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Why Johnny Can't Code 686

GoCanes writes "Salon has an article named 'Why Johnny Can't Code,' an interesting examination of the dearth of line programming languages available today. At first I wanted to read this and say aha, here's a simple line oriented language that's available through open source, but after reading the article I couldn't find any. And being an old fart, I remember the days spent with edlin and basic."
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Why Johnny Can't Code

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  • Kids today...... :-) (Score:5, Interesting)

    by BWJones ( 18351 ) * on Thursday September 14, 2006 @07:59AM (#16103013) Homepage Journal
    I have been thinking it is due to a few reasons. First off, it seems that math education is sorely lacking in many college students. We are waaaay off the mark here with lots of remedial work being necessary for entering college students and this is having a major effect on peoples ability to develop algorithms. The next major reason is lack of communication skills and writing skills. When I was a grade school kid learning BASIC, we had it drilled into our heads that we had to comment our code and explain exactly what it is that we were planning. This was done to help us learn how to think through a problem, but also to get us to help communicate what it is that we were trying to do with our code. Finally, it seems that many students have gotten lazy and are simply looking for an easy way out and not wanting to code line by line.

    • by BWJones ( 18351 ) * on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:11AM (#16103067) Homepage Journal
      So, just in case some of our students read this (its always weird when your students say "I saw your comment on Slashdot yesterday"), I should have mentioned that there are exceptions to the rule (obviously) like the developers who are developing some of our image processing code right now here at the Univ. of Utah Scientific Computing Institute and our collaborators at the UCSB Center for Bio-Image Informatics. These folks are doing amazing things as is the neuroscience grad student in our lab who routinely amazes me with his ability to code. But these folks are in these graduate programs and environments because they are interested in solving innovative and new problems and they enjoy a challenge. The vast majority of students who are learning to code are not interested in asking questions or doing hard things. Interestingly, a large number of students it seems coming into CS programs at the undergraduate level want to program games, but have no idea how much math and algorithm development goes on when one is crafting new material. It's easy to use someone else's engine or physics models, but coming up with your own is harder and requires some talent and dedication to learning your craft.

      • by David Off ( 101038 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:42AM (#16103273) Homepage
        I wonder if this CS is a branch of mathematics approach also puts people off. Personally I think there is much less mathematics going on at the programming level than college lecturers like to think. It is like the old saw that a dog that catches a ball is solving a 2nd order differential equation in real time. No its not, it is catching a ball. Similarly a program is more a logical story than some mathematical adventure.

        It may gall college profs who are still trying to foist formal methods on people but setting a high mathematical barrier to entry on CS courses and having a high maths content is a bad thing.

        As an example I have a first in Microelectronics from a British University (a course which had a large syllabus covering 'C' and machine language) but only just scraped the 'C' grade needed in mathematics as an entrance to this course despite having 'A's in Electronics and Computing. I doubt I have used any maths much beyond British 'O' level standard since and certainly the maths knowledge required as entry to a degree level CS course is too wide and deep. It is all geared up to people going onto research rather than the real world. You don't need to be an expert in set theory to write the level of SQL required by most applications.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          Isn't it true that you have no idea what you'll be programming in the future. I always thought the point of all the math was to provide a solid background to support you in whatever you do. Your personal experience is insightful, but I wouldn't try to assume it's applicable across the board.
          • by IamTheRealMike ( 537420 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @09:38AM (#16103774)
            Isn't it true that you have no idea what you'll be programming in the future.

            No, it's not true. 10 years ago most desktop software was written in C++ and Java - a hugely simplified form of it - was the next big thing. Fast forward 10 years and most desktop software is written in C++. Most new languages and tools are pretty similar to old ones. Radically different toolsets like pure functional languages have never taken off, and show no signs of doing so. The best programmers are still the ones with the most experience, not the ones who know the most pure maths.

            I always thought the point of all the math was to provide a solid background to support you in whatever you do.

            The point of all the math is to make the subject sufficiently academic that it is acceptable to universities, who are scared by anything vocational.

            The skills that everyday programmers need to do everyday jobs are more around understanding the tools they'll be working with - how a computer actually works, what version control is, how to architect software to be modular, what regular expressions are, how to work with debuggers etc. These are the skills that university graduates routinely lack, and routinely get nailed in job interviews by.

            Bits of the math are useful - being able to work in base 2 and base 16 for instance, or having a basic understanding of time/space complexity. Unfortunately most courses focus on big O notation to a ridiculous extent, meaning that it's not uncommon to see "data structure abuse", where some extremely fancy and theoretically fast algorithm is used, but due to some awkward practical factor like poor locality or excessive memory usage ends up being slow.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Doctor Memory ( 6336 )

              The point of all the math is to make the subject sufficiently academic that it is acceptable to universities

              Not at all, the math is there to explain why things work the way they do, and why an O(n log n) routine is better than an O(n^2) one. It's also handy to be able to recognize an NP problem, before you agree to write the solution in two weeks! ;)

              Seriously, I can't imagine developing software without at least a passing familiarity with discrete math. It's not that hard (I found it easier than trig, but

            • by Bender0x7D1 ( 536254 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @01:01PM (#16105903)
              I both agree and disagree with you.

              I agree that this applies to programmers.

              I disagree that this applies to software engineers.

              There is a big difference between the two.

              The point of all the math is to make the subject sufficiently academic that it is acceptable to universities, who are scared by anything vocational.

              Universities are not scared by anything vocational. However, it doesn't fit with their role in education. If you want a vocation, go to a community college or something else. They will teach you the "hot" programming language, environment, skills, etc. However, these things are fleeting. What are the hot areas today? Ruby on Rails? Security? LAMP? What was it 5 years ago? Java? .NET? You can't target "hot areas" in a 4 year program. The hot area is over by the time you get finished.

              Now, if you get a solid grounding in theory and skills that apply to different areas, it doesn't matter what the hot area is. You can use your foundation and learn that area quickly. If you have a solid background in programming, including different languages, picking up a new language is easy. If you have a good grounding in networks and OSes, then picking up security is much easier. So, universities don't aim for the hot areas, they aim for giving you the skills and tools to be successful in the long run.
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Llywelyn ( 531070 )
              The people I've met who have had vocational programming are generally lousy programmers. Training in mathematics and engineering is training in problem solving--an invaluable skill--and the mathematics gives one skills that they may never use or they may need just to get in the door to a place that uses them.

              I cannot emphasize enough the quote from the CAIP quarterly on mathematics, paraphrasing: "I tell my students to listen carefully when they decide to take their last mathematics class. They may be abl
        • by lhbtubajon ( 469284 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @10:36AM (#16104291)
          This was EXACTLY my experience at The University of Texas, where CS is really applied mathematics, with a focus on AI. I just wanted to learn to code cool shit. After three years of learning very little I could practically apply, and being bored absolutely stiff (while getting my ass kicked by the maths), I bailed out of CS in favor of an entirely different college (within UT).

          I don't begrudge UT for wanted to offer an applied mathematics program in their CS department, but I didn't want that, and was basically told that if I wanted to have a life where I did cool stuff with computers, I had to learn Diff. EQ, calculus-based engineering physics, and a whole lot of theory and proofs of CS (emphasis on the _Science_) concepts that perhaps .01% of real-world programmers actually give a shit about.

          Another concern I have with university-level CS programs is that not a whole lot of actual TEACHING goes on. Lower-level courses are "taught" in giant halls where ethereal profs tend to cater to students who already knew the material before they got to high school. It just goes downhill from there. I didn't realize how bad it was until I got to another department where they actually started with the basics, _taught_ the fundamentals, and developed students through to competency.

          It's like CS departments got lazy on teaching because they have such a wealth of students who have been dicking around with this stuff since they were 5, just because it was fun.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Rimbo ( 139781 )
            I had the exact same kind of education from the University of Texas that you had. I graduated, got a Master's degree, and made my way into the work world, where I've been full-time employed for seven years.

            Working on embedded devices right now. Sometimes I'm doing web programming, sometimes I'm writing apps, sometimes I'm writing device driver stuff. We also have a PC app that I've worked on that communicates with the embedded devices -- a rich client. Because of my education, I'm able to move seamlessl
    • by dc29A ( 636871 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:19AM (#16103110)
      When I was in college, we started off learning different assemblers (PC and Mainframe), then we moved to C and C++. The same college, now starts teaching kids some RAD languages, Java, C# and whatnot. IMO, new students no longer learn the basis of the computer, how the CPU works, how compilers work and how interpreted code works.

      One of my most memorable classes was the C++ class when the teacher started off by teaching how compilers actually compile your code. Directly from this you could easy see what code to write and what not to write. Those classes have been replaced by Java, where you don't even worry about resource leaks. Hey, garbage collector takes care of it!

      To make good programmers, one has to understand the basis of it. Compilers, C and Assembler. If all they learn today, well mostly OOP stuff, they won't learn the basis well. And they will end up writing bloated code left and right.
      • by popeyethesailor ( 325796 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:36AM (#16103222)
        Devil's advocate time: Remember Computer science isnt about the plumbing; its about abstraction, algorithms and problem solving ability. Modern platforms allow modeling and thinking at a much higher level - instead of focussing on low-level arcana.

        For example, lets take the author's wishlist - creating Pong. I'd wager that the game can be written in a lot more expressive manner in any higher-level language, compared to basic. Poking different screen locations arent a lot of fun; gorilla.bas gets old very soon. Kids like instant gratification(adults too!)- higher level languages are ideal for this.
        • by Gr8Apes ( 679165 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:51AM (#16103323)
          Unfortunately, without understanding the basics, all your higher level abstractions get you is unmaintainable abstractions. Understanding the base concepts is necessary to know when to abstract at higher levels, because then you'll understand what that higher level abstraction does for you.

          Does this mean you need to know about peeks and pokes? In today's world, I no longer think so (and there's that huge collective sigh of relief from students everywhere). But you should definitely understand how your language handles memory, even if you're coding in a language with GC capabilities. It keeps you from churning memory and slowing down your app to a crawl.
      • by asifyoucare ( 302582 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:40AM (#16103256)
        Part of the problem is that projects suitable for newbie programmers are no longer interesting to those programmers. They've been brought up in a world of sophisticated graphics and they want to be able to produce the same very early in their learning process. That isn't possible for them, so they lose interest.

        Back when I was learning I thought it was cool to be able to make a simple text guessing game, and making ASCII animation on a Commodore PET was just awesome. It'd be considered totally lame today.

        • by CastrTroy ( 595695 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @09:07AM (#16103451) Homepage
          Do kids today that are interested in soccer not think it's fun because they can't bend it like Beckham the first time they kick the ball? Do people who like woodworking stop because they can't build a perfectly constructed table and chairs, and instead can only build a crappy bird house? I don't think that's really the problem here. Sure there's going to be some kids who are discouraged because they can't program Doom 3 the first time they sit down and code. But those probably aren't the kids who would end up having a career in computers anyway.
      • by Shaper_pmp ( 825142 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @09:23AM (#16103607)
        What does learning about the underlying system help with in programming?

        Architecting beautiful code? Nope.
        Learning powerful, high-level abstractions? Nope.

        Programming efficiently to the hardware.

        With computers getting ever-faster and more advanced, coding efficiently is less and less important than it used to be. Efficient algorithms are still pretty important, but that's more about using matrix calculations and streamlining progam flow than about the intricacies of memory-management and choosing where on the hard disk you place your data for minimum retrieval time.

        Witness the rise of interpreted languages like Perl/Ruby/PHP. Look at how semi-compiled bytecode languages like Java and the .NET stable are more mainstream than C/C++/whatever.

        Don't get me wrong - I first learned BASIC, then C, then C++ and a bit of assembler, and I wouldn't trade this knowledge for the world. Nevertheless, now when I write C# code which is compiled to MSIL/.NET bytecode, which is then interpreted by the .NET runtime and turned into CISC instructions which are sometimes even then converted into RISC instructions... what exactly should I be coding to? How can I know what's happening to my code after it's run through 4 or even 5 levels of automatic conversion?

        These days kids are learning how to use high-level tools first, and only learning the lower-level stuff as they get better and better. Sure this means an awful lot of nasty, bloated beginner-level PHP and VB.NET, but by the time they're ready to tackle compiler design they've generally already picked up the important bits as they go.

        When we were learning code we'd write crappy code in BASIC/C, and it'd sit on our home PCs and never go anywhere. Now when a kid writes crappy PHP or VB.NET it's generally posted to a forum or used to run their website, so of course it's more visible.

        We all wrote crappy code when we were learning, irrespective of the language. Certainly, I know I wrote some BASIC/C code that makes me cringe when I think of it now.
    • ``First off, it seems that math education is sorely lacking in many college students.''

      I won't argue that math education is not what it could be, but I doubt it's what causes people not to program. Math and programming _are_ different disciplines, and you can have either without the other. Even if math skills help programming a bit, it certainly isn't the _first_ reason for people not starting to program.
    • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:41AM (#16103260) Homepage Journal
      first off, it seems that math education is sorely lacking in many college students. ... The next major reason is lack of communication skills and writing skills.

      There's a story about Abraham Lincoln when he was a cogressman. He received a questionnaire sent to new congressman in which they were supposed to give background information about themselves. When he came to the question which asked for a description of his education he filled in a single word: "deficient".

      In fact, Lincoln felt the deficiency of his education so keenly he began an independent study of Euclid's Elements, with the intent of sharpening his thinking. Reportedly he mastered the material through book 6, which means everything relating to plane geometry, but not number theory or solid geometry. I'd argue that Lincoln's formidable intellectual accumen, whether it stemmed from his study of Euclid or from his native faculties, is often missed in the sentimental haze that surrounds the man.

      The point of these anecdotes is this. There are certain areas of knowledge where thoughtful persons would have to label their education "deficient", any accomplishments they may have in them notwithstanding, because they are bottomless sources of utility. You just named two of them: mathematics and communication.

      The need for remedial classes at the university level doesn't come from a degeneration of the educational system. It comes from a social and economic change which makes a bachelor's degree a minimal requirement for decent employment. Fifty years ago, there were two kinds of people who went to college. The socially elite, for whom a "Gentleman D" was perfectly acceptable. Arguably the societies they joined and contacts they made were the most important reasons to go. And the intellectually elite. The middle class, non intellecutally elite student got a job, often in a factory, which maintained him in the middle class and did not require a degree.

      The growing need to have a university degree in the last half of the twentieth century led to the perennial concern of declining college board admission test scores, from which it was concluded that primary and secondary education was deteriorating. However, it's important to remmeber that average scores are average scores of a population sample, and if the population being sampled changes, you can't compare the scores. Adjusted for demographic changes, there was no decline in scores. There literally couldn't be, because of the little known fact that the tests and scoring scales are continually recalibrated by the testing agencies to ensure that students in any given segment of the academic population score the same from year to year.

      However, we have been the beneficiary, first of the Sputnik scare, then the SAT scare. For most students, education is actually much more rigorous today than it was fifty years ago. I went to elementary school almost forty years ago. My school was unusual in putting a great deal more emphasis in critical thinking and reading skills. My children go to an elementary school where the reading curriculum is much more challenging, and the math curriculum requires that students be able to reason mathematically and recognize situations where various mathematical techniques need to be used -- a huge improvement over the education of my era, which graduated countless students who could regugitate the quadratic equation forumula but had no idea when it might be useful.

    • I have been thinking it is due to a few reasons. First off, it seems that math education is sorely lacking in many college students.

      Pleeeeeaaase... that's still the mantra I was hearing when I was 13 and happily beginning to code (in 1985). Why would 'we' be prevented from the right to code if 'we', litterature oriented people, despise mathematics ? There is still SO much to do with only 4 operations ! Granted, I won't dwelve into image processing, signal analysis or those fields where a strong math backg

    • This is bogus. There are many languages that are "easy to learn and give you a response quickly".

      For example, Python is a very good language for teaching the basics of programming, and it's really simple to learn. Javascript also works.

      The old BASIC that he probably remembers (e.g., what ran on Apple IIs, etc.) was actually pretty nasty; functions didn't have parameters, loops were primitive, you couldn't create your own datatypes. You had to UNLEARN a lot of stuff. Yes, modern BASICs are better, b
    • by poopie ( 35416 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @12:21PM (#16105469) Journal
      This is not just programming... it's everything.

      Programs used to be simpler and written by *ONE PERSON* - you could read and learn from someone else's code. Nowadays, most programmers are just a cog in a wheel using an IDE to implement one function in one library, and they rarely grasp the code in it's entirety

      Cars used to be simple, mechanical entities where the underlying workings hadn't changed much in decades. Nowadays, cars are so chock full of electronics and there's hardly anything improvable by a single person these days

      Electronics used to be "simple" - circuit boards were single layer and traces could be easily seen with the naked eye. ICs were standard parts you could by at Radio Shack. Parts could be hand soldered, removed, and replaced. Nowadays, parts are all custom, miniaturized, with 5-layer circuit boards, and they're just too complex for any one person to fully understand.

      Phones and radios were originally very basic and simple and easy to understand / fix. Nowadays, we satellite radio and cellular phones that VERY FEW people understand enough about to actually work on.

      People used to know how to do everything that it took to run a farm. Managing livestock, crops, construction, markets etc. Nowadays, people just vegetate in their condo, drive to work, sit in front of a computer, and drive home. They don't need to know how to SURVIVE.

      I've said this before... if there were a catastrophic event that destroyed most of society, very few people would have enough knowledge to rebuild what we currently have.

      Therefore, I believe that we as a society are getting dumber because we need to know less, and because modern medicine can keep nearly anyone alive long enough to reproduce, I'd say that evolution of the human species has stopped and that as a species, we're getting weaker.
      • Division of labor is good. If everybody has to be fully self-sufficient, that greatly reduces the opportunity to focus on a particular area and make advancements that everyone can benefit from.

        if there were a catastrophic event that destroyed most of society, very few people would have enough knowledge to rebuild what we currently have.

        True and unavoidable. Unless we go back to the caves, so "rebuilding" would be easier.

        Therefore, I believe that we as a society are getting dumber because we need to know les
  • passworded article (Score:4, Insightful)

    by muftak ( 636261 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:05AM (#16103038)
    Please provide a URL that does not require signing up to crap.
  • Desktop Applets (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RAMMS+EIN ( 578166 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:06AM (#16103042) Homepage Journal
    I submitted the same story, and also made the following comment elsewhere:

    It is worth noting that Microsoft ships Visual Basic for Applications
    with most of their software (at least they did when last I checked), and
    OS X and many Linux distros ship Python.

    Having said that, I agree that the world has changed and getting started
    with programming isn't as natural as it used to be. Part of the reason
    for that is that our expectations have changed, but languages haven't
    really caught up. Nowadays, we expect programs to present us with fancy
    GUI widgets. If all a program does is print some text to the terminal
    and read some input from it, we don't feel we've written a real program.
    However, in the majority of programming language, creating these fancy
    GUI widgets is much more difficult than doing terminal I/O. Thus, either
    the rewards are less, or the barrier to entry is higher.

    On the other hand, there is HTML, which makes it very easy to create
    user interfaces, but the user interfaces are somewhat limited and adding
    in program logic can be very tedious.

    Fortunately, software vendors are not sitting still. Konfabulator, Apple
    Dashboard, gDesklets, Oprera Widgets, KDE's Dashboard, and Mozilla's XUL
    (which is supported natively in Mozilla browsers, in Opera and MSIE
    through plugins, while native support is being added to Konqueror and
    Safari) are all ways to make it easy to create visually appealing
    programs and add functionality to them. They are all based around the
    concept of creating the user interface in XML, then using a scripting
    language to implement the behavior. Indeed, this makes creating GUI
    software easy enough that beginning computer users can do it.

    I think these widgets are the future, especially once they will be
    treated like full applications that live on the same desktop (last time
    I checked, Apple Dashboard actually was a separate desktop from the one
    that contains the "real" programs).
    • Re:Desktop Applets (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Shaper_pmp ( 825142 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @09:36AM (#16103749)
      Don't forget Javascript. Javascript is the new BASIC.

      Back in the day we'd write BASIC, then graduate to C/C++ for the "proper" coding.

      These days kids learn HTML, then Javascript to make the HTML do interesting things. Then they pick up PHP or Java (or VB if they're unlucky) and from there Perl, Ruby, Python, whatever.

      The most popular "beginners" language is always the most powerful one with the lowest barrier to entry. Anything that you can pick up quickly and do cool stuff with provides the essential satisfaction feedback that keeps you progressing and getting better.

      HTML provides the "oooh, pretties" before you even learn do any actual programming, and Javascript introduces you to loops/conditionals and even OOP if you want. PHP/VB then add in database integration and stricter efficiency requirements (not to mention often the added complication of stateless programming), and by the time you can program competently in them you're well on the way to becoming a full-fledged Developer.

      I have a great hope for dashboard widgets - it's exactly the kind of low-barrier-to-entry, high-return-on-time-invested platform that makes it interesting to learners, and because it's Javascript it's even starting them off on the kind of language that's the most useful to learn[1].

      [1] Not to knock VB, but if you learn BASIC or VB you can basically program in... BASIC or VB. Learn Javascript and you've got a leg-up on the syntax of C, C++, Java, Perl, PHP, Ruby, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc.
  • Absolute nonsense (Score:5, Informative)

    by realnowhereman ( 263389 ) <andyparkins@@@gmail...com> on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:09AM (#16103059)
    What a load of rubbish.

    apt-get install \
          bash \
          python \
          gambas2 \
          kturtle \
          fp-compiler fp-units-base \

    The reason children don't code (if that is even true, as it's a completely unsubstantiated assertion) is because they don't want to.

    I started programming when I was ten, and I did it by hand-converting Z80 assembly language to machine code and then used BASIC poke commands to write them into memory. I had to work hard to scrape a C compiler from somewhere and that was heaven.

    Today it is a million times easier to write a program if you wanted to. Blame ease-of-use culture; blame video games; blame stupid parents; but blaming the lack of access to programming languages is ridiculous to say the least.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      Exactly - and it's 100 times easier to do lots of other things as well - make music, videos, web pages... There will always be kids programming in their bedrooms - and good luck to them, they keep me on my toes because I know they're going to be fighting me for my job in a few years to come!
    • The reason children don't code (if that is even true, as it's a completely unsubstantiated assertion) is because they don't want to.


      Yesteryear, it was possible to write a simple GOTO loop in QBASIC and coax some perceived functionality out of the box. Now, computer games and software in general is so advanced that kids can't correlate a simple repeating "HELLO WORLD!" loop into anything that they might enjoy.

      What we need is a simple line-oriented language with some advanced graphics capabilities.
    • by cruachan ( 113813 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:27AM (#16103158)
      I don't think it's because the barrier to entry is too high, rather the barrier to do something cool is in the stratosphere. Think about it - back in the 80's when you first started playing around with code creating your own version of pong was pretty dam cool. Actually even getting the machine to draw a few boxes on the screen in different colours was cool. True there was a learning curve and it was quite steep if you'd never coded before, but it wasn't that far from bottom to top.

      Nowdays cool is Half-Life 2 type graphics. And I suppose the nearest to drawing a few boxes on the screen is coding DirectX/OpenGL shaders to do cool things on a few objects. The learning curve is still as steep, but think of all the stuff you need to know before getting something interesting done - it's a much longer way from bottom to top and you consequently need more determination to get there.

      I think you'll now find many of the kids who would have previously cut code now working on mods for games. Maybe that will sprout creativity in a way that the article suggests, but it is difficult to see what.
      • by Dareth ( 47614 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:42AM (#16103265)
        The editors for 3d games are unbelieveably powerful. I remember spending many an hour tinkering with the original Unreal editor. It was easy for even a novice to use a getting started tutorial to build their own map/level/world.

        The editor presented the world as a 3D solid and you would cut away "rooms" and then apply textures. You could easily make an in-door or outdoor scene complete with sky, water, light sources, etc.

        You could put together simple shapes to create complex objects, then script them easily to move around or even react to the player character in the game.

        To really get complex reactions from the environment, or to get the lighting/shadows right required some understanding of basic math/trig, but even that is not that hard and the tutorials pointed you in the right direction.

        This is about as close to the "wow factor" that I got from doing simple shapes on a TRS-80 back in the old days. Coding up your own version of Bezerk was awesome. Creating your own worlds and getting to explore them was almost as thrilling.

        • by monopole ( 44023 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @01:54PM (#16106586)
          Hah! Arguably its easier now to do insanely cool stuff in line oriented code.
          I just knocked off the code to import a 3d model of Downtown Berkley and display an interactive stereoscopic model with texture mapping in 267 lines of Python using only the enthought python distribution and the PyXML module. If I wanted to add joystick support that would be 10 more lines and the PyGame module. All the tools are free as in beer and speech. The only development tools I used were a text editor and the interactive command line.

          A few months ago I knocked off a few hundred lines of Python code which logged gps, and processed the logs to provide KML files which came up in google earth with commented 3d paths of the GPS positions. Once again using FOSS with a command line and a text editor.

          Insanely cool code is much simpler these days with high level Python bindings to just about everything.

          As for physics, while there is a lot of very expensive cool stuff (CERN etc.) a lot of very cool physics is going on with dirt cheap tools. Lasers, microprocessor controls, high end optics, computers that make a Cray I look like a calculator etc. are available for next to nothing, allowing the Mac Guyver's of physics to do astounding things in their garage.
      • Re:Absolute nonsense (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Chelloveck ( 14643 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @09:11AM (#16103483) Homepage
        I don't think it's because the barrier to entry is too high, rather the barrier to do something cool is in the stratosphere. Think about it - back in the 80's when you first started playing around with code creating your own version of pong was pretty dam cool. Actually even getting the machine to draw a few boxes on the screen in different colours was cool. True there was a learning curve and it was quite steep if you'd never coded before, but it wasn't that far from bottom to top.

        The same is true of electronics. In my college days (mid-80s) it was cool to wire up a circuit to make and LED blink, or a flash bulb fire. If you were really into it you could scrounge a HeNe laser tube and build yourself something really cool. These days, all that stuff is available for cheap. Blinking LEDs are literally given away free with breakfast cereal. Laser pointers are less than $10 and come with a variety of lenses to make images on the wall. The cool stuff is no longer easy, and the easy stuff is no longer cool.

        I think it's just a sign of the technology maturing. The technology for its own sake is no longer interesting. Both programming and electronics are just means to an end. Now the cool stuff is making that technology do something. Yeah, there's a higher barrier to entry, but it's not insurmountable. Back then you had to program a game from scratch; now you can take an existing game and mod it. Back then getting a motor to turn was neat; now, you can build robots without worrying about the piddly stuff. I think there's still plenty of room for exploration and creativity, but it won't be the same as when my generation were kids. My kids' generation will take the basics that we laid down and build upon them, making whole new cool things. No, it's not the same as it was. It's better.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by c ( 8461 )

        the barrier to do something cool is in the stratosphere

        I was thinking that, myself, but I'm actually convinced otherwise. The barrier is quite high, if by "something cool" you mean games and graphics.

        However, there's still an obscenely huge amount of useful, interesting things which can be accomplished by small amounts of little scripts... All these internet-based APIs out there (Google, Flickr, etc) provide a low barrier of entry for some degree of "cool".

        I think the real problem is a lack of motiva

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DeeDob ( 966086 )
      None of the language you listed is as easy as the old BASIC, which you could access directly from the command line on most computers.

      Nowadays most languages requires downloads (java, php), installation procedures (java, php, visual basic), having to learn development tools as well as the language itself (visual basic), a compiler (C, visual basic, java) and whatnots...

      Those that don't require complex set-ups require the knowledge of another language to work properly (vbscript, javascript require HTML/CSS kn
      • Re:Absolute nonsense (Score:4, Informative)

        by helifex ( 921775 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:50AM (#16103320)
        On Windows... Right click on the desktop and create a new text file. Rename the text file to hello.vbs, then right click and choose edit. Enter the text 'msgbox "Hello world!"' and save it. Double click on the icon. The only thing that could make it easier was if they had added "vbs file" as a new document template. I don't think it's lack of availability that's the problem...
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by eraserewind ( 446891 )
          You can't change (or see) a file extension with the standard Windows install options. You have to change some options in windows explorer.

          It's even tricky to change it by doing "file-save as..." unless you know what you are doing, most likely you will end up with hello.vbs.txt

          So it's not as straightforward as you make out. In fact they have made it deliberately difficult to do what you describe. They seem to want to preserve some sort of idea of the intrinsic nature of different types of files for users.


    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by nwbvt ( 768631 )

      He did mention other languages like Python or C++, and discards them. I'm not sure why exactly, but apparently he doesn't think they are any good for beginners (I think he is mostly just nostalgic for his programming days in which he used BASIC).

      I would actually say there are plenty of kids who learn programming these days. Yes, they are doing it using more modern languages that have not been rendered obsolete, but that doesn't mean they are not learning valuable skills.

      And I call bullshit on his asse

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by njh ( 24312 )
      I think the truth is simpler than this. I think there are roughly the same number of new programmers born now, per capita, as were born 20 years ago. It's just that 20 years ago, only the programming types would have had a computer.
  • Why Line-Oriented? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by RAMMS+EIN ( 578166 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:11AM (#16103065) Homepage Journal
    ``At first I wanted to read this and say aha, here's a simple line oriented language''

    Why line-oriented?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by will_die ( 586523 )
      a line oriented language is one where all the parts of the command have to be on a single line. some newer ones allow a line seperator so that you can make it easier to read.
      this is opposed to statement oriented where all parts have to be part of the single statment, usally multiple lines but with a statement ender, or a block oriented language that has begining and ending tags for the block.
    • by kfg ( 145172 ) * on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:36AM (#16103215)
      Why line-oriented?

      Because Djkstra was right. With whatever apologies might be due to the author, his early exposure to BASIC has damaged his mind so beyond repair that he cannot concieve of a good learning language as being anything other than line oriented.

      Python and Squeek, each in their own way, are probably the best learning languages ever devised. They are both "real" languages that can be used for "real" work after you learn them, but also serve as good stepping stones to other languages, without instilling you with a line oriented mind.

      Programming students don't need to learn line numbers, they need to learn number; mathematics; and logical structure. Line numbers do nothing other than give the illusion that a program has structure, whether it actually has any or not.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Abcd1234 ( 188840 )
        I'm particularly glad you mentioned Squeak. For a kid who's very curious, Squeak is the ultimate learning environment. Not only can you write very interesting programs very easily using the powerful tools it provides, but you can also dig around in the system internals themselves! Just fire up the class browser, and voila, everything is laid bare before you. And if you bugger something up, you just terminate the VM and reload the image! Truly a *fantastic* system, one I wish I had access to when I was
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      With GUI based languages it's very easy to get hung up on the look of the interface, with a line oriented language it's not there so there's less distraction from learning the fundementals of the language and, more importantly, of programming. What the article seems to be mourning is the loss of languages without all the added trimmings that distract from the underlying principles.

      Consider 'Hello World'. In BASIC that would be:

      10 print "Hello world!"

      In C it would be something like:

      #include <stdio.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by RAMMS+EIN ( 578166 )
        Although BASIC is line based, allows you to write programs without boilerplate, and can be interpreted, these are all orthogonal properties.

        Line based means that you enter your program is based on lines, as opposed to, say blocks of code. It means you get code like

        10 CLS
        20 I = 1
        30 PRINT I
        40 I = I + 1
        50 IF I = 10 GOTO 30
        60 END

        and you could insert a piece of code by writing, e.g.

        55 PRINT "DONE"

        In a block based language, you would get code like

        I = 1
        PRINT I
        I = I
  • Easy solution... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by GreyPoopon ( 411036 ) <gpoopon@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:12AM (#16103072)
    There's a very easy solution to this. Install a classic machine emulator on your PC. Something like a C64 emulator would work fine.
  • Languages (Score:3, Interesting)

    by RAMMS+EIN ( 578166 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:14AM (#16103080) Homepage Journal
    What about languages like Ruby, Python, Bourne shell, etc? Easy to pick up (the barrier of entry to shell scripting is especially low), and you can take them all the way up to complex programs with GUIs (whether you should want to is another matter, especially for shell scripts).
  • BWBasic? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Intosi ( 6741 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:16AM (#16103093) Homepage
    How about bwbasic (https://sourceforge.net/projects/bwbasic/ [sourceforge.net])? It's available for my FreeBSD system, my Ubuntu system, even MS-DOS... Sure, it might not be as über-sexy as buying a second-hand C64, but it's there for you to try BASIC programs..
  • FreeBASIC... (Score:5, Informative)

    by kerashi ( 917149 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:16AM (#16103094)
    If you really want to play with BASIC, you still can. There is Freebasic, at http://www.freebasic.net/ [freebasic.net], a GPL'ed open source BASIC compiler.
  • Check out this interesting blog by Peter Cooper, where he suggests a Ruby environment fors kids:

    Taking Ruby to the kids [rubyinside.com]
  • Maybe because Johnny, with the overabundance of software at hand, and lots of it is for free, does not have a real incentive to program his own software any more ?

    I started programming in Basic on old Thomson TO7 computers when I was ten, then a few yaers later I switched to Pascal on an Olivetti PC, and it was always to build my own games : I had little pocket money to buy my own games, I had no access to any network whatsoever, and software piracy was not my favorite pastime (and would have been frowned

  • Python?! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by smithwis ( 577119 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:19AM (#16103116) Journal
    Am I missing something here? Why doesn't python count? It's easy, has a nice "line enter mode", embraces many advance programming concepts from various programming paradigms(OP, Functional, Procedural, etc). And has a bunch of nice Graphical hooks for the eventual game programming your little one will end up doing.

    Disregarding Python, what's wrong with Emac's elisp or a nice session with tcsh. You'd be hard pressed to find a computer that you couldn't run one of these languages on and I've just barely scratched the surface of possibilities

    No I'd have to say that today's children are given an even richer programing environment to grow with than we were.

    • Re:Python?! (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Coward Anonymous ( 110649 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @12:08PM (#16105339)
      Well, according to TFA how would you "make a dot change its position on a screen, propelled by math and logic, and only by math and logic" in python?
      For kids, simple graphics are far more persuasive than watching text scroll down. If your answer for doing this in python is longer than 1 line or involves compiling packages, you've lost. Basic commands I remember were as simple as "gr", "hgr", "hgr2", "screen" and you were ready to go.
  • by Fearless Freep ( 94727 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:20AM (#16103118)
    As coding goes from being an elite craft that few can do into a blue color job that few bother to want to do

    As hand made articles become assembly-line products

    we wonder why the world has changed and our tools with it
    • by arevos ( 659374 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:35AM (#16103207) Homepage
      As coding goes from being an elite craft that few can do into a blue color job that few bother to want to do

      If you're suggesting that programming is no longer as difficult as it was, then this would rather imply, a) programming viable applications is easier now than it was, or b) people are far more intelligent than they were. Neither explanation seems very likely. As far as I can see, programming is still a craft that very few people are capable of doing with any competance.

      However, if you are suggesting that it has lost some of its 'elite' image, then perhaps you are right.

  • by haplo21112 ( 184264 ) <haplo@epi t h n a .com> on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:20AM (#16103122) Homepage
    The Original Post didn't mention that I thought it might be of interest to some people to know that ahead of time. Perhaps influencing the descion about reading it or not.
  • bah simple (Score:4, Insightful)

    by tomstdenis ( 446163 ) <tomstdenis@gmCOMMAail.com minus punct> on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:24AM (#16103134) Homepage
    "you wanna play with computers? program them first sonny."

    Kids are fundamentally spoiled nowadays. They got a high speed computer, high speed net, digital cable, cell phones, spending money, etc.

    When I was a kid [and damn I was a kid of the 80s/90s] I sure as hell didn't have half of that. My computer was a XT up until I was 11 or so then it was a 386/25 we scraped together from spare parts. We didn't have net access only local BBS stuff so for the most part we had to INVENT our own fun. That is, code stuff up, mess around with the box, etc.

    If you want your kids to have similar adventures to what you had as a kid just don't spoil them rotten. Why on earth would your kid at age 10 want to sit through and learn themselves BASIC or C or Pascal or ... if you're handing them a new Dell box with a Cable modem and a XBOX360 or something.

    You can save money and your children themselves if you just learn to say "No."

    That and your kids will appreciate earning money later on in life so they CAN buy themselves toys and shit. Teach them the value of work [or at least looking like working...]

  • The author is David Brin, is he the SF author ?
  • by MirrororriM ( 801308 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:25AM (#16103144) Homepage Journal
    Why, when I was a young programmer we had to write the code in the snow with our pee, and a compiler was just a word for the pilot of the hovering dirigible that read the instructions and passed them to the ALU, which was another fellow with an abacus. They would wrap the results around a rock, and drop it on my house when the program would exit. We had to walk uphill...
  • by smilindog2000 ( 907665 ) <bill@billrocks.org> on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:26AM (#16103150) Homepage

    I didn't get hooked because I wanted to hack computers. I got hooked on old games (like Colossal Caves). When I finished all the games, I decided to write one, and learned BASIC. Today, you never finish the games. They just get better and better. There's no way I would have spent all that time hacking if the games available today were around back then.
  • Wait... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Aladrin ( 926209 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:26AM (#16103152)
    Are you seriously telling me that with languages like VB.net, C#, Ruby, javascript and other 'easy' languages, kids can't learn to code these days? I call BS on this. Sure, I started on an Apple IIe in 4th grade, and gradually moved up to real languages (C, PHP, etc etc) eventually, but that doesn't mean the 'lack' of BASIC stops kids from coding.

    There are even languages developed solely to interest kids in programming.

    http://www.kidsprogramminglanguage.com/ [kidsprogra...nguage.com]
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_(software) [wikipedia.org]

    I'm sure there's more out there, but Alice was the one I remembered, and found KPL on the way.

    No, there are no more barriers to programming than any other science.
  • Scripts? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:35AM (#16103205) Journal
    How about scripting? It isn't as powerful as the current popular languages, but perhaps nearly as powerful as BASIC. You can certainly get a hell of a lot done that way, and it's trivially easy to get started. Anything you can type on the command-line, you can put into a simple text file, and run it.

    DOS batch files are pretty limited, but there have always been DOS programs to help extend them, and now that Windows is all NT-based, .cmd files run everywhere, which include many of the features BAT files lack...

    Once you're pretty advanced with such shell scripting, it's not a hard transition to interpreted programming languages like PERL, and then to compiled languages.

    I have a feeling the lack of kids programming has more to do with the fact that it's "unwashed masses" time, with the advanced still programming, but being hidden by the larger numbers of point-and-click users.
  • Oh, please.... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by John Murdoch ( 102085 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:37AM (#16103225) Homepage Journal

    From TFA:

    Am I being overly dramatic?

    The writer of TFA is whining that computers no longer ship with a BASIC interpreter. That's been true since Microsoft shipped Windows 95--and at the time (which, er, was 1995) a number of columnists (including me) noted the loss, and wondered what impact it would have.

    Eleven years later....
    The earth still continues to revolve around the sun, and kids are still learning to write code. They're not learning to write code by typing in exercises from a math book--they're learning to write code to develop macros in Excel (or OpenOffice Calc); they're learning to write JavaScript to enable custom functionality in Adobe Acrobat files; they're learning to write HTML.

    Not to get all pedagogical on you, or anything...
    But this may be a circumstance where the Education Establishment is doing something right. Typing code into GW-BASIC produces...what? Typically, an output value. Read these input values, produce that output value. That's a CRT-based emulation of a deck of punch cards--and while I believe I benefited enormously from learning to code on punch cards, very very few people in the programming world agree with me. Think about what the newbie programmer's early coding experiences are like:

    • Open DOS window
    • Launch interpreter
    • Persuade interpreter to load your file
    • Start the program
    • Enter two or three input values
    • See the resulting output value

    That experience--being able to compile and run a program in something like real time, was HUGE--in 1974. Nowadays it is so outdated that I'd bet most kids would not see any correlation between that and a computer program that they are familiar with. How do you explain to a ten-year-old that the BASIC exercise from the math book is essentially identical to the internal processes of a video game, a web server, or the embedded micro-processor that drives your microwave oven?

    By contrast, a web page is a terrific introduction. Open a simple web page with "View Source", modify the text, and display the new page--it has changed. Iterate several times--add paragraphs, change colors, play with fonts--and the kid gets it. Playing with a text editor (which, incidentally, still does come for free) the student can go a long, long way in HTML. Depending upon his or her interests the student can pursue graphic design, animation, AJAX programming--all sorts of stuff. Key point: the difference between a "Hello World" HTML page and EBay is only a matter of degree--and that is immediately obvious to the student. Making the mental link between an ancient BASIC program and--for instance--a Windows application developed in Visual Basic.Net is not obvious at all.

    A case in point...
    I have three daughters. Growing up in a house with more computers than people--and a T1 connection to the Internet--they have had more exposure to computers than most kids. The oldest two are in college, and both had summer jobs this year at the electronics company where I work. Daughter #1 worked in customer service role--spending a lot of time with Excel spreadsheets. Somebody asked if she could program--she replied that her dad was a programmer, but she didn't really know how to. As she said this, she was writing Visual Basic macro scripts to automate a lot of manual key-entry for the customer service staff. What she was doing was very similar to the old-fashioned "get input, produce output" coding that punch card decks and BASIC programs performed. But the IDE (in this case, Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications) and the paradigm (a GUI) made it extremely easy to understand and do. So easy, in fact, that she didn't really equate it with programming.

    In other words,
    Don't mourn for GW-BASIC. Spend time with your kids writing HTML, JavaScript, and Excel macros.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Smallest ( 26153 )
      >How do you explain to a ten-year-old that the BASIC exercise from the math book is
      >essentially identical to the internal processes of a video game, a web server, or
      >the embedded micro-processor that drives your microwave oven?

      the same way you would've done it back in 1982: "when you write a program, you tell the computer what to do. these are simple programs; games are complex programs. but they are both programs."

      believe it or not, professional games back then were amazing and awe-inspiring to pe
  • by LaughingCoder ( 914424 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:43AM (#16103274)
    This is just a natural evolution. The same situation exists in hardware design. Very few young people can whip up a useful circuit with resistors, capacitors, and transistors. At my company we have 1 or 2 "dinosaurs" who invariably get called upon to solve problems in the hardware when it gets down to this level. Everyone is amazed when they throw together a quick little circuit with a breadboard and a few hand-soldered components. The simple fact is, more people don't learn to do this low-level type of work because there is not as much need for it anymore. But, and here is the rub, there will always be someneed. We'll always have to have a few folks around who understand the fundamentals. One could imagine as things continue to evolve, that these "low level specialists" could become quite expensive.
  • by airuck ( 300354 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @08:44AM (#16103284)

    I am a parent of a 10 year old boy and 7 year old girl. My son and I coded our first BASIC stamp robot (Parallax Boe-Bot [parallax.com]) last year. He has since taken an interest in his 300-in-1 electronics kit [hobbytron.com], and modifying the games he plays on his Knoppix for Kids [osef.org] distribution (he often runs that over the Fedora and Ubuntu distros also available in the house). A few days ago he asked me how a web site works, so I am going to teach him a little html this weekend.

    My daughter plays the piano and has access to a MIDI keyboard. She and I have had a couple conversations about MIDI and was fascinated by the paper pipe organ [blogspot.com] we built. I just started designing a small, networked, pipe organ with the hope of demonstrating some programming and networking concepts to her.

    We have also built rockets, a trebuchet, and even kept bees together. I plan on dusting off my homebrew equipment soon.

    Children are never bored by the possibilities of technology. They need only to be exposed to something more than closed and highly polished consumer products. Even THAT is a wonderful lesson in repurposing if there is a hack around who cares to show them.

  • by revlayle ( 964221 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @10:27AM (#16104208) Homepage
    Because Johnny is an idiot:
    * Johnny is the one at your company that has been working there for 10 years
    * No one fires him becuase he "knows a lot of things about the process"
    * Johnny talks about his technological exploits
    * Eveyone else has to debug and fix Johnny's bugs
    * He never asks the other developers any question on how to do something, for fear he will look inferior (too late Johhny!)
    You: "Johnny, can you get me your IP Address?"
    Johnny fumbles around his desktop, going through all the Control Panel Options
    You: "'ipconfig' Johnny"
    Johnny: "EYE PEE CONFIG?"
    You: "Yes, you know, the command prompt?"
    Johnny: "What?"
    You: "Never mind... what the status on your code module?"
    Johnny: "Module??"
    You: *head explodes*
  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Thursday September 14, 2006 @11:01AM (#16104570)
    That's my rather annihilating verdict on today's youth. If you WANT to create code, it's still possible, and maybe more possible than ever, given that today you have a lot of different and very interesting languages available to you. Yes, they don't come with your computer (unless you're using Linux, which almost invariably has a set of languages bunched with the Distro), but there's lots available online. For free. And on top of it, you get a ton of very sophisticated libraries too that take away a lot of hassle.

    But why bother? Anything you might want is available already. And better than you could do it. We used to write "simple" games like hangman or (later) space invaders, and it was cool 'cause first of all, those games were popular back then and you could actually BUY them. But hey, I could code them and give them to you FOR FREE (which was something back then, without internet and P2P).

    Why bother coding today? Anything you could come up with is invariably inferior to anything you could download.

One can't proceed from the informal to the formal by formal means.