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. *

 
AAPL
$102.94
Apple Inc.
+0.44
MSFT
$45.02
Microsoft Corpora
-0.41
GOOG
$573.81
Google Inc.
+2.21

MacTech Search:
Community Search:

Software Updates via MacUpdate

Mac DVDRipper Pro 5.0 - Copy, backup, an...
Mac DVDRipper Pro is the DVD backup solution that lets you protect your DVDs from scratches, save your batteries by reading your movies from your hard disk, manage your collection with just a few... Read more
pwSafe 3.1 - Secure password management...
pwSafe provides simple and secure password management across devices and computers. pwSafe uses iCloud to keep your password databases backed-up and synced between Macs and iOS devices. It is... Read more
StatsBar 1.8 - Monitor system processes...
StatsBar gives you a comprehensive and detailed analysis of the following areas of your Mac: CPU usage Memory usage Disk usage Network and bandwidth usage Battery power and health (MacBooks only)... Read more
Path Finder 6.5.5 - Powerful, award-winn...
Path Finder is a file browser that combines the familiar Finder interface with the powerful utilities and innovative features. Just a small selection of the Path Finder 6 feature set: Dual pane... Read more
QuarkXPress 10.2.1 - Desktop publishing...
With QuarkXPress, you can communicate in all the ways you need to -- and always look professional -- in print and digital media, all in a single tool. Features include: Easy to Use -- QuarkXPress is... Read more
Skype 6.19.0.450 - Voice-over-internet p...
Skype allows you to talk to friends, family and co-workers across the Internet without the inconvenience of long distance telephone charges. Using peer-to-peer data transmission technology, Skype... Read more
VueScan 9.4.41 - Scanner software with a...
VueScan is a scanning program that works with most high-quality flatbed and film scanners to produce scans that have excellent color fidelity and color balance. VueScan is easy to use, and has... Read more
Cloud 3.0.0 - File sharing from your men...
Cloud is simple file sharing for the Mac. Drag a file from your Mac to the CloudApp icon in the menubar and we take care of the rest. A link to the file will automatically be copied to your clipboard... Read more
LibreOffice 4.3.1.2 - Free Open Source o...
LibreOffice is an office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, drawing tool) compatible with other major office suites. The Document Foundation is coordinating development and... Read more
SlingPlayer Plugin 3.3.20.505 - Browser...
SlingPlayer is the screen interface software that works hand-in-hand with the hardware inside the Slingbox to make your TV viewing experience just like that at home. It features an array of... Read more

Latest Forum Discussions

See All

The Manhattan Project Review
The Manhattan Project Review By Andrew Fisher on September 2nd, 2014 Our Rating: :: ROCKET SCIENCEUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad The Manhattan Project offers a great Euro-style gameplay experience, but it is totally... | Read more »
Rhonna Designs Magic (Photography)
Rhonna Designs Magic 1.0 Device: iOS Universal Category: Photography Price: $1.99, Version: 1.0 (iTunes) Description: Want to sprinkle *magic* on your photos? With RD Magic, you can add colors, filters, light leaks, bokeh, edges,... | Read more »
This Week at 148Apps: August 25-29, 2014
Shiny Happy App Reviews   | Read more »
Qube Kingdom – Tips, Tricks, Strategies,...
Qube Kingdom is a tower defense game from DeNA. You rally your troops – magicians, archers, knights, barbarians, and others – and fight against an evil menace looking to dominate your kingdom of tiny squares. Planning a war isn’t easy, so here are a... | Read more »
Qube Kingdom Review
Qube Kingdom Review By Nadia Oxford on August 29th, 2014 Our Rating: :: KIND OF A SQUARE KINGDOMUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Qube Kingdom has cute visuals, but it’s a pretty basic tower defense game at heart.   | Read more »
Fire in the Hole Review
Fire in the Hole Review By Rob Thomas on August 29th, 2014 Our Rating: :: WALK THE PLANKUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Seafoam’s Fire in the Hole looks like a bright, 8-bit throwback, but there’s not enough booty to... | Read more »
Alien Creeps TD is Now Available Worldwi...
Alien Creeps TD is Now Available Worldwide Posted by Ellis Spice on August 29th, 2014 [ permalink ] Universal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad | Read more »
Dodo Master Review
Dodo Master Review By Jordan Minor on August 29th, 2014 Our Rating: :: NEST EGGiPad Only App - Designed for the iPad Dodo Master is tough but fair, and that’s what makes it a joy to play.   | Read more »
Motorsport Manager Review
Motorsport Manager Review By Lee Hamlet on August 29th, 2014 Our Rating: :: MARVELOUS MANAGEMENTUniversal App - Designed for iPhone and iPad Despite its depth and sense of tactical freedom, Motorsport Manager is one of the most... | Read more »
Motorsport Manager – Beginner Tips, Tric...
The world of Motorsport management can be an unforgiving and merciless one, so to help with some of the stress that comes with running a successful race team, here are a few hints and tips to leave your opponents in the dust. | Read more »

Price Scanner via MacPrices.net

Apple refurbished iPads available for up to $...
Apple is offering Certified Refurbished iPad Airs for up to $140 off MSRP. Apple’s one-year warranty is included with each model, and shipping is free. Stock tends to come and go with some of these... Read more
Are We Now In The Post-Post-PC Era?
A longtime and thoroughgoing laptop aficionado, I was more than a little dismayed by Steve Jobs’s declaration back in 2010 when he sprang the iPad on an unsuspecting world. that we’d entered a “post-... Read more
PC Outlook Improves, But 2014 Shipments Still...
According to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly PC Tracker, worldwide PC shipments are expected to fall by -3.7 percent in 2014. To hat’s actually an improvement from the... Read more
IDC Lowers Tablet Sales Projections for 2014...
Following a second consecutive quarter of softer than expected demand, International Data Corporation (IDC) has lowered its worldwide tablet plus 2-in-1 forecast for 2014 to 233.1 million units. The... Read more
Apple now offering refurbished 21-inch 1.4GHz...
The Apple Store is now offering Apple Certified Refurbished 21″ 1.4GHz iMacs for $929 including free shipping plus Apple’s standard one-year warranty. Their price is $170 off the cost of new models,... Read more
Save $50 on the 2.5GHz Mac mini, on sale for...
B&H Photo has the 2.5GHz Mac mini on sale for $549.99 including free shipping. That’s $50 off MSRP, and B&H will also include a free copy of Parallels Desktop software. NY sales tax only. Read more
Save up to $300 on an iMac with Apple refurbi...
The Apple Store has Apple Certified Refurbished iMacs available for up to $300 off the cost of new models. Apple’s one-year warranty is standard, and shipping is free. These are the best prices on... Read more
The Rise of Phablets
Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group, a businesses and technology consulting firm focused solely on the financial services industry, has released an infographic depicting the convergence of... Read more
Bad Driver Database App Allows Good Drivers t...
Bad Driver Database 1.4 by Facile Group is a new iOS and Android app that lets users instantly input and see how many times a careless, reckless or just plain stupid driver has been added to the... Read more
Eddy – Cloud Music Player for iPhone/iPad Fre...
Ukraine based CapableBits announces the release of Eddy, its tiny, but smart and powerful cloud music player for iPhone and iPad that allows users to stream or download music directly from cloud... Read more

Jobs Board

*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
*Apple* Retail - Multiple Positions (US) - A...
Sales Specialist - Retail Customer Service and Sales Transform Apple Store visitors into loyal Apple customers. When customers enter the store, you're also the Read more
Senior Event Manager, *Apple* Retail Market...
…This senior level position is responsible for leading and imagining the Apple Retail Team's global event strategy. Delivering an overarching brand story; in-store, Read more
All contents are Copyright 1984-2011 by Xplain Corporation. All rights reserved. Theme designed by Icreon.