Automating Spellcheck (SpellCorrect?)

Let’s start this off by admitting a dark secret: my spelling is atrocious. As an example, I initially typed that sentence as, “Let’s start this off by admiting a dark secret: my spelling is attrocious.”  Built-in spell checking serves as a constant face-saver, but repeatedly finishing a sentence, switching from keyboard to mouse, right-clicking on the freshly-underlined words, and choosing what is nearly always the top choice from the built-in dictionary gets old.  The fact that the computer’s first suggestion is almost always exactly what I tried to type makes me wonder: why can’t the machine automatically correct misspellings?  Spell-checkers already rank the possible solutions, so it seems logical that if the delta of the ranking values between the top two choices is sufficiently large, it would be pretty safe to automatically make the replacement.  If the action was accompanied by some sort of animation or color change (like the highlighting Mac OS X’s Preview performs when searching text in PDF files), the user would be aware the change had been made and could quickly evaluate whether it was correct.  If it is, no need to switch over to the mouse and lose your train of thought; you can keep merrily typing away.  If the correction was wrong, the highlight should remain for a while so that the user can finish typing, then come back to fix any mistaken spelling corrections.

Combining this technique with a machine learning system to detect patterns in a particular user’s misspellings (including the actual word they wanted) you could quickly end up with a highly-accurate spellcorrecter tailored to the end user.  This brings the idea into my area of research, since the result would be a machine-learned program that could hold significant time-saving value to users.  I’ll have to take a closer look at this at some point soon.  In the meantime, I’m just frustrated that such a system doesn’t already exist.


A few nights ago I caught an episode of Good Eats where Alton Brown managed to spend 30 glorious minutes discussing popcorn (video embedded below).  Today I hit up the co-op for some peanut oil and multi-colored popcorn… I suspect these are the cereal version of heirloom tomatoes.  Brown’s directions are simple enough, though I’ve adjusted the amounts downward slightly.

  1. Add 1/3 cup of popcorn to a metal bowl with a  couple of tablespoons of oil.
  2. Sprinkle a couple of pinches of salt on top and swirl it all together.
  3. Cover the bowl with foil, slicing a few air vents in the top.  As it turns out, if you make these big, you get sprayed with hot oil 🙁
  4. Place the bowl over medium heat and shake it (I didn’t have metal tongs, so I just used a hot pad) frequently until the popping stops.
  5. Season with a pinch of rosemary and thyme (the oil really seems to obviate the need for butter)

Absolutely brilliant!  Now I’ve a big bowl of the stuff, and am ready to queue up Lost on the Tivo!

And, because Alton Brown is infinitely more amusing than I am, a video of him explaining the same recipe:

Pressing Deadlines

So for the past week I’ve been meaning to write up a description of the general awesomeness that was IUI ’09, but with end-of-term craziness in full force, it’s going to have to wait.  Suffice to say it was a fabulous week full of wonderful people and some fascinating research.  Photos are slowly making their way from my notebook to Flickr, and once the VLHCC ’09 submission deadline passes, the process should speed up.

Speaking of, the past week has flown by as we prepare our paper, and I’m certain the next two will be similar.  Today and tomorrow I’ve eight transcripts to code, plus an abstract to write and a clever title to generate.  Feeling pretty good about it all at this particular moment, though; met up with Andrea at a funky new coffee shop (Vibe) downtown this morning, and ran into her friend Lisa as well.  Now I’m exporting our final transcript video from the lab, then heading home to throw open some windows, put on a kettle, and code until I can code no more (and maybe a bit past that, we’ll see).  The past few evenings have ended with mini-marathons of Series Three Doctor Who, and I’m looking forward to finishing that off late tonight.

Adding New Lines to Cells in Excel for the Mac

In case anyone else had as much trouble figuring this out as I did… if you want to break up a cell in the Mac edition of Microsoft Excel into multiple lines, you need to hold down the Option and Command keys while pressing Return.  This is a little different than the Windows edition of Excel, where you hold down Alt while pressing Return.  Anyway, it seems to work well, and now I can get nicely-formatted text into my Excel documents!

My High School Music Collection

Backstory: Today in the lab, I found myself listening to some of the old local Detroit bands in my music collection.   It got me feeling a bit nostalgic, especially when some tracks came on from an old friend’s punk band, the Bourgeois Filth.  Shortly before the band split, he’d given me a demo tape of some very rad, very different stuff the band was working on, but I must have lost it years ago… I can’t even remember the last time I had a cassette player, let alone anything to play in one.  I still have their sole CD release, but this afternoon I really wanted to listen through that old tape again.

So anyway, tonight I Googled around a bit.  The band’s old webpage is still up on AngelFire (Seriously?  I had no idea AngelFire was still around…), but hasn’t been updated since their reunion show 9 years ago.  Seems like they never got much attention outside of Detroit; I really can’t seem to find anything useful on the Internets about them.  What I did find, however, was an old-school German FTP listing of MP3 sites that probably went dark a decade ago.  Including, I think, my old dual Pentium Pro basement server.  Near the top of the list is an entry for, sharing albums from such fine musicians as Nine Inch Nails, Green Day, Orbital, and the Bourgeois Filth.  I’m reading through this thinking, “Wow, that’s exactly what I used to listen to…” when I notice one of the band names: Semblance of Self.  That was the name I released my own material under!  Seriously!  As much as I’d like to think that someone found those tunes cool enough to bother mirroring them on their own FTP server, I really can’t believe anyone did.  So… someone’s still linking to an FTP site I ran during the 90’s, and specifically mentions my old band name.  Bizarre!

Tragically, I still can’t seem to find anyone who had a copy of that Bourgeois Filth tape and bothered to encode it into MP3s 🙁

Update: Since a few of you have expressed interest, I’ve uploaded the original Bourgeois Filth album.  If anyone has MP3s of their last demo tape, I’d love to get a copy!

Another update (March 27, 2012): A digital copy of Bourgeois Filth’s last demo tape has surfaced at Michigan Graveyard!

Names, Locations, and Dates

Last week Eric posted about memorization, and our culture’s general lack of it.  He was specifically referring to storytelling and poetry.  I only had to memorize a couple of [very short] poems in high school, but I recall even that was nearly beyond me, I had a terrible time of it.  I do really well with plot lines; the general series of events in a film or novel or history book  stick with me for ages, but the specifics never do.  Unlike some people, I have no idea when the Treaty of Ghent was signed.  I’ve often wished for a mind able to trap these details and hold onto them until they become useful, but I’m afraid that’s not my lot.

Music, however, is a different story.  It seems to be the combination of words and melody that does it for me… I’m no good at recalling either until I’ve memorized both, but that usually only takes listening to a tune a couple of times.  Seeing lyrics written by themselves doesn’t help me at all, they slide right through my mind.  Melodies, by themselves, are the same way.  When I was playing classical guitar, I had lots of trouble memorizing pieces for performances.  Once I even got halfway through performing a piece before realizing I had no idea what came next, and just stopped (this actually happened twice: the same song, at the same spot, at the same competition.  Tres embarrassing.).  Once you combine the music and lyrics, however, I’m fine.  I’ve recently been playing a lot of tunes that I learned 5 or 10 years ago and haven’t even thought of in years… remarkably, they’re all still up there.

I’m not sure why I have an easy time memorizing these two concurrent vectors when simply one vector alone is very difficult, though I suspect it has something to do with the music reminding of associated lyrics, and vice-versa.  No complaints, though.  It’s allowed me to build a formidable repertoire of cover tunes which, some day, will be as useful (to me) as knowing the signing date for the Treaty of Ghent.

[Just to be clear, that last bit isn’t sarcastic.  Chris got a great laugh out of an audience by mentioning that little tidbit, which I’d say is pretty awesome.]

Red Lentil Pilau

One of the first dishes I made that I was really happy with was from a red lentil pilau recipe that I discovered a couple of years ago.  I cooked this a few times for Leslie back in Auburn Hills, and choose to bring it as a side-dish when Twinkle hosted Thanksgiving last year.  Last night I made it again for the first time in a year, and was quickly reminded why I love it so much: the ingredients are inexpensive, preparation is straight-forward, you can let it cook essentially unattended, and it re-heats extremely well for an easy lunch the next day.  Also, it’s delicious.  Here’s the recipe, slightly modified based on my own experiences:


  • 3 tsp Garam masala (you can find this spice mix at Indian grocers and sometimes at larger grocery chains)
  • 3 tbsp virgin olive oil
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped into 1/4″ pieces
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup basmati rice
  • 1 cup red lentils
  • 3 cups hot vegetable stock
  • 1 or 2 spring onions, thinly sliced


  1. Heat the oil over medium heat in a large saucepan (it will need to hold all of the rice, lentils, onions, and stock).
  2. Stir the garam masala into the oil.
  3. Add onions and garlic.  Cook over medium until the onions soften (about 3 minutes).
  4. Stir in the rice and lentils and cook (stirring constantly) for 2 minutes.
  5. Slowly stir in the vegetable stock.
  6. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, until the rice is cooked and all of the stock has been absorbed (about 30-40 minutes).
  7. Move the mixture to a serving dish and fluff the rice with a fork.  Garnish with spring onion and serve!


Twinkle introduced me to the wonders of leeks last year, and I keep finding new ways to incorporate them into my cooking.  First (since this was all new to me), a leek is a vegetable related to the onion, but tends to be more prominent in a dish’s flavor than if the chef had used onions instead.  I also find the texture to be more satisfying, but that’s just personal preference.  You can easily chop them up into strips and saute them with some garlic in butter, but I’ve lately found that I like to just get them sizzling for a minute or two, then add some salt and pepper, drop the heat to a simmer, and sweat them until they’re slightly translucent.

Yesterday I added some leeks prepared as above to a bottled pasta sauce with fabulous results.  They add a nice texture to the pasta dish (penne, in this case), and provide some extra variety to the flavor of the sauce.  For a quick side dish, you can saute the leeks until they just begin to brown, then splash in a bit of white wine and stir in some other vegetables (peas or zucchini work well), boil off the wine, and serve!