fallingI’m reading a lot of books at the moment. I’m reading Flowers for Algernon and The Great Gastby (again) as part of my summer school ELA teaching experience. I’m also reading Flip Your Classroom in preparation for the next school year. Most importantly, I’m re-reading When You’re Falling, Dive which was given to me by a dear friend a few years ago and has been quite influential on me.

When You’re Falling is basically about acceptance of life as it really is, and about counteracting the conditioning that we’ve learned over the years. Here are a few quotes for the first section followed by my current thoughts on each:

“It’s not that we gain the power to change circumstances; we develop the skill to determine our experience of those circumstances.” (page 4)

This is one I really picked up on the first time I read it. Now, when I’m feeling blue (for a reason or just because I’m having an “off” day) I let myself experience it. I don’t try to fight it; I accept that being sad at times is part of life.

“I’ve stopped trying to make myself better, and I’m happier.” (page 43)

This one is particularly interesting. When you think about it, self-help books in general are feeding the conditioning that says “I am not good enough as I am” under the guise of helping you.

“…dissatisfaction is at the root of our addiction to distraction.” (page 52)

How much of life is about distraction?  Entertainment or work or even love can be a way to distract ourselves from the reality of life. What are we afraid to face?


Early Electroedutainment

April 19, 2013


The Smarts! That’s the “incredible” prize you get for playing Quiz Wiz, according to the memorable television commercial. This toy was probably a Christmas present for us in 1979 or 1980, and I remember we played it quite a bit back then. Fast forward 33 years later and it still works fine.

Basically it’s a computerized (a big time buzzword in 1979) multiple choice trivia game. You type in the number of the question you want to answer, then the answer letter (A, B, C or D) and hit the answer button.

Sample Questions from Book #1

Sample Questions from Book #1

I rediscovered this toy recently while searching for a board game to play with my nieces at my parents’ house. I only found the original questions book (#1) and the “Book of Lists” (#8) book. The system is designed to use cartridges that presumably hold the “answer key” for each book, but the #8 book seems to work fine with the #1 cartridge. I’ll need to find more books in order to determine whether the “cartridge” actually stored anything or whether it was simply a marketing gimmick (cartridge systems were considered more advanced – think Atari VCS vs. Atari Pong).

Since I suspect the cartridge may not be storage, I tried to see if there was a pattern to the answers. I answered the first 100 questions and couldn’t find one. Memory was incredibly expensive in 1979 and storing 1001 answers on a 4-bit system requires 1.5K of ROM, which was an awful lot in those days. Far more likely is some sort of algorithm that determines the answer based on the number inputted. It would have to be fairly simple like multiplying the question number by some constant and then using the last two bits to determine the answer.

I did an experiment in Excel where I multiplied the question number by 8 and divided that product by 5 and then converted it to binary (base 2 number system – all 1s and 0s). Using only the last two digits of the product and converting to letters (00=A, 01=B, 10=C, 11=D) I get this for the first 50 answers:


It’s a pattern that repeats after the first 20 answers. Altering the constants changes the length of the pattern, so I’m sure with enough experimenting I could create a pattern over 100 letters in length, as they probably did. As an additional experiment, I typed in a number greater than 1001 (3256) to see if there was an answer for that number. There was, and that answer did not correspond to the answer for either 325 or 256. Therefore I’m almost certain that the “answer key” is algorithm-based. The cartridge could serve as a “key” that could alter the pattern somewhat though. I’ll post an update if I find another book/cartridge.


The final step in my investigation was to take apart the Quiz Wiz to see what was inside. As you can see at left, there wasn’t much there. The other side of the board is where the keys connect and since it’s glued on I decided not to break the unit just to get a look. There is one small chip visible on our side that could be a simple processor (most likely purpose-designed to do the above calculation).

Coleco went bankrupt in 1989 but Quiz Wiz lived on, it seems. Tiger came out with its own Quiz Wiz in the mid-90s that used the same buttons and booklet format. And judging by this cringe-worthy commercial it was not lacking in street cred.

Does Not Compute

March 29, 2013


Welcome to a boring trip down computer memory lane. You might want to skip to the last two paragraphs if compuspeak puts your to sleep.

I’ve been nostalgic lately for the pre-PC era of computing. I discovered a site that has scanned issues of Family Computing Magazine from 1982 to 1989 and skimmed through almost all of those. After that I discovered Atariage.com and read even more about those older machines. I’ve also been reading retroGamer magazine and learned more about the machines that were popular in the UK during that time.

The 8-bit era of computers was remarkable in its variety. Each model differed in speed (back then CPUs had clock speeds in the single digit Mhz, roughly a thousand times slower than today’s computers) and RAM (64K was a lot back then) and storage was on floppy disks (if you ponied up the bucks, otherwise it was cassette). The processors also varied by model and were simple enough to understand their architecture. The MOS 6502 was very popular due to its low cost and found itself into the Apple ][, Atari 800, Commodore 64, and later in the NES game console. The Zilog Z80 was big in “business” machines that ran CP/M (and in the Spectrum in England), but the best 8-bit processor was in the machine the I owned, the Tandy Color Computer. While it was a bit weak in the graphics and sound chips compared to some of its competitors, the Motorola 6809 at its heart was an elegant and powerful design.

The 16-bit era followed with the Macintosh, the Amiga and the Atari ST. At this point IBM’s PC started gaining traction, but when the flood of PC clones started spawning left and right the competition between models quickly led to a price and feature war that droves PCs to the forefront of computing. When Microsoft finally released a version of Windows (3.1) that could compete with the graphical operating systems of the 68000-based systems it was game, set, and match.

I miss that era quite a bit. While people played games and wrote in world processing programs back then, a good percentage of people who used computers in those days actually learned to program. Software was hard to come by at times, so writing your own was often the best way to make a computer useful. But they were so limited in speed and memory that creativity was needed to make programs work properly. Magazines and the occasional book on programming (Radio Shack stocked a couple) were the only sources of information. The massive amount of info about these computers on Wikipedia today would have been a godsend back then.

Recently I’ve sensed a bit of that spirit in a hobbyist device that is inspiring people do do more with computes than stalk people on Facebook and watch YouTube videos. It’s called the Raspberry Pi and it consists of the little circuit board I’m holding above. It has HDMI video out (connected to my TV in the photo), 512MB of RAM, an ARM processor (like your phone), a couple of USB ports and an SD card slot (for storage). The best part is that its only $35. I’ve already tried a couple of operating systems and it runs well, if a bit pokey compared to my trusty Macbook Air.

I’m not sure what kind of project I’m going to use my Pi for yet, but I’m sure something will come to me. I bought a second one and gave it to an exceptionally bright student of mine. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with his as well.

Pail Punting Preliminaries

January 6, 2013

bucketlistI finally got around to watching The Bucket List the other night and enjoyed it (could Morgan Freeman possibly be more likable?) and like every other soul who watched that movie got to thinking about my own such list. I’d never written anything like this down before so I was curious to see if I could quickly list 10 things worthy of inclusion. That’s a long bucket list, I know, but I figure I have plenty of time (hopefully) to get them all done. So here’s my list (subject to change as I consider in more depth over the coming days/weeks/years/decades):

Tony’s Provisional Bucket List

1. Learn to speak another language proficiently (not Klingon)
2. Spend a significant block of time overseas living as a local (goes with #1)
3. Learn to play the guitar reasonably well (simple songs) and sing on key
4. Learn enough construction skills to renovate a house
5. Write a book good (lucky?) enough to be published
6. Take or audit at least one philosophy class
7. Learn to board surf
8. Design and build a house or building of some kind
9. Take a bar tending class and/or a cooking class
10. Learn to sail at an intermediate level

Feel free to share a list (or a partial list) in the comments section. Don’t be shy – life is short, after all.

Letters and logos

September 16, 2012

I wrote a letter to the editor this morning. I haven’t done that in a very long time (7-10 years?). I was reading the iPad version of USA Today and came across a very sensible column inspired by the Chicago teacher strike that identified one of the biggest problems in our schools. I decided to chime in with a partial solution to the problem.

This is the fourth time I’ve written a letter to USA Today, and I’m risking lowering my percentage significantly if it doesn’t get selected. So far two of my three letters were printed;I can’t remember what the rejected on was about, but I remember the other two. I’ll keep you posted on the new letter’s status.

Meanwhile, USA Today has a new logo. The old logo was certainly in need of refreshing and was looking a bit dated (the paper was founded in 1982).

Before I critique the new one, let’s look at the old one. The “line screen” effect on the globe was very popular back in the day, and in the context of being used for a printed newspaper makes a lot of sense. It also transferred a sense of dependability to a new entity since AT&T used it at the time (on a sphere and in blue no less) as did IBM (and still does since it is less complex and therefore has held up better). But now that people read their news online and on tablets something new was in order.

The new logo is typically minimalist, following the latest fashion. In the “letterhead” form on white shown above I don’t like it much at all. It’s simple to the point of being generic. If I were putting the final touches on that design I would have aligned the baseline of “TODAY” with the equator of the circle for a bit more solidity and left to right flow. Note that the letter spacing is a bit loose, suggesting it is designed for smaller sizes (letter spacing should decrease as point size increases as a general rule). The old logo used mashed together letters  which was easily read in print since the logo was quite large on the printed newspaper.

Look at the website that is still using the old logo here and you can see why they felt the need to change. The “globe” is just mush. Moving to the beta of the new website and the new logo is a big improvement, especially since here it is on black instead of white, uses larger (in relation to the circle) one-line logotype lettering, and is vertically centered with the circle.

Totally my type

September 9, 2012

As I’ve become older my interests have changed a bit. I’m not the least bit excited about the start of the NFL season today and couldn’t care less about the NASCAR Chase for the Cup. It goes beyond sports too; I’m also not prone to gadget lust anymore. I’m more than content with my original 1st generation iPad and only replaced by iPhone 3G because I dropped it and wasn’t able to repair/replace the screen (gave it a shot but did more damage to the phone while opening it up due to dust).

This week, however, I’m feeling drawn towards a new Amazon product… not the new Kindle Fire HD (though it does look nice), but their new e-ink reader, the Kindle Paperwhite. My old Kindle is broken (I put it i my bag without its case once and it must have taken a whack) and I would like to replace it since e-ink is so nice to read outdoors (it really does look like paper). But it’s not the advertised new features that are tempting me (a lighted screen for reading in bed and a higher resolution). No, it’s the new typefaces they’ve added, including my favorite serif face, Palatino. I’ve always disliked Times Roman, probably because of its omnipresence but also because it lacks elegance and solidity, two things which Palatino (in the image above) has in spades. It’s amazing to me how infrequently I see Palatino, despite the fact that it’s been a standard PostScript typeface for decades.

Seat Time Genius

August 13, 2012

I’m re-reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (truth be told it’s part of a professional development assignment – we could pick from three choices and I chose the one I’ve already read to save myself time for other projects). If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s basically an analysis of why certain people are extraordinarily successful (The Beatles, Bill Gates) as well as the concept of accumulated advantage, which is when early success or advantage is compounded by increased opportunity for development and success. His example of Canadian hockey players is compelling – the majority of professional players are born in the first few months of the year and benefitted from their age advantage in youth hockey (based on the calendar year) over those born later in the year (players start very young so a 10 month age advantage is quite significant). He also repeatedly mentions the 10,000 hour rule, which is supposedly the amount of time it takes to become an “expert” at something.

The book got me thinking about some of my favorites  – notably the music of Prince and the movie Amadeus. Lately I’ve been listening to what in my opinion is Prince’s greatest work, Sign o’ The Times. Released in 1987, this double album is celebrating its 25th year and sounds amazingly fresh to this day (though it’s in dire need of re-mastering for digital), and it’s kind of hard to pinpoint why. The songs are certainly well-crafted (he had definitely reached his 10,000 hours by then since he was 29 at the time of his release) but there’s something more to it than that. I can listen to songs like “Adore” or “Play in the Sunshine” on headphones and certain parts of the songs will give me goosebumps. I’ve heard those songs over 1,000 times and yet the effect is not diminished. It’s remarkable, really. I don’t know if it’s the combination of apparent simplicity with incredible levels of detail or what, but it resonates with me. I can remember playing it on the boom box in the graphic arts room my senior year in high school. My friends there listened but being eastern-Connecticut born and bred they cared for little beyond classic rock. An album which melds R&B, soul, rock, jazz and even a little country was far too different from what their brains had been accustomed to for them to make any sense of it (note that Purple Rain, his most commercially successful album, is very much a rock record with easier to digest hints of R&B). My brain was used to this fusion, having been introduced to his music in 1982 when my brother Adam bought the album 1999.

Around the same time (and in the same school) I saw my favorite movie for the first time. I remember my one and only trip to the music room in high school was to watch this film (apparently I lacked access to music education). It’s a long movie (in a time when motion pictures very rarely crossed the two-hour mark) but I was totally captivated. It’s not so much the music of Mozart that was the draw (I do enjoy it but wouldn’t really consider myself a classical music fan). No, the appeal to me was always the nature of genius. The fictional version of Salieri was a dedicated and talented composer whose world was shaken to the core by the arrival of Mozart and a level of talent beyond anything he knew. While he experimented with different iterations of a musical phrase over and over to get it right, Mozart would instantly come up with something fresh and far better at his first attempt. What’s particularly interesting in the movie was that Salieri was one of the few who could see the genius. Others thought the music to be very good but not particularly special. This makes sense for music (or an idea) that is ahead of its time. The world needs to catch up in order to understand.

All of which brings us back to Gladwell. Every artist I’ve mentioned has put in the 10,000 hours (including the highly successful Salieri), as have countless local musicians of varying quality. Perhaps Gladwell’s accumulated advantage is at play in that quality discrepancy. In any event, the 10,000 hours idea has been used in education circles as a reason to expand the school day and year. After all, reaching 10,000 hours of learning will be easier that way, right? But that superficial application fails to take into account what I believe is the single most important factor in learning… motivation. The musicians mentioned in this post surely were passionate and excited about music as children. The parents of those young hockey players probably had to drag them off the ice. In an age of nearly unlimited information resources (thank you, interweb) it is merely the desire to learn that is necessary. So how do we inspire that desire to learn in our students? Where does that thirst for more knowledge that some of us possess come from? And when it is there, what happens in the brains of the outlier that allows a masterpiece song to be conceived of in mere moments that you or I could take 10,000 hours and still not approach?

Compass Creativity

March 11, 2012

SXSW is happening! South by Southwest is a music, film and interactive media show that takes place in Austin, Texas every spring. It started way back in 1987 and has expanded from a relatively small music festival (Austin is a great location since it has a strong music scene) to a massive event with 20,000 registrants that has an estimated $167 million impact on the local economy.

A number of now-famous musical acts were “discovered” as SXSW, including Hanson, John Mayer, The Polyphonic Spree and James Blunt. This year over 2,000 acts will perform at almost 100 venues trying to be next on that list. The film festival generally focuses on emerging directors, but this year started with Joss Whedon of Firefly and Buffy fame and his new film “Cabin in the Woods.”

There is also an education event, named SXSWedu, so maybe I’ll make the trip down there next year for that and for the Interactive show to further my current work. Austin is also hosting an F1 race this year in November, so it seems this city to which I’ve long wanted to visit is upping the ante to make that happen.


January 15, 2012

This week I listened to a podcast about a criminally insane man who played a big part in the formation of the Oxford English Dictionary. But as I was reading more about that dictionary, I was led in down a side path and ended up reading about a Noah Webster, a Connecticut native who is considered the father of American education (my guess is that he’d be horrified by the current state of our public education system, but that’s neither here nor there).

His professional career got off to a rocky start after attending Yale during the Revolutionary War (and college didn’t go smoothly either – he quit for a year after lapsing into a depression but found his way back on track after finding a mentor). He passed the bar exam but couldn’t find work as an lawyer due to the war so he opened a school which was immediately successful, but then he quickly shut it down and left town, likely due to a failed romance.

Webster then turned to writing, where he wrote a series of popular newspaper articles and then his first versions of his famous Speller, Grammar and Reader books for elementary education. These books were designed to teach reading in elementary school and were quite successful. The Speller book was known as the Blue-Backed Speller due to it’s blue cover, and would see 385 editions in Webster’s lifetime, sell over 60 million copies, and be a dominant force in reading education for over 100 years. Over the course of all these editions, Webster changed the spelling of many words to make them “Americanized.” This was somewhat arbitrarily, but clearly growing up as a patriot during the revolution gave him the desire to distance even the language from British rule.

Of course, Webster is probably most famous for his dictionary, but these weren’t successful in his lifetime. He published his first dictionary in 1806 and then  much more comprehensive version in 1825, but it only sold 2,500 copies. He finished his second edition in 1843 and then died soon afterwards. After his death his dictionary rapidly grew in popularity and influence.

One statistic in particular stood out to me about Webster’s life – he was such a prolific writer that a modern bibliography of his published works required 655 pages! He would have been quite the blogger…

Source Immaterial

December 29, 2011

As we march towards 2012, I gave myself a few Christmas presents (solstice presents?) that will provide me with valuable fuel for my brain. I’ve always loved magazines, and I may have even bored you at some point (thought not on this blog) with a particularly fond childhood memory of mine in which I had just bought a computer magazine and was cooking chicken pot pies for myself (oddly, I don’t recall why my brothers or parents weren’t there) and I savored every word of the magazine (Amiga vs. Atari ST!) and every bite of the pot pies.

Anyway, the point is that I love magazines. These days I don’t get any of them in the mail though; my old school information source is delivered in a decidedly hi-tech way through my trusty iPad. Most come through an app called Zinio, though a couple are independent apps and one (the Brit mag Autosport) I download as a PDF and read in Goodreader. In every case, I get a nice little notification when a new issue has arrived (and I don’t have to worry about the postman taking his time). My current roster are old favorites like car magazine (Car & Driver, Automobile, Road & Track, Autoweek, Popular Mechanics) that are ridiculously cheap at less than $1 an issue, combined with a couple of new delights I picked up last year (NatGeo Traveler, RetroGamer). Now I’ve added a few new mags to the mix to expand my horizons a bit:

Dwell isn’t a magazine about wallowing in holiday loneliness (wouldn’t that be a big seller). Nope, it’s an architecture magazine. Its focus is on homes rather than large scale stuff (I might look for such a periodical at some point) and so far I really like it. I’ve always thought about designing and building my own home, and while I’m not sure whether that will ever happen or not, I’m sure to pick up a lot of ideas from this as I aspire to be Howard Roark.

Rhode Island Monthly is a way for me to get in touch with the state that has become my home (at least for this phase of my life). I don’t read the ProJo these days so RIM will have to keep me up to date with an admittedly light look into state issues and happenings. More importantly, it’s an inspiration for me to explore new places and restaurants.

Mental Floss is a very clever concept with sections devoted to right brain, left brain, and the type of little tidbits I find fascinating (did you know that treadmills were originally conceived as a was for prisoners to generate power to pump water or crush grain?). Seriously, this magazine is tailor-made for me – above the title of every issue is written “Where Knowledge Junkies Get Their Fix.”

Home Theater. Okay, not exactly new territory for me here, but it was so cheap (40¢ an issue) I couldn’t resist. Since I haven’t read a magazine of this type in a couple of years, it was fun catching up on the state of the art (amazingly, the top TV of all time was from way back in early 2009, and has just now been barely surpassed). I won’t be making any purchases based on this (I’m quite happy with my current portable but impressive setup) but like with the car mags it’s an industry I find fascinating.