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.

94C16AB2-0B1B-4071-AC81-83F9C2DEAEBAMy music kick has subsided a bit and I’m listening to podcasts again when I have longer drives. In the last couple of days I’ve listened to a good one about zombies by Josh & Chuck (Stuff You Should Know) and an equally gross one about the Great Stink.

Th zombie podcast dealt with real life zombies in Haiti first and then the enormously popular fictional zombie. The real zombies are a product of the cultural belief in zombies and some interesting “medicine” that creates a paralyzed state in the victim. Being “zombified” in Haiti is usually the result of angering your family (refusing to marry someone they picked for you or refusing to agree to sell jointly owned land were given as examples). A bokor (sorcerer) would then apply a powder to your skin. This powder contains toxins that irritate the skin an allow access to the bloodstream, where another toxin (from the pufferfish) induces paralysis. You are then buried alive and though you appear to be dead you are fully conscious of what is happening. After a few hours you are dug up and “resurrected.” Through the use of hallucinogens combined with the trauma of the experience you are kept in a trancelike state, sometimes for years. Fortunately, doing this is now against the law (yes, there’s actually a law that states that you cannot make someone a zombie).

The podcast then discussed George Romero’s popularization of zombies, which has led us to excellent television like The Walking Dead. Incidentally, if a zombie epidemic actually happened it’s unlikely we’d be able to stop it according to scientists.

The Stuff You Missed in History Podcast was almost as gross as zombies. The Great Stink of 1858 in London was caused by the river Thames being overloaded with human waste due to the widespread adoption of the flushable toilet. Before the use of toilets people emptied their chamberpots into cesspits, but that only worked with (relatively) dry waste. The rapid population grown of London from 1800-1860 (the population went from less than a million to more than three in that time) also made this system untenable. The summer of 1858 was particularly hot and for a couple of weeks anyone near the river dealt with an unbearable smell. This, of course, led to the creation of a proper sewer system that is mostly still in use today.

seI’ve recently seen two movies with a focus on psychology. The first was the new Steven Soderbergh release, Side Effects. Rooney Mara is amazing as a young woman who takes an experimental antidepressant (the fictional Ablixa, which has its own website). The first half of the story exposes psychiatry for the pseudoscience that it really is at this point, as well as the influence of pharmaceutical companies over doctors and a bit of the ridiculousness of our pill-popping culture. They movie takes a twist in a more conventional direction from there but is still enjoyable. I also admired the cinematography; there are some interesting focus effects that enhance the mood. ★★★½ out of 4.

admA Dangerous Method I saw at home on my own theater. This David Cronenberg picture is a semi-historical take on the early days of psychoanalysis. The film focuses on the relationship between Carl Jung, his patient (and later colleague) Sabina Spielrein, and Sigmund Freud (well played by Viggo Mortensen in an atypical role). The screenwriter didn’t have to embellish too much since Jung actually did have an affair with Spielrein in real life (though I have no idea if the kinky sex was part of the real life relationship). They highlights to me were the discussions between Jung and Freud about the nature of emotional issues. The influence of Otto Gross on Jung was also quite interesting, as it made clear that the psychologist has to figure himself out as he evolves while trying to do the same for the patient. ★★★ out of 4.


Update: Last night (3/9) I saw Silver Linings Playbook and absolutely loved it. This movie has it all: bipolar disorder, romantic obsession, OCD, dysfunction families, Halloween, football and dancing. The acting is terrific across the board, but Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Tiffany is especially compelling. Her character has a habit of calling people out with remarkable insight, defying social convention by speaking hard truths. Bradley Cooper’s Pat is less constructive with his social issues, and is solely motivated by trying to win back his wife (which under the circumstances isn’t realistic). The chemistry between the two is palpable and makes the movie sing. My only criticism is that Pat’s mental issues seem to magically resolve themselves late in the movie, but that doesn’t stop this from being a totally charming, intelligent movie. I can’t wait to see it again.  ★★★★ out of 4.

Must See TV

November 14, 2012

Fans of The Grapes of Wrath (or my blog post about it) and anyone curious about the circumstances leading up to it should check out Ken Burns’ new documentary The Dust Bowl airing Sunday and Monday night.

Dust, Labor and Grapes

September 15, 2012

My tour of the classics marches on. The latest box I’ve checked is Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (I’m still trying to figure out how I was never assigned to read any of these books in high school – what the heck were we doing in English class?) For those of you who also went to crappy high schools and never read it here’s an ultra-quick non-spoiler recap: A farming family flees the dust bowl in Oklahoma (see photo above), travels to California and tries to make ends meet.

I enjoyed the book very much, though not to the level of East of Eden, which I’m already itching to read again. East had a couple of characters (Sam Hamilton and Lee) who were more likeable and philosophical than anyone in Grapes. The preacher comes closest, but he’s not as prominent a character.

More than being about the characters, Grapes is about the time period. It’s historical fiction at its best, and I learned a lot about The Dust Bowl (caused by drought and a lack of crop rotation), old cars, discrimination (people moving west were called by the derogatory term “Okies” whether they came from Oklahoma or not), and the labor movement.

Those of you who know me and my libertarian ways are aware that I’m not a fan of labor unions. I spent two years as a member of one when I was teaching in Central Falls and saw firsthand how dysfunctional and counterproductive they can be. But I do realize that there was a time when they were necessary; a time when some employers would use malicious tactics to get ever-cheaper labor from a non-mobile and desperate workforce. For instance, luring 10 times as many workers as needed to a place by promising work, and then paying an absurdly low rate once they get there due to the high demand for the jobs.

Unions today are another story. The most prominent unions are in the public sector, which baffles me. The purpose of unions is to protect workers from unfair labor practices by unethical employers, with protections ensured by the government. But why would these workers need to be protected from the very same governments that are enforcing those protections? If Mitt or Barack want my vote in November all one of them has to do is promise to create an executive order disbanding public sector unions. It would be a visionary move, since those unions are going to be a major stumbling block for balancing budgets as our state and federal government face major budget shortfalls in the coming decades. I’m not holding my breath though.

Musketeer Musings

August 24, 2012

Thanks to an Audible download snafu, I listened to an episode of Stuff You Should Know yesterday and learned about the Three Musketeers. They were the titular characters of a series of books written by Alexandre Dumas from 1840-1860. The books take place in the early 17th century and feature real-life characters and events, making it much like the popular historical fiction you find today (though if you want to read it look in the Literature section instead).

The name Musketeer comes from the fact that they carried (and were skilled with) muskets. The musket spelled the end of armored knights since this projectile weapon could pierce plate mail, rendering it obsolete. Ironically, the fictional Musketeers rarely used their guns and swordplay is the primary mode of combat in the books. Anyone who carried a musket was technically a musketeer, and when we think of this “special forces” of great warriors we’re referring to the Musketeer of the Guard. And there were more than three of them – at some points there were as many as 150.

The main character of the books is actually d’Artagnan, a country lad who want to join the Musketeers. He does so (spoiler alert) so their elite-within-elite group is actually comprised of four Musketeers.

The numbers game gets even messier when we start talking about the candy bar. Originally, a 3 Musketeers bar consisted of three mini-candy bars of three different flavors (chocolate, strawberry, vanilla) but was changed in 1945 to what is essentially a Milky Way without the caramel.

Trivia challenge: Without looking it up, can you name the Three Musketeers?

Balls to the Wall

August 7, 2012

This past weekend I visited relatives in Brooklyn, NY and we took a short trip to walk the Brooklyn Bridge and to see the new Freedom Tower that is nearing completion. As a little aside we went down to the financial district and saw a big crowd of people around something. I couldn’t really tell what it was because of the crowd, but when I got close enough I could see it was the famous “Charging Bull” statue. While not technically on Wall Street, it has become an accessible symbol for the area. I was thinking there should also be a bear statue, but since people dislike a down market it’s not surprising there isn’t one (even though bears are way cooler than bulls).

Wall Street itself has an interesting history. As we all know from watching the Ric Burns documentary, Manhattan was settled by the Dutch, who were famous as traders. So much so, in fact, that when the British sailed in to take over they simply refused to fight for the Dutch leaders to keep it. All that mattered was that commerce would continue as usual (and it did after a peaceful transfer of power). As for the wall in Wall Street, it gets its name from the wall that marked the northern end of what was then New Amsterdam (only the southern tip of Manhattan was settled). Originally an earthen mound, it was built up in the 1640s into a 12-foot structure. In the 1680s the street was laid out alongside this rampart. At this time auctioneers and dealers gathered there (and other places) to trade. In 1699 the wall that gave the street its name was removed as the settlement grew.

In the late 18th century (Independence period) there was a large buttonwood tree at the foot of Wall Street under which investors would trade securities. This game them shady place to work (literally) and kept everyone in close proximity. Finally, in 1789 the Buttonwood Agreement formalized rules and trading commissions, creating the New York Stock Exchange.

Rolling another 7

July 15, 2012

I love old stuff, especially old buildings. Most of the places I want to visit have architectural wonders I’d be thrilled to see. Growing up I also loved Greek mythology and was fascinated by Greek and Roman history. That’s when I first became aware of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The list of wonders served as milestones for Greek tourists in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD (the original Grand Tour), guiding them about the Mediterranean. While great for those tourist, I found the list a bit disappointing because only one entry has survived to the present time (the Great Pyramid of Giza). The rest of the list, all built between 600 and 280 BC, are long gone with the Lighthouse of Alexandria surviving longer than the others (until sometime around 1400 AD). So unfortunately there’s not much to see for the modern tourist, and with no photos or contemporary paintings we even have to guess at what they looked at based on limited written descriptions.

But all is not lost! On July  7, 2007 a new list of Seven Wonders of the World was created after a seven year process with over 100 million votes being cast. Seeing all of these would make a fine addition to any bucket list. But unlike the ancient list, this new seven are spread quite evenly about the world. You probably already know quite a bit about most of these, but here’s a recap:

Chichen Itza • This is an ancient Mayan city that features a distinctive pyramid (El Castillo). Located near Cancun, Mexico this city thrived from 600-1200 AD.

Taj Mahal • Completed in 1653, this marble complex of buildings is located in Agra, India (not far from New Delhi). It’s domed marble mausoleum is most prominent and stands 561 feet tall.

Petra • Carved from solid rock in present-day Jordan, this city was built around 1200 BC and features dozens of buildings and monuments so there’s more to see than the “Treasury” that is most often scene in photos.

Christ the Redeemer • This 130 foot tall statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro is the newest of our new wonders, having been completed in 1931. While not close to being the largest statue in the world, it has the benefit of standing atop a 2,300 foot mountain that serves as its pedestal.

Colosseum • I’ve seen this one, and it is especially beautiful and impressive at night. Built in the first century AD in Rome it could hold 50,000 spectators, which is considerably more than “old” Fenway Park’s capacity.

Great Wall of China • Started  in the 7th century BC (the iconic sections were built around 200 BC), the wall stretches over a mind-boggling 13,000 miles.

Machu Picchu • This Incan city atop a mountain isn’t as ancient as you might expect (15th century AD) but like the other South American entry has altitude on its side (it stands almost 8,000 feet above sea level) and like all great architecture enhances the natural beauty around it.

The Great Pyramid, being the sole surviving ancient wonder, was granted honorary membership to this group.

Back in 1996 I saw the movie Se7en on video (back then we actually drove to a store and rented movies on VHS videotape – DVD wasn’t introduced until the following year), and to this day it is the movie that has disturbed me the most. I remember having trouble sleeping for a couple of weeks after watching it. The villain in the movie (Kevin Spacey) is “illustrating” the seven deadly sins with a series of crimes that are being investigated by police played by Brat Pitt and Morgan Freeman. I watched it again recently and wasn’t as affected but could appreciate the quality of the movie more than I did previously.

I bring this up because this month’s issue of Mental Floss has an article about the seven deadly sins (can you name them all before looking below?) that presents scientific information showing that these sins aren’t all bad. Here’s my ultra-condensed recap for your edutainment:

Sloth • People who work less have lower levels of stress, depression and death!

Gluttony • Chubbier politicians were deemed more trustworthy than thinner ones in a photo survey.

Envy • Jealousy of peers is a strong motivator, and may even explain the spread of the Arab Spring via “democracy envy!”

Greed • Swiss economist have determined that a moderate level of greed in a society is better than a low level.

Lust • Men who have sex more than once a week live more than two years longer (oh man!) and women who enjoy sex live eight years longer!

Wrath • A UC Santa Barbara scientist did an experiment that showed that angry subjects demonstrated better judgment and sharper analytical skills.

Pride • It turns out that pride (even if unjustified) prevents depression! Plus pride allows people to take leadership roles and take risks.