Codes that changed the world

April 20th, 2015 10:40 AM
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Growing up with the Apple II, I learned to program in BASIC. Its line numbers, GOTOs and GOSUBs, and spaghetti code were unlike anything I would encounter later in my education. Perhaps for that reason, I never mastered a language like I did BASIC. While I was able to grasp Prolog and FORTRAN, the "pointers" of C++ were so incomprehensible to me that I eventually had to change majors to get away from it.

Had I continued down that programming path, I doubtless would've faced many other challenging concepts as I attempted to master yet more languages, like C Sharp, Perl, PHP, Ruby, and more. By some estimates, there are over 20,000 languages in existence, only a fraction of which I ever could've learned on the Apple II. Some are more practical than others, while others are of more historical significance.

The BBC attempts to scratch the surface of those historical languages in a recent limited-run podcast series, Codes that Changed the World, hosted by Aleks Krotoski.

Codes that Changed the World

The podcast, which debuted this month and ran for all of five episodes, covers four languages: FORTRAN, COBOL, BASIC, and Java, with a fifth episode discussing how so many different languages are able to coexist.

Of course, you can't discuss the rise of BASIC without the role the Apple II played, and vice versa:

BASIC enabled computing as we understand it today. When Apple was a two-man band building this thing called the Apple II, there were no other computers out there like it. So they had to put something on it that would allow individuals to program it themselves. Apple just wouldn't exist without BASIC. And Microsoft! The first thing that Microsoft did as a company was selling BASIC to run on other people's computers. The two biggest names in modern computing, Apple and Microsoft, both wouldn't've happened if it wasn't for BASIC.

BASIC celebrated its 50th birthday last year, earning it a cover story in Juiced.GS:
Juiced.GS Volume 19 Issue 2

While researching that story, author Steve Weyhrich (who also pointed me to this podcast) delved into the resources available at Dartmouth College, where BASIC was invented. As part of its "BASIC at 50" commemoration, Dartmouth produced a free 38-minute documentary, Birth of BASIC:

If you want to learn more about other programming languages, Codes that Changed the World is available in iTunes. While it's unreasonable to expect all 20,000 languages to be covered, I do lament that the podcast's scope was limited to only five episodes, as I rather enjoyed these 15-minute encapsulations of technical topics for a lay audience. If the BBC or Krotoski ever produce more, I'll be first in line to listen!

Generational hardware gap tres

September 3rd, 2012 12:43 PM
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Last month, the Commodore 64 turned 30 years old. Normally, that'd not be an appropriate topic for this Apple II blog; in fact, the wrong readers might take it as an opportunity to burn me in effigy, minus the effigy.

But the way in which Mat Allen chose to commemorate the occasion offers a cross-platform look at the way different generations interact with classic technology. Having seen this concept explored first in France and then in the USA, Allen invited several young Brits to play with his C64, to demonstrate that the game system of his youth was as entertaining and relevant today.


The video focuses primarily on the loading times, which is so obsolete an experience as to almost have faded from memory; I'm not surprised Allen's audience wandered away. Still, I wish he'd run a second experiment where the game was already loaded, so that the kids could provide feedback based more on interacting with the software instead of the hardware.

It was cute to hear the students couch their words to be as delicate as possible; referring to the C64's rudimentary graphics, one child commented, "For them, it must've been pretty incredible."

Teaching retroprogramming

September 13th, 2010 9:09 AM
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The annual Beloit College Mindset List, which outlines the world in which the incoming class of college freshman grew up, indicates that for members of the class of 2014, "The first home computer they probably touched was an Apple II or Mac II; they are now in a museum."

Fortunately, for students in Bletchley, Milton Keynes, England, their experience with retrocomputers is more recent — and eminently practical. BBC News reports:

As a former teacher, I can fully get behind this classroom curriculum. It wasn't long ago that I suggested a lab of Apple II computers could be an effective and modern learning tool. Although the computers featured in this video are not Woz's brainchild, they are its contemporaries and teach many of the same lessons my proposed lab would. As one student said, "The old machines have a lot to teach us. They run a lot slower, and you can actually see the instructions executing in real-time."

What I hope the students learn is how to make the most of limited hardware and software resources, though this quotation makes me wonder if they missed that point: "It makes you a lot more efficient, and you think more about your code, because it's harder to type it all in." Although the arduousness of input can indeed be a powerful motivator against error, I don't think it's a programming environment that one need tolerate on even a classic computer. The Apple II worked around this limitation with Beagle Bros' excellent Program Writer for Applesoft BASIC. Such utilities don't encourage sloppy programming but instead improve the rate at which you can learn from your mistakes, whereas modern machines and their gluttonous resources permit sloppy programming that would never fly on a computer whose memory is measured in kilobytes.

This classroom's demographic reminds me of the demoparty I attended this summer, where most attendees were younger than the computers they were hacking. KansasFest likewise has an increasingly youthful attendance, with Apple II users still in or recently out of undergraduate programs. This next generation of retrocomputing enthusiasts has great potential to apply modern programming techniques and structure to classic design. For example, put these students into a limited-time programming contest, and you'd have HackFest. I wonder how they would fare?

I couldn't help but take umbrage when the reporter says that the student's work almost looks like a "real video game". Of course it's a real video game! Software doesn't need rockstar programmers or cutting-edge technology. The original versions of Lode Runner and Oregon Trail have more staying power than any jazzed-up modern adaptations. I wouldn't be surprised if these kids are the next programmers to recapture the fun and wonder of these classic games.

Because BBC is awesome, their story also has one of their own news reports from Oct. 17, 1986, that showcases the computers of the day, including the Apple IIGS. That video is not embeddable, so I encourage you to watch it on their site.

(Hat tip to Slashdot and Mitch Wagner)