TweetFollow Us on Twitter

Summer 91 - THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE

IF I HAD A HAMMER . . .

DAVE JOHNSON

[IMAGE 091-092_Dave's_column_ht1.GIF]

The people at ACOT SM (Apple's Classroom of Tomorrow) recently offered me the opportunity to work on another of their cool projects. I'll tell you all about the project, but--as usual--I'll also veer off into some wild philosophical speculation about computers and programming. So please fasten your seat belts and keep your head and arms inside the magazine at all times.

ACOT was working on a research project in mobile computing: by combining GRiDPAD ® computers (notebook MS-DOS machines with pen-based input) and tiny wireless modems, they had created a unit that could be carried around easily in the field and that was continuously connected with other identical units. The software they were developing to run on these machines was a sort of collaborative spreadsheet, so that many separate users could enter and edit data simultaneously, and everyone would be updated continuously. They were going to give these units to kids at an elementary school in Tucson, Arizona, and send 'em out in the desert to collect various kinds of environmental data (temperature, pH, location, number of cacti, and so on). The idea was this: the kids would be able to see not only their own data, but how their data fit into the big picture. Presumably learning is enhanced when a person can see multiple levels of meaning side by side, because the mental "level switching" that has to happen to discern interdependencies can happen faster.

In addition to the spreadsheet, they wanted a user-configurable graphing tool that would enable the user to plot any available value against any other, and to label the data points with a third variable to get a crude sort of a 3-D graph. This is another potentially powerful thing: being able to see the same set of data represented in two different ways side by side should enhance the understanding of the data and how it relates to reality. ACOT was running out of time and needed someone to write the graphing tool. In return for taking on this project I'd get a trip to Tucson to assist in the field trials. It sounded great: I love to program graphics, I have a good friend in Tucson I haven't seen in years, I'd get to learn all about a pen-based computer, and I'd have a chance to participate in some really interesting research.

Unfortunately, this was at a time when my workload, which waxes and wanes over the quarter, was on a steep rise. I had less than ten days to write this graphing tool, and I had to maintain some semblance of responsibility to my regular job. I knew perfectly well that if I took this project it would mean some late night and weekend hacking (something I increasingly try to avoid, at least for code that relates to work), and it would also mean working on an MS-DOS machine, something I had hoped to adroitly sidestep forever. Ah well, what's life without a little adventure? I took it.

Suddenly there I was, sitting in front of this strange machine made by Toshiba, all softly textured gray plastic and glowing plasma orange, surrounded by about thirty pounds of documentation, and the screen says something like "C:\GRID\BIN>." Yikes! What have I done? I'm a Macintosh guy. I can get around OK on UNIX ® , thanks to a class I took once, but I've never touched an MS-DOS machine in my life, believe it or not. Now I'm not going to write yet another MS-DOS slam fromthe Macintosh perspective, but there are two lasting impressions I want to share. First, it took me almost half an hour to copy one directory of files into another the first time I tried, and I'll never forget it. Second, batch files are pretty handy.

Mercifully, I didn't have to spend much time in MS-DOS itself. I used Borland's Turbo C ® to do the actual development work, and it's a lot like THINK C, my preferred compiler on the Macintosh. Also, the programming interface for the GRiDPAD is very Macintosh-like, so aside from some syntactic differences I felt pretty much at home writing the code. In order to finish on time, though, I did have to go on a rather severe coding binge.

You know that feeling that you get around the sixth or eighth or tenth hour of nonstop digital interaction? Strange tensions, displacement, a weird urgency enclosing every movement, feeling compelled and repulsed simultaneously . . . you've all been there, I'm sure. Isn't it bizarre that computers can create such visceral reactions? Maybe if you do anything nonstop for a long time like that it would feel the same, but somehow I don't think so.

Programming is, at least partially, the ability and/or desire to force your mind to be completely literal. I have a pet theory that the reason programming is so difficult for many people, and the reason it induces such a strange mind state, is that it's a fundamentally different way of thinking that's not at all natural and must be consciously donned, like a hat that doesn't fit. You know how it sometimes takes a while to get fully into it, and once you're there it takes a while to come out of it? My wife still struggles with that: she doesn't understand that I am in a sort of trance, holding a whole strange world inside my head that is at odds with reality. She'll ask me a simple question, like what should we eat for dinner or have I let the dogs out recently, and it sometimes takes a full ten or fifteen seconds before I can react coherently. And it's not that I'm ignoring her. I just don't have room in my poor overburdened brain for the real world: it's been crowded out by the digital one. And unfortunately, by coming out long enough to answer her, I've lost a lot of ground. It will take another twenty minutes to get back to where I was. I don't think, though, that programming has to do that to people forever: it's just that our method of telling computers what to do is still very crude and cumbersome.

How can computers be so . . . I don't know, profound? I mean, they're only machines, right? And they only do one thing really well--they can add--but boy, are they good at it! They can add circles around anything else on the planet. Big circles. And somehow that makes them into what they are: these fluid, configurable, multipurpose tools and toys. You forget, and rightly so, that they're just adding machines on steroids. I once heard Todd Rundgren give a talk at a local SIGGRAPH meeting, and he made the point that computing itself is a poorly understood thing. He compared computers to the handles on tools: if you put a handle on a rock, you've got a hammer. Computers are like handles, but we don't yet know what they're handles to, and I suspect that we won't really know for a long time, if ever. It sure is a lot of fun, though, to grab that handle and start swinging!

Well, I can't tell you the end of the ACOT story, 'cause it hasn't happened yet, but maybe a future column will pick up where this one leaves off. My little graphing tool plugged into the spreadsheet with a minimum of hassle, thankfully, and it seems to be just what they wanted. Next week we get to hand our newly forged handle to the kids and see what they bash into. It might be anticlimactic-- maybe they'll just treat it like a fancy pad of paper--but maybe, just maybe, their minds will light up when they grab on.

RECOMMENDED READING

  • Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas by Seymour Papert (Basic Books, Inc., 1980).
  • Good Dog, Carl by Alexandra Day (The Green Tiger Press, 1985).
  • Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collab-oration by Michael Schrage (Random House, 1990).

DAVE JOHNSON has the best toy collection of anyone around. He says that his favorites either make cool noises, fly, do something surprising, or have just the right number of exclamation points in the product description. His Humming Bee (a rubber band stretched over a cheap wooden frame on the end of a string) hums when you whirl it over your head; Mike Stone's Amazing dip-er-doTM Stunt Plane defies gravity (it's a weighted paper plane that only does tight loops, so no matter which way you throw it, it always comes back to you); and the rattleback-- this one's so surprising that Scientific American had to publish something about it (see the article in Roundabout: The Physics of Rotation in the Everyday World by Jearl Walker, 1985). But his favorite toy of all is his Macintosh, because it makes cool noises, flies (well, figuratively), and does surprising things all at once. When he's not playing with his (and everyone else's) toys, he enjoys redwoods (wherever he may find them), dogs (his own in particular), clear blue (sky and water), escapist fiction (science and otherwise), and complex mechanical contraptions. *

 

Community Search:
MacTech Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

WhiteCap 6.7.1 - Visual plug-in for iTun...
WhiteCap is a sleek and sophisticated music visualizer and screensaver that features futuristic, wireframe mesh visuals with dynamic backgrounds and colors. WhiteCap contains thousands of visual... Read more
DiskMaker X 6.0 rc5 - Make a bootable OS...
DiskMaker X (was Lion DiskMaker) helps you to build a bootable drive from the official OS X installer app (the one you download from the Mac App Store). It detects the OS X Install program with... Read more
Lyn 1.9 - Lightweight image browser and...
Lyn is a fast, lightweight image browser and viewer designed for photographers, graphic artists, and Web designers. Featuring an extremely versatile and aesthetically pleasing interface, it delivers... Read more
MacFamilyTree 8.2.1 - Create and explore...
MacFamilyTree gives genealogy a facelift: modern, interactive, convenient and fast. Explore your family tree and your family history in a way generations of chroniclers before you would have loved.... Read more
LaunchBar 6.9 - Powerful file/URL/email...
LaunchBar is an award-winning productivity utility that offers an amazingly intuitive and efficient way to search and access any kind of information stored on your computer or on the Web. It provides... Read more
LaunchBar 6.9 - Powerful file/URL/email...
LaunchBar is an award-winning productivity utility that offers an amazingly intuitive and efficient way to search and access any kind of information stored on your computer or on the Web. It provides... Read more
MacFamilyTree 8.2.1 - Create and explore...
MacFamilyTree gives genealogy a facelift: modern, interactive, convenient and fast. Explore your family tree and your family history in a way generations of chroniclers before you would have loved.... Read more
Spotify 1.0.57.474. - Stream music, crea...
Spotify is a streaming music service that gives you on-demand access to millions of songs. Whether you like driving rock, silky R&B, or grandiose classical music, Spotify's massive catalogue puts... Read more
VOX 2.8.26 - Music player that supports...
VOX just sounds better! The beauty is in its simplicity, yet behind the minimal exterior lies a powerful music player with a ton of features and support for all audio formats you should ever need.... Read more
beaTunes 5.0.1 - Organize your music col...
beaTunes is a full-featured music player and organizational tool for music collections. How well organized is your music library? Are your artists always spelled the same way? Any R.E.M. vs REM?... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

This War of Mine gets a new ending and m...
This War of Mine just got a big new update, featuring free DLC that adds a new ending to the game, among other exciting changes. The update is celebrating the game's two-year release anniversary. Apart from the new ending, which will be quite... | Read more »
Summon eight new heroes in Fire Emblem H...
Nintendo keeps coming at us with Fire Emblem Heroes updates, and it doesn't look like that trend is stopping anytime soon. The folks behind the game have just announced the new War of the Clerics Voting Gauntlet, expected to start next Tuesday. [... | Read more »
The best deals on the App Store this wee...
iOS publishers are pulling out all the stops this week -- there's a huge number of seriously great games at discounted prices this week. Let's not waste any time and get right down to business. [Read more] | Read more »
The House of da Vinci (Games)
The House of da Vinci 1.0.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0.0 (iTunes) Description: Enter The House of Da Vinci, a new must-try 3D puzzle adventure game. Solve mechanical puzzles, discover hidden... | Read more »
Solve the disappearance of history’s gre...
Blue Brain Games invites you to indulge in an immersive hands-on 3D puzzle adventure in similar vein to The Room series, with its debut release The House of Da Vinci. Set during the historic period of the Italian Renaissance (when Leonardo himself... | Read more »
Age of Rivals (Games)
Age of Rivals 3.3 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $.99, Version: 3.3 (iTunes) Description: Deep civilization-building strategy in a fast-paced card game! | Read more »
Panthera Frontier (Games)
Panthera Frontier 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $4.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: | Read more »
Angry Birds Evolution beginner's gu...
Angry Birds changes things up a fair bit in its latest iteration, Angry Birds Evolution. The familiar sling-shot physics mechanics are still there, but the game now features team-based gameplay, RPG elements, and a new top-down view. With all of... | Read more »
Sega Forever is for the retro game fans
Sega is launching a new retro games service titled Sega Forever, in a move that's sure to delight games enthusiasts with a bit of nostalgia. Sega's releasing five classic games for free. The titles include Sonic the Hedgehog, Phantasy Star II,... | Read more »
The Little Acre (Games)
The Little Acre 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Games Price: $2.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

ABBYY TextGrabber 6 for iOS Implements Instan...
ABBYY has announced the release of TextGrabber 6.0.0, an important feature update to the company’s productivity app developed for iOS and Android devices. TextGrabber 6.0 now offers Real-Time... Read more
vPhone, First Smartphone That Can’t Be Lost,...
Austin, Texas based Hypori has introduced the vPhone, a virtual smartphone that affords every business user the benefits of separate work and personal phones, conveniently delivered on a single... Read more
Save this weekend with 2016 refurbished MacBo...
Apple has dropped prices on Certified Refurbished 2016 15″ and 13″ MacBook Pros by as much as $590 off original MSRP. An Apple one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free: -... Read more
New 27-inch 3.4GHz iMac on sale for $1699, sa...
MacMall has the new 2017 27″ 3.4GHz iMac (MNE92LL/A) in stock and on sale for $1699 including free shipping. Their price is $100 off MSRP. Read more
Clearance 2016 MacBook Pros available for up...
B&H Photo has clearance 2016 13″ and 15″ MacBook Pros in stock today and on sale for up to $400 off original MSRP. Shipping is free, and B&H charges NY & NJ sales tax only: - 15″ 2.7GHz... Read more
Apple Ranks 9th In comScore Top 50 U.S. Digit...
comScore, Inc. has released its monthly ranking of U.S. online activity at the top digital media properties for May 2017 based on data from comScore Media Metrix Multi-Platform. * Entity has... Read more
10.5-inch iPad Pros available for up to $20 o...
B&H Photo has the new 2017 10.5″ iPad Pros available for up to $20 off MSRP including free shipping plus NY & NJ sales tax only: - 64GB iPad Pro WiFi: $649 - 256GB iPad Pro WiFi: $749 - 512GB... Read more
Three Off-The-Beaten-Track iOS Apps That Dese...
One of the great things about using iPads and iPhones is the vast selection of apps available for most anything you want or need to do. The three outlined in this article have been in my core app... Read more
Apple No. 1 Spot In Gartner Top 100 Vendors i...
Gartner, Inc. has unveiled the top global 100 vendors in IT in 2016 based on their revenue across IT (excluding communication services) and component market segments. In the Gartner Global Top 100:... Read more
Clearance iMacs available for up to $300 off...
B&H Photo has clearance 21″ and 27″ Apple iMacs available starting at $949, each including free shipping plus NY & NJ sales tax only: - 27″ 3.3GHz iMac 5K: $1999 $300 off original MSRP - 27″... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* News Product Marketing Mgr., Publish...
…organizational consensus on strategy and vision for publisher tools, authoring, and Apple News Format.Carries this strategy and vision across the organization to Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions - Apple,...
Job Description: Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, Read more
Security Data Analyst - *Apple* Information...
…data sources need to be collected to allow Information Security to better protect Apple employees and customers from a wide range of threats.Act as the subject matter Read more
Lead *Apple* Solutions Consultant - Apple I...
…integrity, and trust.Success Metrics/Key Performance Indicators:Quantitative* Year over Year growth in Apple Product and Beyond the Box sales in the assigned Point of Read more
*Apple* Solutions Consultant till v%u00E5r...
…ethics, integrity, and trust.Success Metrics/Key Performance Indicators:QuantitativeYear over Year growth in Apple Product and Beyond the Box sales in the assigned Point Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.