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.


Sneak Peak

August 16, 2012

I’ve finished my latest game! It’s the only one I completed this summer (I had hoped to get at least two done). My rough start to the summer meant a lack of focus so instead of fighting that I let myself work on whatever I felt like working on each day. That resulted in a bunch of proof of concept type apps (will this idea work?) and now I have five or six apps in development that have a decent foundation. With the school year starting soon it probably won’t be until fall until I have another one done though.

Anyway, this app is called SumDice and it’s coming out for the iPhone very soon. It takes Apple a week to ten days to approve an app (which feels like an eternity) and I sent it in a few days ago. I’ll post an update here once it’s available. The app is free, which is only way for an indie developer to get it out to enough people without an ad budget. But don’t worry, I’ll still make some money. The game has ads in it, which is handled though Apple and can be lucrative if enough people are playing. Unfortunately, Apple recently changed their policy and won’t display ads in apps made for children, so Battle Times went from making a relatively small but ever-increasing amount of money to making nothing overnight. Because of this, you probably won’t see any cartoon characters in my games again for a while (they assume that means kiddie game). In addition I’m trying to “upsell” the game once players play it and (hopefully) like it. A “Bonus Pack” will be available within the game for 99¢ that adds features including a SuperDice mode with three dice instead of two and 12 buttons instead of 9. I tried that method with Battle Times HD (iPad) and it hasn’t worked out too well, but I blame that more on the interface (not linear enough) and audience (too young). If the in-app purchase in this one works I’ll modify the menus in that one to see if it helps.

To promote SumDice I’ve created the web version (click here to play) that required a bit of juggling and graphic modification since the iPhone version is “portrait” and web apps are “landscape.” Other than that it plays a lot like the iPhone game, except without some of the iOS-specific features like Game Center leader boards and achievements. I did manage to include the in-game mini-math-lesson. Look for it under “Options” as “Odds and Ends.” Enjoy!

P.S. I tried to embed the game on this page, but WordPress wouldn’t let me do that for some reason.

But it’s a dry chill

February 1, 2012

I have one of those Oregon Scientific weather stations (just one, not five like my Dad) that tells me the temperature and humidity indoors and outdoors (via a little wireless unit that sits outside on the windowsill). While I don’t pay attention to the clock that is always set to west coast (Oregon?) time, I keep an eye on the humidity level. If the humidity drops below 20% I really notice an unpleasant dryness in my throat in the morning after a (usually) good night’s sleep. The problem with having a loft-style apartment is that it’s nearly impossible to increase the humidity. But if you look at the photo, you’ll notice that the humidity outdoors is higher so I should just open the window and let some of that moist outdoor air inside, right?

In this case that wouldn’t work, because we’re talking about relative humidity here. The humidity numbers you see is the percentage of water that air of that temperature can “hold” at that temperature and pressure (and technically air doesn’t hold water, but it’s okay to think of it that way).  The rule of thumb is that for every 20°F you increase the temperature, the air can hold twice as much water. So there was actually less water in that 48°F outdoor air (not bad for evening on February 1st) than in my apartment’s air when I took that photo.

Humidity is also important in the summer, as we feel much hotter on hot humid days than dry ones. This is because humans don’t feel heat directly – we sense the rate of heat transfer from the body and the body has to work harder to transfer heat when it’s humid (perspiration doesn’t evaporate as quickly in humid conditions).

The technology addiction epidemic to which our nation has yet to acknowledge does have a few upsides… especially for the data gatherers of the world. Even Facebook is useful, since most people update their “relationship status” regularly (I’ve never done it, but I’m old so that’s no big surprise). Here is a graph showing which days of the year breakups are most common. It looks almost exactly as I expected it to – with the peaks in the (literal) darkest time of the year (holiday season) and at the end of the long dark grey and grueling winter. The best days for relationships are those glorious late summer months of walks on the beach and thunderstorms. Here’s the source if you want to read more about breakups.

I tried to find a similar graph that rated people’s “happiness” over the course of a year as well, but I didn’t find a good one (and I spent a whole five minutes looking). I did, however, find this site that showed that people in colder countries are happier than those in warmer countries, in contrast to the seasonal trends we see for the breakup graph. The site connects this with the fact that colder countries are richer than warmer countries. From other reading I’ve done, income appears to have an effect on happiness level until the point of basic needs being consistenetly met (food & shelter) and then tapers off again as we seek to get ever richer.

But if you love statistics and fancy graphs, as well as silliness, the ultimate site for you is OK Trends, which is associated with the free dating site OK Cupid. Lots of interesting stuff there, from dating and sex graphs to “The Mathematics of Attractiveness,” which postulates that it’s better to have looks that elicit extreme reactions (some people think you’re a 2 but on average you’re a 7 because some people think you’re hot) than to just have everyone think you are a “pretty good looking” 7. Sadly it seems to have ground to a halt as far as new entries go, but there’s still tons to see. Enjoy!

The first time I ever used a computer was in 7th grade. I was one of the privileged few students lucky enough to have access to the school’s one computer, an Apple ][ microcomputer (that’s what we called them in those days – minicomputers were the big ones that filled up a room). The computer had a floppy disk drive (pretty exotic in those times) and one of the few floppies of commercial software we had was Apple Logo.

Logo is a programming language that allows the user to draw on the screen by giving commands that move a “turtle” cursor around. It’s kind of like a computerized Etch-a-Sketch. Drawing something accurately requires planning and thought. To draw the simple turtle on the right I used my knowledge of angles and the Pythagorean theorem. Nothing too tricky here, but creatively applying mathematics is a much better way to learn than studying notes (I just started using it with my Geometry class, but they’re used to goofing off on computers so it will be interesting). After I got the computer bug, I was very fortunate that my parents bought me (well, it was for all of us, in theory) a TRS-80 Color Computer for Christmas. On that I taught myself Microsoft Basic (Microsoft was a small company at the time) and became a skilled programmer. While I didn’t pursue a career in software (wrong college choice with a curriculum of  boring business programming courses caused me to lose the bug) the skills I learned in those formative years have translated well into every career I’ve chosen so far.

As for Logo, I decided to look it up (modern computers are such wonderful research tools). Logo was created in Cambridge, Massachusetts way back in 1967 as an educational tool. It’s name is derived from the greek logos, meaning word, since the language was focused more on working with word-like commands than simply processing numbers. The turtle used by the language was either a physical “robot” turtle wired to the computer and placed on the floor or an on-screen representation. It reached it’s peak of popularity on those Apple ][ computers that were so popular in education back in the 70s and 80s. Today it’s still used (though much more rarely) to teach logic and math. You can download a version for free (I used ACS Logo for this entry) or even use a Java version in a web browser to draw cool things like this one-line wonder:


November 11, 2011

I know it’s a bit silly, but for some reason I think the 11-11-11 date is very cool. I  don’t remember what I was doing on 10-10-10, but I do remember 9-9-99 (the day the Sega Dreamcast was released). I had hoped to do something memorable on this day, but so far it’s looking like a fairly ordinary day (though it is a holiday for me). So while I’m waiting for the excitement to begin, I decided to look up numerology. My advisory students at CFHS last year (the freshman girls) used to write their names and the names of some boy on the board and do some sort of “calculation” to see if they were a match (I think this is what e-Harmony does). If I had been paying attention I could try it, but sadly I wasn’t. I found a site where you can enter your name to find your number. Each letter is assigned a number and then they are added. That digits in that sum are then added to make a new number, and this repeats until you have a one-digit number. My number is 3, which produces the usual range of characteristics (think horoscope), some of which are correct and some are not (people tend to focus on the ones that fit). On another site I discovered that I’m romantically compatible with 6s and 9s, for whatever that’s worth.

Historically, numerology was present in most major civilizations around the world. This makes sense to me, since the amount of symmetry and order in math is remarkable. Viewing this as somehow divine isn’t a stretch at all, so finding meaning from our personal numbers is natural. As St. Augustine of Hippo wrote “Numbers are the Universal language offered by the deity to humans as confirmation of the truth.” Where it gets arbitrary  is choosing those personal numbers or assigning characteristics to certain numbers. There are many “systems” that vary because of this.


August 20, 2011

I’ve been learning too much in the past couple of days! Yesterday I read about the Philippines (named after King Philip II of Spain), the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Scientific Revolution (these three things tie together somewhat), and the Lymphatic system (did you know lymph is a fluid that moves through your body?). But the more intense learning I’m doing has to do with a project I’m working on, which I’m going to keep shrouded in mystery a bit longer. Suffice it to say that it involves a series of logic problems to solve and a development environment to explore and master. Oh, and it sort of involves the “sport” at which I am terrible.

Here comes the sun

July 15, 2011

So I was at the beach the other day with a good friend who happens to be a science teacher, and we were discussing the changing sunrise and sunset times that occur over the course of the year. One of the reasons I have considered moving down South in recent years is because I was aware that the amount of daylight increases in the winter as you move closer to the equator. I didn’t really know much more than that about how it works, other than general knowledge about how the seasons work in each hemisphere. Here’s a brief recap: The tilt of the earth remains constant and depending on the location of the Earth around the sun either the northern or the southern hemisphere will be receiving more “direct” sunlight (because the angle is closer to perpendicular). Interestingly, the changing distance from the sun because of the elliptical shape to the orbit has a relatively minor effect on the temperature, though it does result in a slightly warmer winter in the north. So between my conversation with my friend and the subsequent research I did when I went home, I discovered that being closer to the equator results in a more balanced amount of day and night. This makes perfect sense, since we all know that above the Arctic circle they have the constant day effect in the summer and the constant night effect in the winter. This graph I found illustrates it very well. You can see the northern summer from days 85 to 265 quite clearly. I’ve added a line that represents Providence (42.71 degrees) that shows our dip into 8-10 hour days in our winter. I wonder how much less grumpy I’d be in December and January with just a couple hours more daylight.