Monday, March 22, 2010

Troitsky Bridge Building Champs

My son, Neil, who is a Civil Engineering student at McMaster University, was part of the winning team in the 2010 Troitsky Bridge Building Competition.

In the video below, you will see Neil's shadow on the right and then he will appear in the frame, wearing his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen garb. The digital readout shows the total carrying capacity in kg. The previous record was around 2500 kg. There is a nice writeup on McMaster's site, which looks like it may be replaced eventually, and a scraped one on the Exchange magazine site, which provides some context before watching the video.

The McMaster release included this photo (Neil is on the extreme right).

It made folks who have known Neil a long time think back to his creations using Lego, K'nex and even cardboard and tape as a child.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Regular Expressions in Excel

Once I learned a bit about regular expressions in Actionscript 2, I wanted to use them in Microsoft Excel.

It turns out that there is a VBA extension for Regular Expressions and a installable set of custom functions for Excel that includes regular expressions. To make it work, here is what I did:
  1. In Excel, hit alt-F11 to bring up the code screen.
  2. Choose Tools | References and check Microsoft VBScript Regular Expressions 5.5
  3. Close Excel.
  4. Download and install Morefunc 5 from
  5. Open Excel and start writing functions like "=REGEX.SUBSTITUTE(V2, " .......$| ....... |^....... |^......$|^.......$"," ???????? ")"

To learn more, check out the Morefunc documentation, sites like this, or sites that I referred to in my previous post. You can also write your own functions like lispy does.

Open Question: What do Excel for Mac users do?

Pretty soon you will be ordering this cup:

Regular Expressions in Actionscript 2

Regular Expressions are a powerful method of working with text strings based on dynamic patterns. For example, you might want to extract all the numbers from a string like "Michael travels 550km in 6.2 hours using 40L of gasoline", or replace any occurrence of "INV" followed by an arbitrary number of alphanumerics followed by a space with "- reference removed -".

Regular Expressions are useful in parsing user input or creating grammars for strings.

Flash decided not to support a RegExp class in Actionscript 2, though it is implemented in Actionscript 3, Javascript, and JScript.

Pavils Jurjans
bemoaned this fact and created his own RegExp class for Flash 5, which was encapsulated by Joey Lott into a .as file for Actionscript 2. Pavils also created a very handy tester, which together with websina's page, helped me to get started with regular expressions.

The CLIPS programmers have started to use our version of the class, which has been documented with ZenDocs, and includes a trim, rtrim, ltrim and slightly modified replace method. A simple tester .fla is available to interact with the class.

I probably feel as excited learning this new skill as the fellow in this comic.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Running DOS Games on Windows

In my last post, I mentioned trying to get Colourful Math to work on Windows, collecting a few delicious bookmarks along the way.

Today, I downloaded dosbox after a bit of an internet search to get a sense of its reliability (since the zombie-like dude in the top corner did not inspire a lot of confidence). dosbox allows you to run all sorts of DOS programs under Windows, Mac and Linux - Doom and Railroad Tycoon (which is a free download now) seem especially popular.

When you run doxbox, type
  • mount c: c:\colourfulmath (where c:\colourfulmath is the directory where the files are)
  • c:
  • dir
  • cd clrmath
  • 4colours (the bat or exe)
and voila!, you have a blast from the past in a nice tidy emulator (or virtual console?) window.

I received a very pleasant email from the Claude Laflamme, the developer (with Industry Canada funding) of Colourful Math. He indicated that his developer interest turned to and Colourful Math has not been ported to any more modern operating systems.

I was thinking that folks of a certain age (probably over 18) might like to know that there could be a way to play their favorite MS-DOS games on their current operating systems, using dosbox, if they are keen on having waves of nostalgia wash over them. My kids spent hours on the evaluation version of Soleau games like Wallpipe, Ant Run and Bolo Ball - which are still available - the rousing Sine Dancing-like antrun theme is playing on my speakers as I type (even after exiting!).

Monday, March 8, 2010

How useful are games in teaching Math?

I have been thinking about this question for a while and the answer depends a lot on the type of games we are talking about. There are cross-number puzzles, ciphers to decode pun-ish riddles, drill and practice games, role-playing games, etc.

It may be that "game" is a organizer for "play" which is really a state of engagement. Students can engage in a game for hours, puzzling out the rules and feeling accomplishment.

I wish that I could be at Maria Andersen's presentation - Playing to Learn Math.

Does our view of Math education allow us to imagine a time when a robot could do a better job of much of our teaching, as the Koreans and Japanese are working on?

This week my daughter, who is studying Math at UW and is currently in a graph theory course, was reminded of a set of games that she played as a youngster - expressly designed to introduce colouring problems in an engaging way. They are MS-DOS based and I have got them to run enough to recognize the screens, but not really to enjoy.

When I am trying to get Sketchpad or Flash to produce a certain figure or interaction, I can enter an engaged state that social psychologists refer to as "Flow", which I find enjoyable.

Keith Devlin would like a couple of hundred million dollars to develop a MMP game that would allow players to construct math learning. I admit to being a tad skeptical, but what would such an environment be worth?

What role have games and play had in your Mathematical development?