Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I'm gonna beat you kids with my cane

This link was gonna go on Friday Links, but I realized I had too much to say about it.

When I was still pretty young, five or six years old, my parents got me an Atari 400 with two cartridges: PacMan and BASIC. Long hours were spent sitting on the floor in front of that thing and pushing the letters on their childproof/mess proof keyboard. One could run out to any bookstore and pick up books of BASIC programs to punch in and use - or more usually play.

At this time there were lots of different kinds of BASIC. Apple BASIC, GW-BASIC, Tiny BASIC, M BASIC, Atari BASIC, BBC Basic, Altair BASIC, BASICA, and a bunch of others. They were not all compatible with each other. Besides learning Atari BASIC I had to figure out programs written for other types of BASIC and debug them so they worked with my Atari. So I was pretty good at this when my parents got the Epson Equity II computer when I was eight.

The Epson was awesome. It had floppy drives. I could save the programs to disk instead of just leaving the machine running until you wanted to play something other than what I'd last written. No hard drive yet, but those were still kinda fancy. And it had two big ass binders that explained all the GW-BASIC commands as well as the MS-DOS commands.

I had math books like the one mentioned in the article. I never punched in the programs. By then I was good enough that I could read the program and tell you what it would do.

I credit these two machines with my current tech savvy. I may make medical textbooks for a living, but I consider myself a programmer first. I've written programs with about two dozen languages over the years.

But, as the guy in the article says, how do you introduce a kid to programming now? Not even Q-BASIC, a staple of DOS and Windows machines for-fracking-ever, remains. There's good reason for this, of course. No serious programmer would want to use any version of BASIC. It was fine when they were kids, but really now, there's much better available. However, we're no longer left with a hobbyist's language to tinker with to get started down that road.

This isn't entirely true. If you have an interest and want to go looking you can find some things.

The BASIC Stamp is a chip that you can write BASIC programs for and then stuff into some other piece of electronics; usually robots.

Macs come with PHP and MySQL and web browser software. You can easily turn it into a web server and do some website development.

But really, it's not the same. Nor does it have to be. Times change and things become obsolete. But it's much harder for a kid today to just fall into programming because it's available and the kid is bored. You do have to hunt and have an active desire to do it.

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