Computing . . . Without Computers!

Published on Sunday, March 30, 2008 in , , , , , , , ,

Computers UnpluggedDid the title grab your attention? Surely, with something as complex as computing, you would need computers to learn about them, wouldn't you?!?

When you consider that computers are machines that make offline tasks faster, more efficient and allow for greater capacity, it's not difficult to realize that you can learn about computing concepts without the machine. More importantly, taking away the computer as a psychological obstacle helps internalize the concepts.

Let's start with the binary system. I can start to explain that it's a counting system that uses only 1s and 0s, but it can quickly get confusing. Thanks to a program called Computer Science Unplugged, kids get to learn about the binary system by becoming the bits themselves:

Besides this video, they also offer full notes on the binary system. You can also find their videos about sorting networks (notes available here) and error detection (notes available here). As a matter of fact, the way error detection is taught, it seems like a gigantic feat of memory! Once you read the notes, you'll find it's surprisingly simple. These aren't the only activities, either. Check out the complete activities list here.

One of the computing concepts not covered in the activities list is artificial intelligence (although they do touch on the Turing Test). Would you believe it is possible to build an opponent intelligent enough to not only play a game, but to improve its play as it goes, and without using a single electric component? Back in the March 1962 issue of Scientific American (reprinted and updated in The Colossal Book of Mathematics), Martin Gardner introduced his reader to the game Hexapawn, and taught his readers how to build just such an opponent that improves its play out of common household items.

The process to build this opponent has been posted online as McMatch. There is a sight error on this page, as the article suggests using beads or candies of the same colors as the arrows in the diagrams, yet in both the included Word document and PDF, different styles of arrows are used instead of different colors. However, this is easily fixed.

Once you've constructed your Hexapawn opponent, it's time to start playing against it. As white, you always go first. For the computer's first move, you pick up the matchbox that depicts the board as it now stands, shake it up, and remove a random candy/bead from the matchbox. You make the move for your opponent that is depicted on the box which corresponds to the chosen candy, and set the candy on top of the matchbox. You keep playing until one player's pawn has either reached their opponent's side of the board, or neither player can move. The game will always end after six moves.

So, how is this a learning opponent? If your matchbox opponent wins, all the beads on top of a matchbox go back in their original matchboxes. If you win, the beads are permanently removed from the matchbox. If you play this game repeatedly, which is easy due to the short games, you'll quickly notice that your matchbox opponent plays better and better until it is unbeatable! Of course, that might make you wonder what would happen if you built two sets of match boxes and played them against each other. Another interesting idea for Hexapawn might be to employ it in a Turing Test.

The earlier mention of binary numbers brings to mind methods of memorizing long binary sequences. With this method, you could have someone toss out a bunch of coins with varying amounts of heads and tails showing, arrange them in a line, and quickly memorize them, turn your back and recall the order! 16 coins would only require you to remember four letters. Perhaps you could memorize the order, turn your back, have someone flip some of the coins, and state which coins were flipped.

Another, more subtle use for memorizing binary numbers would be the games described in Jeremiah Farrell's article, Magic Word Dice (PDF). Try the simpler HOT-PAD variation first, and then, if you like, work slowly up to the SALT-MINE version, although you should probably use the improved board (PDF). Routines like this can definitely give the impression that you have a mind like a computer!

Since the concepts behind computers are so simple, you can make them out of a surprising array of things, such as Tinkertoys, K'Nex, or even marbles and wood!

If you can understand the ideas, you can begin to see possibilities you hadn't before. This is why Ada Lovelace, despite dying in 1852, could see the possibilities of programming machines, and even using numbers to program and automate graphics and music!

If you enjoyed this article, I suggest working through the exercises. You can learn more not only at the sites above, but also at Computer Science for Fun and Plus Magazine.


Two Great Math Blogs

Published on Thursday, March 27, 2008 in , , ,

usb calculatorI've recently found two math blogs which share my conviction that math, with the right perspective, can be fun and filled with beauty and surprise.

The first one I discovered was Wild About Math. The entry that initially caught my eye was the clear explanation of how Arthur Benjamin squares 5-digit numbers in his head. If you haven't seen Dr. Benjamin do this, you can see it as the finale of his TED performance. You probably won't be surprised to know that I'm currently enjoying working my way through this blog's Fast Arithmetic category. The whole blog, though, is worth taking the time to peruse just to see what mathematical gems are waiting to be discovered.

It was due to the Wild About Math blog that I learned about the second site, Math Mojo, and its blog, the Math Mojo Chronicles. The note at the bottom of many of the pages sums this site up quite well, "Math Mojo is part of Magic and Learning - a company that uses methods of magicians to teach thinking skills." The blogger, known as Professor Homunculus, also brings the occasional political issue into the blog, but it never really becomes a political blog. The math and education topics are the steady topics.

If you've enjoyed math sites like Better Explained and others I've mentioned, I think you'll find that you will enjoy Math Mojo and Wild About Math.


Memory Techniques Off The Beaten Path

Published on Sunday, March 23, 2008 in , , , ,

BrainStandard memory techniques work well in a wide variety of situations, but they can't cover every situation. Fortunately, with a little thought and work, you can easily develop systems for almost any situation.

When faced with a situation in which a standard memory technique isn't effective, Penn State York offers a great list of basic ideas that will work for almost anything you want or need to remember. Studenthacks also offers some great advice on effective memorizing.

One of the most common challenges to memory is that of remembering people's names. The Self-Help Blog offers starter techniques for remembering names, while Litemind offers a more detailed set of tools for remembering names.

Over at The Learning Annex's One Minute U, Frank Felberbaum, author of The Business of Memory: Fast Track Your Career with Supercharged Brainpower, also offers a brief video to help with remembering names. He's also posted many other great memory technique videos, ranging from how to never forget your keys and glasses, to remembering the important information from books.

Remembering what you read is, of course, very important when you're studying. Here are 7 more ways to remember what you read (hat tip: Schaefer’s Blog).

As you may have already discerned, there not necessarily any one right approach any memory problem. A technique is either effective or ineffective, and the only thing that makes it right is whether it works for you. Plus Magazine's article on remembering numbers, for example, offers a variety of approaches, but only you can decide which is best suited to your needs.

To close, I would love to share with you the idea in this PDF on Memorization from the school district in Danville, Kentucky. After the main article, it shows not only how to teach a memory technique to kids, but how to have them memorize the original 13 colonies without knowing they're doing it! I love approaches like this, because it can develop both learning skills and a love of learning.


Yet Again Still More Quick Snippets

Published on Thursday, March 20, 2008 in , , , , , , ,

LinksSometimes the snippets just builld up so fast, you have to post two in one month! That being the case, each of the following snippets will be two-for-one, as well.

* We'll start with some math-based magic tricks. Perennial Grey Matters favorite Werner Miller has posted a new effect entitled Sey On. 11 random cards are chosen by the spectator, and from these, one is chosen and lost. After mixing the cards, you then ask them a yes-or-no question, and you repeatedly spell out their answer to eliminate the cards one by one. The last remaining card is their card!

Richard Robinson has posted Diemento, a trick involving 3 dice where you divine their randomly generated totals without looking. If you've been practicing your memory techniques (especially the ones for numbers), you might like to try George G. Kaplan's 3-2-1 variation (PDF), which allows you to perform this feat for several people at the same time.

Even though this mathematical section is already two-for-one, how about a dice routine two-for-one? Over at Magiczine, Andrew Mayne posted a simple and classic dice routine he's dubbed Easy Dice It. In this routine, an audience member stacks two dice (or more) behind your back, any way they like, and you're instantly able to determine the total of all the hidden spots. If, like the previous trick, you want to take this to the next level, check out Bob Stull's The Problem of the Stacked Dice (PDF).

* Those of you who run Mac OS X 10.4 or greater may remember my earlier post announcing my Date Quiz widget. If you enjoyed that, I have a few more widgets you may enjoy. If you don't want to learn the Day of the Week For Any Date feat, but still want to try out the Date Quiz widget, you can cheat like heck with the Day of the Week widget. Actually, this widget could be very handy if you have learned the feat, because you can use it to verify your answers. Those who've purchased Dr. Thomas Harrington's The Magic of Memory and learned how to tell how far into the year a given day is (i.e., March 20th, 2008, is 80th day of 2008), could use this widget to verify that information, too.

Dashboard widget users who enjoy the Knight's Tour will be glad to see Petri Kallberg's Knight's Tour widget. You can even use this to practice all 3 levels of my Knight's Tour. As is, you can very simply try hitting all 64 squares (level 1), or finishing one knight's move from where you started (level 2). Level 3, where a random start and end are chosen is a little trickier. First, to choose two random spots, you can simply have hit Cmd-R twice to restart the widget and have two random spots chosen (the first one would be the ending point, and the 2nd would be the starting point). Second, since all the squares start black, you do have to double-check against a regular checkerboard to make sure those two squares are of opposite colors. If they aren't of opposite colors, there will be no way to solve the 3rd-level challenge.

* Wowio is a site that performs various surveys. This doesn't sound fun, but just for signing up, you can download ebooks for free! You're only allowed to download 3 per day, and no more than 30 per month, but it's still a great deal. Grey Matters readers interested in math will be especially interested in The Book of Numbers and The Story of Mathematics. They'll both take into aspects of math you may have never considered before.

* The iTunes Store (iTunes available here) has two recent additions that will be of interest to Grey Matters readers. If I piqued your interest in 21: The Movie, you might enjoy the audiobook version of 21: Bringing Down The House: The Inside Story of Six M.I.T. Students Who Took Vegas for Millions.

Those who are working on memorizing the US Presidents will probably want to download The Presidents, from the History Channel. While this documentary isn't the most in-depth about the presidents, the 10-minute span spent on each president, mostly concerning the high and low points of each administration, is enough to help add some interest when presenting your knowledge of the US Presidents.

* More and more tools are popping up on the web to help various aspects of memory training. Rune Carlsen has posted a wonderful article on memorizing a deck of cards (also available in Norwegian), including several great on- and off-line tools to help.

If you're practicing the phonetic alphabet (part of the Major/Peg System), and are having trouble coming up with words for various numbers, you can use the Phonetic Mnemonic Keyword Database. If you use FireFox as your browser, you can even add this database as a plug-in!

* Magic square routines are becoming more popular, and a wider variety are becoming available commercially. Luke Jermay's Magic Square routine is available as a downloadable video (US$12.95 at this writing), and a performance video is available for free at that link. Jack Kent Tillar, inventor of the much-ripped-off Blister Trick, has released his presentation and method as an ebook called Hollwood Magic Squares. While I have no direct experience with either of these, my favorite version for close-up or walk-around would have to be Doug Dyment's well-thought out Flash Squared from his book Mindsights.

* If you're trying to remember a particular set of facts, you can, of course, use any of the numerous flashcard programs I've mentioned (here, here, here, here, here, and here), but there are other options. If you have an iPod, you can get iQuiz for 99 cents, and then create your own multiple-choice quizzes with the free tool iQuiz Maker (available for OS X and Windows). They even have free quizzes and themes available on the site!

To quiz yourself online, instead of your iPod, you can create your own quizzes with PurposeGames.com. There are numerous games already on this site, but the real power is the ability to create your own original multiple-choice and identification quizzes (identification quizzes are things like Where is this state? or Which photograph is of this president?). It's easy to create your own quizzes, and you can keep them private or share them with others to challenge them.


How Many Xs Can You Name In Y Minutes?

Published on Sunday, March 16, 2008 in , , , ,

Timed QuizzesOne internet meme that seems to have taken off is quizzes where you have to name as many of something as you can in a certain amount of time (found on websites like Sporcle). The farthest back I can trace it is to this post on Ironic Sans. The original version is here, and the vastly improved version by Erik Wannebo is here.

Now it seems that everywhere you turn, you can find just such a quiz. I figured it was time to see just how far this has gone, and compile a complete a list as I could. The result is a list which now contains over 3,000 quizzes! If you know of any such quizzes I've missed, let me know in the comments or by e-mail (click the Contact Me tab at the top of this page), and I'll add them as I get the chance.

The major sources of timed quizzes I currently track on this site are:
Can You Name?
Grey Matters
LCD Love
Mental Floss
One Plus You (formerly Just Say Hi)
Quizicon (formerly Codebox Software)
Scott's Puzzles

How To Use The Droplist Filter (The icon): With over 3,000 quizzes, finding the one you want by just looking through the list itself can be challenging. To narrow your search, you can use the Droplist Filter (courtesy of joshuachan.ca):

1) Simply click the magnifying glass icon to the right of the subject heading of your choice.
2) Enter the term for which you wish to search.
3) Either click the magnifying glass icon, or hit return, and your search term will now appear as the header (in place of Select A Quiz...).
4) Open the droplist menu, and it will now consist solely of quizzes that contain your search term!

To perform a new search, simply click on the magnifying glass icon again, and search as above. To return to the full list, click the magnifying glass icon on the right again, and click the reset icon (), and the full list will be restored.

Among other great sources of timed quizzes that aren't listed here are:
Listkiller: General timed quizzes, with registration and Flash required.
ListStuff: A site that lets your create and play your own quizzes, play those of others, and keep track of your scores in comparison to others. Instead of a time limit, the games here have a clock that counts up.
PurposeGames: This site is similar to ListStuff, but offers better graphic capabilities, such as the use of maps and diagrams.
Yardbarker Quizzes: Sports-themed timed quizzes, including team-specific statistics questions.

To keep up on the latest timed quizzes, you can use these free goodies:
Timed Quizzes RSS Feed
Timed Quizzes Blog Widget
Timed Quizzes Dashboard Widget (OS X 10.4.3 or later required)
Timed Quizzes Google Gadget

Want to create your own quiz and get it linked here? Create one with the Grey Matters Timed Quiz Generator, and let me know about it! The basics of the Timed Quiz Generator are covered in this tutorial, with additional features taught here. You can even get inspiration from the quizzes on this list, or the comments from this post.

NOTE: This list is no longer being regularly updated. However, you can still keep up with the latest timed quizzes via the new Timed Quizzes RSS feed. Please see the update post for further details.