What’s The Visual Basic of 2014?

I’m an old retired programmer that would like to fart around writing an occasional computer program.  For almost twenty years before I retired I wrote ASP/VBScript/SQL Server code for IIS.  It’s not something I’d use just for fun.  Actually, my brain is old and I don’t want to stress out a bunch of brain cells studying something hard.  I just want to whip out small personal applications.  Years ago, Visual Basic was a very easy to use tool for creating programs to run on Windows.  Microsoft still supports Visual Basic, and even has a free edition with Visual Studio Express 2013 for Windows, but modern Visual Basic isn’t the fun and easy tool it once was.

visual-basic-2

Many sites on the internet promote Python as the current easy to learn, quick and dirty programming tool.  Python is free, works with Windows, OS X and Linux, and its well respected.  Python offers a lot of room to grow.  My worry about Python is it’s not a GUI programming language even though you can get all kinds of libraries to write graphical programs.

In the early days of microcomputers – does anyone call them that anymore – the interfaces were text based, and much easier to program by newbies and do-it-yourselfers.  Adding a graphical front end and a mouse made programming far more complicated for amateurs.  That’s why the old Visual Basic was such a wonder.  We now have a bunch of graphical user interfaces to deal with:  Windows, OS X, iOS, Android, Gnome, KDE, etc.  Python and Java have tools that let programmers write cross platform applications, but to be honest, I think they’re all ugly.  And the variety of possible tools is overwhelming, just look at the GUI programming offering for Python

If you want beautiful applications and apps you need to write native code that’s best for each GUI.  Goddamn Apple came out with Swift today.  It could become the Visual Basic of 2014 if you own a Mac, which I don’t.  How cruel of Apple to tempt me so.  Swift is meant to be easy, fun, beautiful, elegant, and fast.  Makes me want to stop writing this essay and go buy a Mac – but that’s not going to happen.

Back to my problem.  What’s a good programming language to write quick and easy programs for a GUI that can be shared across platforms?

Duh!  What about HTML.  HTML is for web apps, but why not use it for desktop applications too?  It provides a common programming system for writing a common graphical interface, especially when you think about HTML 5 and CSS 3.  And it’s even possible to work with a fun language like Python with a web framework.  This might be a great idea, but it’s not quite what I want.  Visual Basic was a single program that made it easy to write programs that ran under Windows, at first with a runtime, and later as a binary executable.  Many of the widgets were drag and drop requiring little or no code.

Code.org entices would be programmers with a simple drag and drop programming language to start, and then moves students to JavaScript.  They even have a language, LightBot for kids as young as 4, and they offer classes in Python, HTML and Objective C.  There’s all kinds of avenues to learn to program, but I’m not really asking about that. 

What I want is a programming language that’s equivalent to a hammer, saw, pair of pliers and couple of screwdrivers.  Just the basic toolkit to get handyman programming done.  I don’t want a whole workshop of tools to build fine furniture or rebuild a 1968 Porsche.   I just want to computerize some of my daily tasks, like managing my book collection or organizing my computer files.

I could take a step backwards and give up on having a GUI and mouse with my programs, in which case Python is probably the answer.  Whenever I play with R, the statistical programming language, it reminds me of the old days of mainframes, mini-computers and GW-BASIC.  Maybe a GUI requires power tools, and I should just give up on programming for a graphical interface.  COBOL and FORTAN used to do some amazing things with only green bar paper output.

However, is going old school really the answer?

I could do what I wanted with PHP and SQLite, but I’d have to run a web server on my machine.  If I ever wrote something worth sharing, it would require the user to also install a web server.  That is a burden, but is it a showstopper?   Combining a server side scripting language with a simple server, and a good WYSIWYG HTML editor might deliver something very equivalent to Visual Basic.  I could still use Python, but would PHP be better?  Wouldn’t HTML 5 and CSS 3 offer far more GUI power and standardization than any non-standard GUI library?  And adding a MVC library might make programming faster if their learning curve wasn’t too steep.

It’s a shame that someone doesn’t make an IDE with built-in web server so it would be the programming language and runtime in the same program.  Or does such a doohickey already exist?  I’ll need to research that.

JWH – 6/2/14

Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

Wake by Robert J. Sawyer is the first novel of a trilogy, it came out in 2009, Watch, the second book, came out this year, and Wonder will come out in 2011.  Sawyer calls them the WWW Trilogy, and it has a rather slick web site, with the best production values I’ve ever seen promoting a SF novel.  Personally, I found Wake as exciting as when I first discovered science fiction back in the 1960s, when I was a kid.  And it’s up for the Hugo this year, so I figure Penguin knows it has a great story and its hitting warp ten to promote it.

wake-for-blog

Wake is not marketed as a YA novel, but it could have been.  The main character is Caitlin Decter, a fifteen year old blind girl, who is a math wiz, computer geek, engaging blog writer, and extremely precocious.  This reminds me tremendously of the Heinlein juveniles from the 1950s, and in particular Holly from “The Menace From Earth.”  Like the Heinlein juveniles, Wake is chock full of educational tidbits.  And Wake is the kind of novel you don’t want to put down. 

Classic SF Theme:  Intelligent Computers

It’s getting harder and harder for science fiction writers to come up with completely new science fictional ideas, so what we often see is a writer taking on a classic theme and having a go at evolving past ideas.  Wake follows in the tradition of many fictional computers, but in particular ones about a computer becoming conscious in front of one person.  These are the just the ones I’ve read, there are many others.

  • 1966 – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • 1972 – When H.A.R.L.I.E. Was One by David Gerrold
  • 1995 – Galatea 2.2 – Richard Powers
  • 2009 – Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

Sawyer goes further then earlier writers in trying to imagine how an artificial mind would evolve and what it would perceive as it came into being.  Sawyer weaves blindness and Helen Keller, autism, apes that do sign language, Julian Jaynes’ the bicameral mind, and other explorers of consciousness into the story in a very effective way. 

One reason why I love this novel so much is because I’ve been writing a novel in my head about this subject for years.  It’s not likely I’ll ever become a real novelist, but if I do, I’ll have to take the concept further than Sawyer, and that’s a good challenge.

Go read Wake.  End of review.

Spoiler Alert

Now I want to discuss what Sawyer is really writing about.  Sawyer supposes that the Internet could evolve into a self-aware mind.  That idea isn’t new, but what Sawyer does with Wake is make his case for it with series of suppositions that are wrapped in a page turning novel.  In other words, he has a bunch of wild theories that he gets readers to think about one at a time. 

What I’d like to do is discuss these ideas but hopefully without hurting anyone’s enjoyment of the story, but I recommend you not read beyond this point if you haven’t read Wake yet and want to get the full impact of its excitement. 

Sawyer’s first theory is the emerging web mind will go through a stage much like what Helen Keller went through before she discovered language.  Sawyer indirectly explores this stage in a number of ways, including quotes and references to Helen Keller, a subplot about signing apes, and references to the book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, a book I found very exciting when it came out back in 1976.

But I think Sawyer is missing a piece of the puzzle, one I got from On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins.  Hawkins thinks our consciousness emerged out of a pattern recognition processor that we call the neocortex.  Sawyer uses cellular automata as his theoretical model, but I’m not sure that will work.  Cellular automata create patterns, but do they recognize them?  I’m not sure the Internet can generate a consciousness in its current design.  Oh, the Internet will make a fine nervous system for such a web being, or beings, but I think another type of device will need to be built first, and that’s a multilayer pattern recognizer that’s as good or better than our neocortex.

So far, all the writers exploring this theme have assume that when computers reach a critical mass a consciousness will spontaneously arise out of the complexity.  I doubt that completely.  I think at least three components are needed for self-aware consciousness: pattern recognition, mind and language.  I don’t think any of these exist in the internet, or supercomputers.   I think mind evolves out of pattern recognition, and self-awareness evolves out of mind, with the development of language.

Atoms and molecules have early stages of pattern recognition, but as life arises out of non-life, sense organs develop that seek out patterns in reality.  Most organisms are so highly adapted to specific patterns that they will die off if they can’t find them.  Evolutionary adaptation is the ability of organisms to explore and take advantage of new patterns.  I believe the mind grows out of this process, and there are different kinds of minds.  A dog, cat, dolphin and chimp all have minds.  We aren’t sure how much they perceive, or if they have much self-awareness, but they do have minds.  Language studies in dolphins and chimps hint that maybe these animals are self-aware and have identities, maybe far more than our egos want to believe, but I think their consciousnesses are limited by the state of their language abilities.  I think signing will add consciousness to apes.

For an AI computer to develop a mind, I think it needs to have a focus on reality that is processed through a pattern recognition device, and then a language needs to be linked to the patterns.  At first, I thought Sawyer was going to have the web mind see out of Caitlin’s artificial eye, so as the device taught her mind to see, the web mind would also learn to see, and with another fictional piece of technology, learn a language.  Instead Sawyer imagines an inner world where the web is visible.  I don’t buy that at all.  It’s leftover fluff from cyberpunk novels.  Why invent a new reality to observe, when the internet mind has millions of eyes on our reality?

Now this brings up some interesting questions about AI minds.  If a web mind has millions of web cameras at its disposal, will it think think like it has millions of eyes?  Or will it’s  consciousness move from camera to camera and peer out at single points of reality?  Omniscient life would be tough, don’t you think?  I tend to believe, and I only have limited knowledge to think otherwise, that an AI mind will emerge from a limited environment.  Some scientist will raise up an AI mind by teaching it to see and hear while learning a language.

But what will a hive AI mind be like?  Let’s say anyone in the future can go down to Radio Shack and buy an artificial neocortex to add to their computer system and bring up an AI child.  If all of these AI minds are connected by the Internet it will be like a race of telepathic beings.  Now, wouldn’t that be a far out science fiction story?  I still haven’t read Watch, so who knows what will happen.

JWH – 5/13/10 

Safari Books Online

Safari Books Online is a subscription library for computer books and tech training videos, with some additional subjects that also appeal to computer book readers, like digital photography.  They offer individual and corporate subscriptions, and many libraries are subscribers too, so you might check your library first.  Safari Books Online has a 10-day free trial if you just want to get the feel of how it works.  Right now they are offering a 5-Slot Bookshelf for $9.99/month, a 10-Slot Bookshelf for $22.99/month and the unlimited Safari Library for $42.99/month.  You only have access to Video Training and the Rough Cuts (prerelease books) titles with the Safari Library.

I got an offer for the 5-Slot Bookshelf when I registered one of my O’Reilly books to get a 45 day free access to the online edition.  For $10, I figured I’d try it out.  It’s a bit confusing how they work things.  With the 5 and 10 Slot Bookshelves, you can only read the full text of 5 or 10 books at a time, and you must keep your picks on your Bookshelf for at least 30 days.  You can preview all the books, but they only show the top third of each page.

At first I was cautious about filling up my 5 slots, but as I spent time actually studying books, time passed quickly and I usually seem to have 1-2 books ready to be checked back in so I could pick new ones.  I felt for $10 a month, this was a real bargain, but I was disappointed I couldn’t see the Video Training and Rough Cut titles.  Then one day Safari sent me an email offering a 20% discount to the Safari Library subscription, or just $34.99 a month for up to 12 months.  I figured, what the hell, and switched.  I can go back any time to my 5-Slot sub if I want to.

What a Bargain!

One reason Safari Books Online appealed to me was because I was having to switch my entire programming paradigm at work form ASP to PHP and I was about to go out and buy a bunch of new computer books for PHP, jQuery, CSS 2, XHTML 1.1, CodeIgniter and Eclipse.  I tend to buy computer books, use them for awhile, let them sit on the shelf for five years, and then put them out on the free book table at work.  Spending $120 a year and having access up to 60 titles seemed like a real deal.  More than likely I’d probably only read 10-20 books for real, but even that is a huge bargain over buying the books.

Reading Online

Most people don’t like reading books at their computer screen, but if you’re reading computer programming books while programming, ebooks work out great.  At work I have a dual monitor setup and I even turned my left monitor to portrait mode so I can enlarge a full page of a Safari book so I see the entire page at once with about a 50% magnification.  Of course this now makes me want to have a triple monitor setup, with Safari book on left, Eclipse IDE in the middle, and browsers on the right.  But don’t get me wrong. reading a Safari book on the same screen as the editor isn’t bad either.

Books can be viewed in two modes:  page mode and HTML.  I prefer looking at the page mode because it’s just like the printed book, but cutting and pasting is easier from the HTML mode.  However, reading is less pleasant from the HTML model unless I up the browser magnification and narrow the window so the scan line width is reasonable.  In page mode you have nice big margins and the print and fonts are the same as the printed book.  If the original book was hard to read, then page mode is also hard to read.

Slowly I’m learning that hanging on to page mode is limiting.  Once books are freed from the confines of pages, content can be presented in new ways.  I expect Safari to discover this in the future and invent new ways of looking at the material.  Books like the Head First series beg for this kind of treatment.  I also expect in the future there won’t be a division between printed books and video training titles.  If authors start writing titles specifically for Safari Online Books they could teach in new ways.

Selection

As of today, I can select from 9,902 books and 631 videos.  Plus lots of great computer book publishers are a part of Safari Online Books:

  • O’Reilly (Head First, Missing Manual)
  • Sams (Teach Yourself)
  • Packt Publishing
  • Addison-Wesley Professional
  • New Riders
  • Microsoft Press
  • Peachpit Press
  • Manning Publications
  • Adobe
  • Que
  • Apress
  • Sitepoint
  • Sybex
  • John Wiley & Sons
  • Prentice Hall

Most of the titles relate to computers in some way, but there’s lots of books on photography, and occasionally there’s a book that relates to investment or retiring.  I have 80 books flagged that I want to read.

The Future of Books

For special purposes, like these technical books, a subscription library really makes sense, and I’m perfectly happy to do without the printed edition.  I expect publishers to even do away with the page mode and eventually optimize everything for HTML mode which also works with mobile devices and ebook readers.  I would even buy a subscription to a science and history book library if I owned something like an iPad.  For fiction I prefer audio books or a device like a Kindle.  I wonder if subscription libraries for other subjects will catch on.

I think the future of books is paperless publishing, and Safari Online Books even hints that rental libraries might become an alternative to owning books.  However, rental libraries are rather specialized.  I’d be interested in a science and history rental library if its selection was as broad as the Safari Books Online is for computer books.  Also, I imagine that a rental library for school textbooks would be appealing to kids if durable iPad like devices caught on.

In my quest to give up paper, I’ve stopped getting magazines and newspapers, and now I have an alternative for technical books.  For fiction I prefer audiobooks.  Before now, I would have said art/photography books could never be replaced by ebooks, but while my second monitor was in portrait mode, my desktop background cycled through some art pieces, and they were very impressive magnified that way.  Freed of the confines of the printed page, art might do very well in ebook editions.  I saw a comic book on the iPad which had a mode of showing the page panel by panel and it was obvious the iPad is now the best way to look at a comic.

JWH – 4/25/10

What I Want To Be When I Get Old

I’ve picked twelve areas of knowledge to pursue in the last third of life.  It’s a conscious effort to organize my thoughts and actions.  Twelve specialties sounds like too many, but I’ve selected them like building blocks to work together as a whole.  Essentially what I have done is analyze what I’ve been doing for years unconsciously and state them here publicly to make them clear to me.  The pains of aging remind me of my limited time left on Earth and inspire me to change.  What I’m really doing is deciding what I want to be when I get old.  

Areas of knowledge might sound too lofty.  I could say I have twelve self-improvement topics I want to study, or even call them twelve goals for going the distance.  We do not have the language to express ideas of self-programming.  I’ve always loved John Lily’s book title Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer, but sadly the book is about a great scientist going off the deep end with hallucinatory drugs and sensory deprivation.  But I digress.  Self-improvement is a vast topic for the publishing industry but has a poor connotation, but that phrase might come closest to my task.

I am a fat, lazy, late middle-aged man who has tumbled through life like big rolling weed acquiring random knowledge and wisdom through undisciplined osmosis.  Since I’m a programmer and work with computers, I think with cyber concepts, so picture an old PC that’s been running Windows XP for years.  This dusty old machine takes forever to boot up, and runs  slower and slower each day.  It’s time for a tune-up!  I want to delete all the clutter and crapware, cleanse the registry, run malware utilities, uninstall all the programs I don’t use, and decide on which programs are the most productive to keep.  I’m realistic.  I don’t expect to suddenly become a new Intel i7 machine running Windows 7, but I can make the old hardware run much more efficiently.

When we are young we have great ambitions about growing up.  We want to be somebody special and find the perfect mate.  During our middle years we expand our ambitions, seeking security, wealth and success.  But for the last third of life our goal is retirement, where we reduce our workloads and seek simple pleasures.  I say bullshit to that.  Maybe it’s because I didn’t find the success I wanted in youth and middle age that I hold out hope for an ambitious last third of life.

I’m not worried about the outward appearance of aging, the wrinkles, baldness, age spots or hobbled gait, what I’ve discovered that’s hard to see as a young person, is getting old is a state of mind that deals with wearing out mentally.  Avoiding pain, illness and injury becomes a relentless occupation.  My daily pains are minor compared to what I’ve seen in others, but the decline in health I’ve experience so far is wonderfully educational.  So for my first study goal is pretty obvious, and probably universal.

1. Maximize Health

I don’t need to become an authority or expert on this subject, but I do require major studying and practice.  Hell, I know the basics, eat right and exercise. Where I need to specialize is in the discipline of of mind over matter, or more precisely, mind over body.  I could greatly improve both the quality and quantity of my sunset years if I could lose weight.  I’ve been slowly gaining weight since my late twenties, and the only time I was actually able to lose poundage was due to illness, not a practical long term solution.  Of course, the secret to weight loss is knowledge many have sought and few have found.  I need to study books about the mind, and maybe even woo-woo subjects like yoga, meditation and will power.  This is one subject I wished I had mastered in childhood and practiced lifelong.

2. Enlightened Citizenship

I wanted to become an expert in green living, but I’ve decided that focus is too narrow.  I am deeply disturbed by partisan politics and our lack of will to make tough decisions about all our problems.  I believe in social democracy; we vote daily on countless issues with our every decision.  I am reading The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong and I’m reminded of her description of how the ancient Chinese practiced their religion.  Instead of being concerned with invisible gods and abstract concepts of the sacred, these people sought perfection by improving the simple acts of everyday life.  In other words, how you clean your house is more spiritual than religious rituals you embrace. 

3. XHTML/CSS/PHP/JavaScript/JQuery/CodeIgniter

After thirteen years of programming in classic ASP  I need to learn a whole new suite of programming languages and tools.  This is putting me way out of my comfort zone, but it’s my chance to prove that an old dog can learn new tricks.

4. Internet Living

I’ve been living on the net since the mid-80s with BBSes, Genie, CompuServe and Prodigy.  I’ve embraced digital life.  I’m fascinated by it’s potential.  I don’t think we’ve seen anything yet, so I want to explore all the emerging possibilities and even write about what will happen in the future.

5.  Clear Writing

I want to be a much better writer.  I love blogging, but I want to go beyond dumping out my thoughts.  I’m a wordy bastard that can’t structure an essay, much less a book.  I need to remove the clutter from my sentences and learn to assemble  paragraphs into larger structures that build coherent ideas.  I’m best at 500-1,000 words, but I want to write larger essays and even a book.

6.  Techniques of Fiction

I’ve been trying to write fiction since a high school creative writing class.  Like my failure at dieting, I can’t break through the writing discipline barrier either.  I’ve taken many writing courses and workshops.  At best, I can crank out words, but except for one time in endless tries, I can’t reach the critical mass of fictional fusion.   I need to master the language of fiction in the same way I write a computer program, so the story works without major bugs.

7.  Robot Novel

I’m struggling to write the great American robot novel.  After space travel, time travel, and alien encounters, robots are about the most over-written topic in science fiction.  Yet, I believe I have a fresh idea if I can crank out 100,000 readable words of fiction.  Notice how specializations 5-10 relate?  I’m not going off in twelve different directions, but hope I’m pursuing twelve skills I can integrated into a synergy of effort.

8.  Evolution of Mind

To say anything fictional about robots will require understanding artificial intelligence, and AI has always depended on studies of the mind.  I find my library is full of books on robots, AI, mind and evolution.  I bought all those books because they were individually interesting, but now I’m going to read them as fuel for my novel.  If we are the pinnacle of intelligent life on Earth now, what will occupy that position in a million years?  Or a billion?

9.  Sense of Wonder

I’ve been a reader and scholar of science fiction my whole life.  People who adore science fiction claim its because it generates sense of wonder.  Sense of wonder has been around far longer than science fiction so it can’t claim exclusive rights, but I do believe that science provides a special kind of sense of wonder.  For too long now science fiction has been living off past glories.  It’s time to find new concepts that push our sense of wonder button.

10.  Cosmological Perspective

Our perceived position in the universe has always been very philosophical.  It is very hard to grasp our location in relationship to the rest of reality.  Even the shape of the universe is impossible to fathom.  If we are God’s supreme creation, why are we so small?  And can any religion or philosophy be valid that doesn’t fully incorporate our knowledge of cosmology?

11.  Learning in Old Age

What are the limits of acquiring new knowledge in an old brain?  Could I learn something in my last third years that I wasn’t able to learn in my first third years?  Could I go back and finish Calculus II, or learn to play the guitar?  There is a discipline barrier that I’ve never been able to crash through.  I find my wisdom grows as my body declines, but will I ever be wise enough to overcome the limitations of my body?

12.  Our Existential Relationship with Fiction

We can’t understand reality so we make up stories.  It is impossible to predict the future yet we constantly create fiction to envision what will come.  And I don’t mean science fiction.  These twelve areas of knowledge I am pursing are a fiction.  The odds are I’ll just get older, fatter, suffer more, watch even more television while waiting to die.  I invent fictions about how I will change myself and fight the inevitable.   But that’s my point about programming and metaprogramming in the human biocomputer.  Is life no more than meta-fiction?

* * *

These twelve topics of specialization are ambitious, but I don’t think impossible to achieve.  It will make me a Renaissance (old) man.  And success can be measured across a range of achievement levels.  No one gets out of here alive, so death can’t be considered a failure of life.  I am reminded of the many books I’ve read about Eastern religions where the last third of life is set aside for spiritual pursuits.  At the end of the rat race, wisdom is the only possession worth pursuing.  But I grew up with a Western world mindset.  Reality is a savage land meant to be conquered, not accepted like our friends, the Eastern gurus teach.

Christians love the concept of the eternal soul.  As an atheist I’m not sure souls exist, at least not in the past.  That doesn’t mean we don’t want to fashion our own souls.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t evolving towards creating souls.  Through discipline we program our identities.  Through metaprogramming we program our programming.

JWH – 2/27/10 

Being An Old Dog Learning New Tricks

I’ve been in my present programming job since 1987.  I’m a database programmer, but I’m not part of IT, but was hired by a college within the university where I work.  I was employed way back then to set up a Novell network and develop a multi-user dBase III system to shadow the university’s canned student information system.  In the mid-nineties, I rewrote everything in HTML and classic ASP for IIS and Microsoft SQL Server, and switched our network to Windows and TCP/IP.  I have cranked out hundreds of thousands of lines of custom code since.  Now our university IT department wants all us non-IT programmers to rewrite our code to meet IT standards that runs on their servers.  I’m totally behind that, because I know when I retire someone will have to maintain my code.

The trouble is, I’m 58 and this means I’ll have to learn a whole slew of new languages – XHTML 1.0  Strict, CSS 2.0, PHP, and JavaScript, new frameworks JQuery and CodeIgniter, switch from Textpad, a programming editor to Eclipse, an IDE, and they want me to learn generic SQL that works with an abstraction layer in case we switch backend databases.  Plus I’m switching web servers from ISS to Apache.  This is a lot of new stuff for an old dog to take in.  My very comfortable environment that I’ve lived and worked in for 15 years is now totally Alice in Wonderland.  It’s like moving to Paris and having to learn French.

I do believe this is good for me, especially for exercising my aging mental stamina, but I can feel that it’s pushing the limits of what my mind can handle.  I’m sure in several months I’ll be comfortable in the new paradigm, but for now I feel like I’m a couch potato going on the Biggest Loser.  I wonder if all this mental weight lifting and running, all this programming huffing and puffing, is going to kill me.

Now that I’m getting old, I know why old dogs don’t want to learn new tricks.  It’s so much easier to stay in the comfort zone of doing my old tricks.  What’s weird is I’m learning all this new technical stuff at the same time I’m becoming so forgetful in everyday life.  More than anything, I’m in a USE IT OR LOSE IT phase of life.  It feels like I’m surfing and the only thing I can remember is the wave I’m riding right now.

The famous urban legend is we only use 10% of our brains.  I’ve read about scientific experiments that disprove that.  One set of experiments had test subjects learn something new and test their retention ability, then after awhile, switched them to studying something different.  As they learned new stuff they forgot old stuff.  Other experiments mapped the brain with various scans.  There aren’t any unused portions.  What they learned is we all use our brains fully, but fully varies from person to person, and I’m guessing also varies at different times in our lives.  It’s like that circus act where a guy keeps 30 spinning plates all twirling at once.  When we’re young we can keep 25 things going at once, but as we get older, that number decreases.

Learning my new programming paradigm is like trying to be young again.  It’s fun and exciting, but this time around I realize I’m pushing my limits.  I can feel my limits in a way that I never imagined when I was young.  I wonder how far and how hard I can push those limitations, and for how long.

JWH – 1/20/10     

iPhone Revelations

The iPhone is a disturbance in the Force.  The personal computer revolution, starting back in the 1970s, has gone through many radical paradigm shifts, with the most profound brought on by the Internet.  Ripples of change, caused by Apple’s telephone, indicate revolutionary upheavals in the fabric of the cybernetic collective.  In other words, Dudes and Dames, get ready to be impacted.  For over a decade now, tech philosophers predicted the total ascendance of the Internet browser as the Imperial Interface between the real world and the digital wonderland, but now the iPhone has accidently started a rebellion, one that might overthrow that Emperor IE.

Kids say the darnedest things, now in 140 characters or less.  They have rejected talk for texting, and email for tweets.  Going further, they jettison the bloated browser for tiny applets on the iPhone.  Strangely, the byproduct of selling to twitchy unfocused minds is writing programs with jewel-like simplicity where form dictates functionality.  But then, programming has always determined what percentage of the population embraces the geek lifestyle.

Take word processing.  Remember WordStar commands?  Back then mostly secretaries and lawyers were the only people to apply their brainpower to the task.  Then came Word Perfect, with its elegant text menu making a revolutionary advance over memorized commands.  Millions switched to doing their writing on a computer because of this.  Finally, came the GUI, and WYSIWYG, with Microsoft Word becoming the Cro-Magnon of word processors, killing off Neanderthal Word Perfect.

The Internet has been around longer than personal computers, but it wasn’t until it was combined with the GUI based web browser that the mundane Dick and Jane joined the nerd herd online.  The ascent of the browser, starting with Mosaic in 1993, has slowly crowded out almost every other fat client except Microsoft Office.  And cloud computing cowboys are programming as fast as they can to dethrone that King too.  The browser has evolved to the one-size-fits all condom on every computer.

Now Apple disturbs the Force with the iPhone, with netbooks out on the ocean, being the potential next tsunami to shake things up.  Programming for the 3.5” screen is changing the game.  Safari might be a dog that talks and dances, but who cares, it’s the applet mice at play that are pointing the way to the future.   Instead of relying on the browser that can do a billion things, people seem to prefer and handful of custom tools that fit their day-to-day on-the-go lifestyle.  All designed to work specifically and elegantly on a 3.5” screen with constant Interact access.  Until you play with an iPhone or iPod touch, you will not understand what I mean, and I don’t have enough time before bed to make point by point examples.  Seeing is believing.  Get your iPhone friends to demo their favorite apps.

Netbooks are machines with 10” screens.  If they becoming baby desktops, powered by IE or FireFox, they will not rippled the Force, but if, on the other hand, developers write programs customized for the 10” window like they did for the iPhone, and netbooks are universally combined with broadband connections, we should see another disturbance in the net hive mind.

The browser owns the 13” through 24” LCD display.  Browsers suck on 3.5” screens.  Browsers are annoying at best on 10” screens.  If netbook programmers take lessons from iPhone programmers and develop functionality for the 10” form, then we should see new application species emerging that will create new paths for computing users to take.  The iPhone has been the 1849 gold rush for programmers, and the netbook should become the Alaskan gold rush.  Lets see.

JWH – 7/6/9

What Happened to Fun and Educational Programming?

    Back in the seventies I became addicted to computer magazines. In the early sevenities I had studied computers, working with keypunch machines, greenbar paper and mainframes like the IBM 360, but then the microcomputer revolution burst on the scene and I fell in love Atari, Apple, Commodore, TI, Sinclair, Radio Shack and all the other little computers. I haunted the newsstands for issues of Byte, Compute! (in all it’s various incarnations), Dr. Dobbs, InfoWorld, On Computing, A+, A.N.A.L.O.G., Popular Computing, ST-Log and my favorite Creative Computing. I was so addicted to computer magazines I’d read magazines devoted to computers I didn’t even own. A common feature to all of them was the type-in program, which encouraged readers to learn to program. At the start of this revolution it was assumed that everyone would eventually have to learn to program and most secondary schools and colleges started introducing computer literacy classes. Then the revolution was networked.

    So what happened? I think most people learned that they hated to program. It’s a tedious activity that I took to. I made a career of programming. I’ve heard that interest in programming has fallen off so much that Bill Gates has to beg Congress to be allowed to hire foreign programming students. The big brouhaha is the claim that American kids aren’t smart enough, don’t know math and science, and would rather play video games than write them. That may be true, but I’m guessing there might be other reasons.

    First, there is little incentive to custom program when there are so many free programs around. How fun can a 200 line type-in game be compared to some million line monster that was produced like a Hollywood movie? The open source crowd has made a virtue out of volunteer programming, so that tends to remove the greed incentive. It’s a strange era we live in where the richest man in the world is a geek who climbed to the top of his pile of money by programming and the young people of today revolt against Gate’s model of success by advocating a commie paradigm of programming. That’s like refusing to join a gold rush and taking up alchemy. When I was young I foolishly protested the draft and the Vietnam War, but who’d have imagined later generations would grow up to protest against making money.

    There are other reasons why programming isn’t as popular as beer-can collecting or poetry writing. Home computers used to come with a programming interpreter built in, but now-a-days you have to have an IDE that takes the dedication of a Ph.D. student to learn, and to give away your masterpiece you have to convince your friends to install some massive runtime. Programming is no longer little. If kids put as much work into learning to play the guitar or singing as it would take to program they could be rock stars – that’s why there’s American Idol and not American Hacker on TV.

    The real reason why kids don’t want to program, study math or science, or become engineers is because those careers have no sex appeal. Even lowly desk jockies in The Office, appear to lead more exciting lives than someone who sits in front of a screen all day typing in keywoods. When hot women are interviewed on reality shows about the men they’d like to meet you seldom hear one wishing to hook up with a programmer. Not only is programming a male profession, but it appears to be for omega males. It’s lucky I snagged a wife before I discovered microcomputers.

    With the video game industry becoming bigger than the movie industry it’s a wonder that video game programmers aren’t as glamorous as movie directors or screenwriters.  (Even I can’t picture them being compared to actors.)  Since programs are now written by teams, why aren’t there programming cards like baseball cards, so kids could collect the Microsoft players, or the Apple players or the Linux players – hell the kids on Slashdot certainly argue over their favorite teams as much as any kid ever argued over football teams.  Unfortunately, programming is about as exciting as plumbing so its doubtful we can ever make it into a skill that kids dream of making it big in.  Sure there are millions of us who love to program and we can make more money than plumbers but the profession is just not going make kids want to study in school.  I wonder how many kids would want to be rock stars or movie actors if it required calculus?


 

    

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