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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. *

 
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