Summer 91 - THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE
THE VETERAN NEOPHYTE
IF I HAD A HAMMER . . .
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
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
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.
- 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. *