A curious crisis of computer science

February 8th, 2016 9:16 AM
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I frequently hear from programmers born earlier than 1980 that today's kids don't know how to code. Matt Hellinger gave a great talk on the subject at KansasFest 2013, which he followed up with a Juiced.GS article on the subject. Other outlets have opined similarly, such as Simon Bisson pointing to the skills and technology of the past to power today's Internet of Things, and John Martellaro proposing that a revamped iPad could be the ideal learning environment.

There's plenty of truth to what these pundits say. The Raspberry Pi, which is often seen as a modern yet affordable equivalent to the Apple II in terms of easy access to the underlying hardware and software, is a powerful alternative to today's closed environments. My own experiences would suggest that's the way to go: opening up my Apple II, plugging in expansion cards, booting into BASIC, and writing my own code is how I taught myself to fall in love with computers.

The Apple II's impact extends beyond these personal anecdotes, influencing careers and industries for a generation. "The peak in computer-science degrees, in 1985, came about four years after the introduction of IBM's first personal computer and during the heyday of the Apple II, which very likely led to increased interest in getting a computer-science degree," writes Jonah Newman for The Chronicle of Higher Education in "Is There a Crisis in Computer-Science Education?" Had I started with an OS X or Windows machine, I wouldn't know where to begin peeling away the pretty GUI surface and getting at the roots of the machine.

But how has interest in computer science developed since then, paralleling the rise in ubiquity of computers, smartphones, and other closed devices?

University of Washington in Seattle CS enrollment

"The chart above tells quite a story. That blue line — the one that looks like a hockey stick — shows how interest in computer science from freshmen at the University of Washington in Seattle has skyrocketed since 2010 compared with other engineering fields," writes Taylor Soper for GeekWire.

While that's a very small data set, a larger one suggests computer science enrollment is on the upswing. "After the 1985–1986 peak in CS majors, demand declined again through most of the 1990s, before increasing in the 2000s and dropping back down again in recent years… Even though there are proportionally fewer graduates now than there were in 1985, this may be a cyclical trend that's actually beginning to reverse," says Elizabeth Dye for Sparkroom in an analysis of The Chronicle of Higher Education's blog post. The job market plays a large role in that, with bubbles (such as the dot-com of 1997–2000) encouraging higher interest and enrollment in computer science.

The sooner kids have the opportunity not just to use computers, but to program them, the earlier they'll develop an interest in a career in computer science. From the Apple II to the Raspberry Pi, there are many opportunities for young programmers to have that experience working with low-level hardware and software. But the platform they have access to is just one variable in a complex equation, and their childhood is only one window in which they can develop these skills. When I started college as a computer science major in the mid-1990s, I had a classmate who had never written a program before, yet she'd chosen to major in CS; almost two decades later, she's still employed in that industry. The important thing may not be to give our children the same experiences we had, but to spark their curiosity. That quality, regardless of what field they pursue, will be of lifelong value.

(Hat tip to Steve Weyhrich)

Solo climbers

November 30th, 2015 9:58 AM
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Most Apple historians know the name Jean-Louis Gassée: former Director of European Operations at Apple Computer, founder of Be Inc., and the mysterious informant who told John Sculley not to get on a plane to China, lest he be ousted by Steve Jobs.

But Gassée's contributions to technology don't end in the 1980s or even 1990s: he writes a fascinating blog at The Monday Note, drawing upon his experiences and perspectives in the industry. This past summer, he penned a post of particular relevance to Apple II users. "A Salute To Solo Programmers" pays homage to the days when a single developer could create an entire program:

Once upon a time, we were awestruck by the "solo climber", the programmer who could single-handedly write a magnum opus on a barebones machine such as the Apple ][ with its 64 kilobytes of memory (yes, kilo — not mega, let alone gigabytes), and 8-bit processor running at 1MHz (again, mega not giga).

Gassée goes on to offer examples of , Bill Budge, Dan Bricklin, and Paul Lutus, who worked independently to create programs that changed the world. It's a phenomenon that's unlikely today:

Operating systems have become so sophisticated, so tentacular that a single human being can’t possibly internalize their workings and write application code that keeps us users walking on water. There’s no place for a 2015 Paul Lutus.

I encountered a similar sentiment at KansasFest 2013 when I interviewed Eric Shepherd, former senior technical writer for Be Inc.:

I don't know how much of this is just wistful reminiscing for simpler times. As Gassée later acknowledges, modern computers are not only capable of greater feats of engineering, but they still offer wonderful opportunities for solo development. Access to programming tools and resources is unprecedented, with classes being offered for free at local libraries, universities, and makerspaces, including to underserved communities and demographics. Motivated parties can build anything as simple as a Twitter bot to as complex as as a best-selling video game with a team of one.

I don't believe development has outgrown the boundaries of the Apple II — it's expanded them. But the time when "solo climbers" were the rule rather than the exception was unique, and we have much to thank those pioneers who led the way.

(Hat tip to Thomas Compter)

Real-life TRON

December 16th, 2010 11:52 AM
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Tomorrow sees the release of TRON Legacy, the sequel to one of my all-time favorite films. TRON, released in 1982, is a film that has pervaded all aspects of my professional and personal lives: I've written about it extensively, including for Juiced.GS; I included it in the curriculum for a film-studies course I taught; I even interviewed the creator of Photoshop, now of Industrial Light & Magic, on the impact the film had on Hollywood special effects.

TRON tank

A classic drawing of a classic film.

Why has this film captivated me so? Maybe because it took a silly concept — being digitized to play computer games — and treated it seriously. Flynn's journey to defeat the MCP has all the elements of a great tale: action, oppression, character development, heroism. When computers were new and often seen as nothing more than toys, TRON dared to show the power that programmers and their creations could wield.

One of my favorite scenes is one that demonstrates both intensity and teamwork: the light cycle duel. The high-speed game in which Flynn is sentenced to compete ends when he and his friends escape from the sanctioned playing area, proceeding to roam free where no program is allowed to tread.

As it turns out, such instances are not just the stuff of Hollywood. Software developer Daniel Wellman had a similar experience many decades ago.

On his blog, where more common topics of discussion are Java and Ruby programming, Wellman relates a youthful endeavor to create an Apple IIGS version of the light-cycle battle:

One day, when Marco and I were playing against two computer opponents, we forced one of the AI cycles to trap itself between its own walls and the bottom game border. Sensing an impending crash, it fired a missile, just like it always did whenever it was trapped. But this time was different —instead of firing at another trail, it fired at the game border, which looked like any other light cycle trail as far as the computer was concerned. The missile impacted with the border, leaving a cycle-sized hole, and the computer promptly took the exit and left the main playing field. Puzzled, we watched as the cycle drove through the scoring display at the bottom of the screen. It easily avoided the score digits and then drove off the screen altogether.

Shortly after, the system crashed.

Our minds reeled as we tried to understand what we had just seen. The computer had found a way to get out of the game. When a cycle left the game screen, it escaped into computer memory — just like in the movie.

Wellman goes on to explain the technical cause for this glitch and the advancements in computing technology that would make it unrepeatable today. It's a great tale that harkens back to the age of discovery, when computers were new and still somewhat mysterious.

Although Wellman's Apple II version of the game is not available for download, Eric Shepherd's adaptation, Trailblazers!, is. For a more modern take, TRON Evolution, the video-game tie-in to TRON Legacy, is available for most computer and game console platforms. And for something less virtual and more physical, you can buy a remote-controlled light cycle — or take a ride on a real light cycle.

With so much infiltration of TRON into pop culture, one can't help but wonder if perhaps these digital avatars did indeed escape the game grid — into our own world.

HyperCard for the Apple II, but not the iPhone

June 7th, 2010 12:21 PM
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The Escapist News Network is at it again. A recent episode of their satirical news show looked at motion-sensing input devices in video games and how the likes of Microsoft's Project Natal are replacing virtual hands with real ones, allowing users to manipulate digital environments with authentic gestures. At the video's 0:54 mark, ENN lamented the obsolescence with which this technology threatens traditional pointing devices:

ENN & Hypercard

Wave goodbye to the pointy hand.

It's not surprising to see such retro references in ENN, given that the show is produced by a troupe with a name like LoadingReadyRun:

LoadingReadyRun

Photo courtesy Gamebits.

More relevant to the Apple community is ENN's acknowledgement of HyperCard, which has recently been making the real news as well. Apple's capriciousness in allowing some third-party iPhone and iPad apps into the App Store and not others is well-known: One of my favorite podcasts spent several months jumping through Apple's whimsical hoops, while the infamous Baby Shaker app was approved (though later removed). But more damaging is Apple's curtailing of the iPhone as a creative tool. MIT's educational programming environment, Scratch, was denied admission to the App Store. HyperCard, the hypermedia software that originated on the Macintosh and was later ported to the Apple IIGS, is the most recent victim of Apple's barriers — even though earlier this year, Jobs himself pondered, "Something like HyperCard on the iPad? Yes, but someone would have to create it."

I can understand Apple's desire to keep the iPhone user-friendly and free of potential malware and other malicious code. Steve Jobs says that the only digital freedom he's destroying is "Freedom of programs that steal your data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom." But how realistic is this goal? I can't help but think that the more Jobs tightens his grip, the more star systems — er, apps — will slip through his fingers. As a result of the denial of the Scratch app one friend of mine has already sold his iPhone, calling prohibiting children access to educational software "morally reprehensible."

The solution? An Apple II far cheaper than an iPhone or iPad, and kids rarely care what CPU is powering their favorite software, so why not avoid these modern dilemmas by going back to HyperCard's roots? The Apple II version of the program is still available as both a free download and physical disks. Create a retro lab and teach your kids something about both programming and history for a fraction of the price.

In the meantime, check out the full ENN news report after the jump, which has other treats for retrocomputing enthusiasts. At time indices 1:30–2:25, Graham Stark relates the historical pains of being a Mac gamer, while neo-retro Atari commercials debut at 2:57–5:25.

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