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)

Lode Runner Classic comes to iOS

August 27th, 2012 11:28 AM
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Mike Maginnis and I were driving home from KansasFest 2012, half-listening to the Major Nelson podcast, when I thought I heard news of something called "Lode Runner Classic", featuring the Apple II game's original 150 levels. Since this was primarily an Xbox 360 podcast, and I consider Lode Runner one of the best games ever, I was excited by the prospect of a follow-up to 2009's Lode Runner sequel. I love remakes and reboots, but there's just something about going back to the source that can be extremely satisfying.

I rewound the podcast to hear the details I'd missed… and alas: the game was released for Windows Phone 7, a mobile operating system I'll never have access to.

Yesterday, Kotaku ran a "one month later, this game is still great" review. As an aside, the author, Mike Fahey, briefly mentions: "Nearly three decades later, Tozai Games has released Lode Runner Classic for Windows Phone 7, with versions coming soon for iOS and Android."

WHAT?! iOS version? Truly??

The developer's official Web site says only: "Don't worry, Android and iOS fans — your versions will be releasing soon with shared leaderboards, country-code bragging rights and achievements!"

Okay. I can wait. After all, it was nearly two years between when Lode Runner for Xbox 360 was announced and it was released. I just need to remember to breathe. In the meantime, I'm glad to know I'm not the only one excited by this release. Said the franchise's creator, Douglas E. Smith, on the game's official Web site:

When Lode Runner came out on the Apple II, the last thing I expected was that the game would be alive and kicking on platforms as advanced as today's smartphones. It's really gratifying to me that so many people are still interested in the game.

And, as the Kotaku critic commented:

Thirty years down the road I feel I've developed a much deeper appreciation for Lode Runner than I had as a child. This seemingly simple title is actually a rather complex mechanism crafted specifically to hand me my [butt]. I've not gotten any better at it, but at least now I understand my failure is a result of brilliant programming.

Apple's return to education

January 23rd, 2012 1:51 PM
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Last week, Apple announced iBooks textbooks and iBooks author, two iPad applications designed to redefine education.

Although I still favor physical literature for leisure reading, the elimination of physical textbooks in favor of e-books has been a long time coming, as outlined in this 2009 column by Mike Elgan who proposed that "education reform should begin by burning all the textbooks." And Apple may be just the company to get the ball rolling. Some pundits are seeing this move as a return to Apple's origin: the iPhone and iPad, which have been aimed at consumers and the enterprise, overlooked that "schools have been one of Apple's biggest market since the days of the Apple II", writes Ryan Faas for Computerworld.

Others are less optimistic, saying that Apple's methodology is fundamentally flawed by being based on false assumptions and failing to address long-standing issues. Glenn Fleishman, a senior contributor to Macworld, remembers hearing these same promises in the days of the Apple II and cites a nine-year-old study that questions the value of technology in education (in contrast to a recent pilot program by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):

It is not yet clear how much computer-based programs can contribute to the improvement of instruction in American schools. Although many researchers have carried out controlled evaluations of technology effects during the last three decades, the evaluation literature still seems patchy.

Lindsey Turrentine, editor-in-chief of CNET Reviews, says that no matter how elegant the software, the problem of hardware remains the same as it has the past three decades: "There was an Apple II in my third-grade classroom. We used it to play Oregon Trail. Then it died. Therein lies the problem with iPads in high school: devices break."

iPads are expensive, and they do break. And it may be true that Apple is simply trading one set of problems (the expense, weight, and outdatedness of textbooks) for another. But much of Apple's early success was found in the education market; "Education has always been a big part of Apple's DNA," said Eddy Cue, senior VP of Internet software and services, in the above video. Millions of today's adults may not be able to tell you exactly what they learned by playing Oregon Trail, but they remember the experience and the introduction it gave them to the computers that demand familiarity from today's workforce. Don't today's students deserve the same opportunities with today's tools that my generation had with the Apple II?

Another World for iOS

November 10th, 2011 10:54 AM
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I don't mean for this to be "iOS Gaming Week" here on Apple II Bits — the impressive Touch Arcade already has the corner on that market. But I do want to follow up on a post from last March, in which I eagerly anticipated Out of this World (OotW) coming to iOS. I greatly enjoyed this creative (albeit brief) game on the Super NES, which shared the same processor as the IIGS, making a port to the Apple II a no-brainer. A more accessible rendition of this classic game would be welcome.

Since I don't actually own an iOS device, the port fell off my radar, replaced by news and reviews of From Dust, an Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) game released this past July by OotW creator Éric Chahi. Great, I thought — has he been so swamped with this new title that he's forgotten his roots?

Nope! Out of this World for iOS was released last month under the name Another World for $4.99.

Out of this World

Can you bring scientist Lester Knight Chaykin home?

If Out of this World leaves you hungry for more, there's no news on a similar port of the much rarer sequel, Heart of the Alien. But you can play OotW's spiritual successor, Flashback, on iOS for $1.99.

(Hat tip to Carrington Vanston of the Retro Computing Roundtable)

Wizardry comes to iOS

November 7th, 2011 12:14 PM
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Back in March, I wrote that Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls, a new entry in the classic RPG series, was coming exclusively to the PlayStation 3's PlayStation Network (or the PS3 PSN). But in this age of multiple gaming platforms, it is rarely economically feasible to dedicate one's product to a single audience. It therefore is only mildly surprising that Wizardry is now available for iOS (though, oddly enough, not optimized for iPad). Behold the opening sequence and 15 minutes of gameplay:

The game, released on November 3, is a free download, but the press release states a caveat: "While players will initially be able to level their characters up to level five and explore the entire first floor of the 'Dungeon of Trials,' brave adventurers who want to dig deeper into the depths of Labyrinth of Lost Souls will be able to unlock the full Wizardry experience for $9.99 via In-App Purchase."

A bit too expensive for you? Then kick it old school for just $1.99 with Akalabeth, an iOS version of the precursor to Ultima. Though not the same series as Wizardry, they share a common history as predominantly first-person RPGs. Or go the free route on classic hardware with similar to Silvern Castle for the Apple II. Sounds like the best of all fantasy worlds to me.

(Hat tip to Eli Milchman)

Out of this World for iOS

March 10th, 2011 9:06 AM
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In the latest episode of Open Apple, Mike and I noted both that the 25th Game Developers Conference was held last week in San Francisco, and that iOS is becoming a great platform for retrogaming. I didn't realize at the time that there was a recent intersection of those two topics: Out of this World, a classic Apple IIGS game, is coming to iOS.

As reported by Touch Arcade, Éric Chahi, the game's original developer, made the announcement at GDC that Out of this World, known overseas as Another World, will arrive on the iPad and iPhone at an unspecified future date.

At the time of its 1991 release, when 16-bit graphics weren't quite realistic enough, this puzzle-platform game from Interplay used rotoscoping techniques to transport the earthly scientist Lester Knight Chaykin to an alien planet. Each non-scrolling screen presented a different puzzle and a part of the narrative of his adventure to return home. Surrounded by foreign technology and unintelligible lifeforms, Lester's journey is one of beauty and inscrutability.

I enjoyed OotW on the Super Nintendo but found it a relatively short game once mastered. In my recent attempts to replay it, I found it rather obtuse and far from what modern gamers would expect from what is ostensibly an action game. In my former career as a high school teacher of technical writing, I thought OotW would be a perfect case study: give it to students without instruction, and have them write the documentation from scratch. Trying to decipher the game in both internal and external contexts would've been fascinating. Unfortunately, such an assignment was impossible due to predating the game's many freeware ports.

I did eventually beat this game on the SNES but was dismayed to find its cliffhanger of an ending unresolved; the squel, Heart of the Alien, was released only for the ill-fated Sega CD console system, limiting its accessibility. But maybe, if the series' first half sells well on iOS, it won't be long before we finally see the resolution of Lester's quest.

UPDATE: The video, audio, and slides from this GDC presentation are now available.

(Hat tip to Blake Patterson and Jason Scott)