generate email messages to each person in the classlist with an attached personal gradesheet, and will place these in my Entourage outbox. I can then check them over quickly before telling Entourage to send them.

I seriously considered switching to Google Docs this year for my grading, since it would have been easier to share spreadsheets with my TAs and graders. However, much to my amazement, Google's spreadsheets offer no mail merge functionality, so I had to scrap that plan. I'm excited to hear that the new Office Live may give me the ability to maintain my current workflow while also allowing me to share the spreadsheets with my graders.

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This page is an archive of entries from November 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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