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More Mental Flossing with Sandy Wood

"I'm from rural Georgia, so I didn't have much of an education to begin with," says Sandy Wood. Not that you'd ever know it now.

Now based in a suburb of Detroit, Wood and his wife, Kara Kovalchik, are the primary research editors for Mental Floss magazine, whose co-founder we interviewed as well. They also write the back page quiz that appears in the magazine, as well the daily facts and quizzes that appear on the Web site.

"When we approached them, at first they were saying, 'This is great, but let's start slow,'" recalls Wood. "But soon there was one thing they wanted us to do, and then another, and pretty soon we were working full time, sixty hours a week!"

The pair approached Mental Floss when it was still practically a start-up, having tried to flog a book based on their years hosting a chatroom-based game on AOL. "The research we did for the book was a solid foundation for us to approach other people," says Wood, who says he and Kovalchik wrote 25,000 questions in the eight years they hosted their AOL game.

Working with AOL also honed the pair's question writing skills, particularly since the text-based format allowed for an instant, and often vehement, feedback. "You learn how to write for all types of people and put them on an equal basis," says Wood. "For example, you can't have a question about White Castle hamburgers, because White Castle is only in the midwest and northeast. Somebody in California will have no idea what you're talking about.

For Wood, a good question makes you say one of three things. "It's either, 'Wow, I didn't know that.' Or, 'I used to know that, but I forgot it.' Or, 'I never did know that, but I'm glad I do now."

Wood and Kovalchik have adopted a style that is fully in keeping with the Mental Floss philosophy of making learning fun. Three sample quizzes produced by the pair are found below. Next up is a plan to add audio, and perhaps even video, to the online quizzes. "On AOL, we once had everybody start watching Airplane at the same time, and then we asked questions about the movie or threw in facts. It was a bit like Pop-Up Video."

Wood is always on the lookup for potential quiz ideas. He wears a portable recorder around his neck and even sleeps with it beside his bed. The quizzes themselves often follow tight thematic themes. Wood and Kovalchik brainstorm to come up with ideas for possible quizzes, then free-associate for question ideas, followed by a trip to Microsoft Bookshelf, on which he does keyword searches.

Indeed, the hunt for the perfect question can be as much fun as answering them. "I find you learn more from the questions you miss than the ones you get."

It also goes to show that even if you don't "have much of an education to begin with," you can always learn. And learn prodigiously.

QUIZ 1: Name that Jane
Provide the correct "Jane" answer from the Tarzan clue given.

1. Me Tarzan, you former NBC newsperson.
A. Jane Harris
B. Jane Pauley
C. Jane Jacobs
D. Jane Hix

2. Me Tarzan, you wife on Father Knows Best.
A. Jane Wyman
B. Jane Cowl
C. Jane Wyatt
D. Jane Greer

3. Me Tarzan, you former Playtex spokesperson.
A. Jane Russell
B. Jane Brody
C. Jane Fonda
D. Jane Alexander

4. Me Tarzan, you Joyce Penelope Wilhemina Frankenberg.
A. Jane Seymour
B. Jane Austen
C. Calamity Jane
D. Jane Smiley

5. Me Tarzan, you Prymatt.
A. Jane Goodall
B. Jane Campion
C. Jane Carroll
D. Jane Curtin

Correct answers: Question 1 Jane Pauley; Question 2 Jane Wyatt; Question 3 Jane Russell; Question 4 Jane Seymour (Joyce Penelope Wilhemina Frankenberg is her real name); Question 5 Jane Curtin. (Prymatt was Curtin's character in the SNL sketch and subsequent movie, 'Coneheads').

Copyright 2002-2004 Mental Floss, LLC, Reprinted with permission

Quiz 2: Tell us what's wrong with these famous paintings.

A. color of woman's dress
B. pitchfork is different
C. length of man's hair
D. house in background

A. hat different
B. wall different color
C. flowers are gone
D. painting missing

A. sword in hand
B. hat on head
C. over-calf socks
D. different hair color

A. hands different
B. background reversed
C. head facing wrong way
D. hair longer

A. wrong ear bandaged
B. coat on backwards
C. entire painting reversed
D. eye color wrong

Correct answers: Question 1 pitchfork is different (it should have three tines, not four); Question 2 painting missing (should be on the wall, near the center of the image); Question 3 sword in hand (should be holding a hat instead); Question 4 hands different (reversed from their real positions); Question 5 entire painting reversed

Copyright 2002-2004 Mental Floss, LLC, Reprinted by permission

Quiz 3: It's Up to Niles
The first question is about "N," the second about "Ni," and so on up to the name "Niles."

1. N is the symbol for which element?
A. Neon
B. Nitrogen
C. Niobium
D. Nickel

2. Ni was the favorite word of an odd group of knights in what comedy motion picture?
A. History of the World, Part One
B. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure
C. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
D. Monty Python & The Holy Grail

3. Nil is derived from a Latin term with what mathematical meaning?
A. negative
B. zero
C. nine
D. angle

4. Nile is the name of a river that flows through Africa into the:
A. Atlantic Ocean
B. Red Sea
C. Indian Ocean
D. Mediterranean Sea

5. Niles was the Ohio town in which this U.S. president was born.
A. William Howard Taft
B. Rutherford B. Hayes
C. William McKinley
D. Warren G. Harding

Correct answers: Question 1 Nitrogen; Question 2 Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Question 3 zero; Question 4 Mediterranean Sea; Question 5 William McKinley (the other three were all born elsewhere in Ohio, as were Ulysses Grant, James Garfield and Benjamin Harrison).

Copyright 2002-2004 Mental Floss, LLC, Reprinted by permission

September 2004