Will Johnny Code Again?

Partly in response to my famous challenge on Salon “Why Johnny Can’t Code” — denouncing the disappearance of basic, introductory coding languages from our personal computing devices — several groups have done wonderful things to help bring back at least a simple, reliable way for kids to learn programming.  For example, Quitebasic.com is a cool, easy, accessible Basic site, offering a simple and obvious entry and display system, usable via any mere browser, ease-of-use and applicability to simple textbook exercises. Quitebasic is instantly ready to use. with a very plainly separated coding area, palette and results screens.

Just last week I spoke at Microsoft Research and brought this topic up again (along with many others; it was a wonderful audience of 200 or so brilliant people). So they are aware of the “basic” problem. Given today’s lavish available memories and cyber-power, they could tuck into the corner of Windows a turn-key system so simple and universal it might tempt textbook publishers to bring back “Try it in BASIC” exercises that used to ease millions of kids into ten-line programs that showed them that exciting, world-changing epiphany.  The moment when they realized: “Wow! Every pixel is created by an algorithm!”

And now some coincidental news: Just today I was shown a new BASIC system for the iPhone and iPad that attempts to chip away at the problem. Have a look at techBASIC.

This is the sort of thing – rather than 140 character lobotomizations – that we need to be encouraging for kids.  Before we become a society of dunces.

=== More about Your Existence ===

Here’s an excerpt from Existence that’s been eliciting some yucks… and yucks (!) from readers:

“E-calculi— gut bacteria transformed to function as tiny computers, powered by excess food. Have a problem? Unleash trillions of tiny, parallel processors occupying your own intestine! Speed them up by eating more! And they produce Vitamin C!

“At first, Tor thought this must be a hoax. It sounded like a comedy routine from Monty Phytoplankton. She wondered how the computed output finally emerged.”

If that weren’t enough to entice you to race out, buy the hardcover and tell your friends, then how about this from the LA Times review: “Whodunits are a sure thing in publishing — just about everyone loves a good mystery — but Brin’s multifaceted novel proves that another question resonates just as powerfully with most people: Are we alone in the universe?” 

And this by Simon Bisson on ZDNet: “Science fiction is as much a literature of the moment as it is of the future. This book, then, is both a warning and an encouragement: a novel that engages with the world we’re building and tries to show us a way to become a mature civilization rather than a raggle-taggle band of individuals. Technology has libertarian roots, but in the end we build the tools that construct a civil society. 

“In Existence Brin shows us the world our technology is building, and then poses one of the biggest questions: what is it all for?

“What we’re left with in Existence is one of those rare SF novels that needs to be on every technologist’s desk, alongside John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider, Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, Charles Stross’s Rule 34, and Brin’s own Earth. We may not be able to see our future, but in Existence we get a picture of a possible — even a plausible — tomorrow.”

=== Experts line up against High Frequency Stock Trading ===

This from one of the smartest and most on-target tech economy sages around – Mark Anderson, of the Strategic News Service:

“At a time when bankers are already at the bottom of the reputational heap, it now seems that their ration of scorn has jumped again. Not only are the worst of them greedy, it turns out, and dangerous, and unrepentant, and unwilling to pay for their mistakes, and undesiring of the most obviously needed reforms – but they are also building systems so complex that even they cannot manage them.

“We already knew that retail investors were no longer safe on the trading playground, but now we’ve learned that neither are the big bullies who made the new rules. Having already heard that about half of the volume of the NY Stock Exchange was in what is now called High Frequency Trading (HFT), this week I’ve learned that that figure is probably conservative, and that as much as 80% of the trades may be program-driven.

“What kind of zoo is this? A practice ground for Chaos Theory? Is this the centerpiece of capitalism? When the NYSE not only encourages HFT, but profits by selling colocation of servers at exorbitant rates to allow HFT practitioners that extra picosecond of advantage – you know that the wheels are about to come off.”

Of course, I have my own “crackpot” or rather far-seeing reason for wanting this HFT lunacy to stop.  It is the surest road to “Skynet”… to the emergence – in secret and without the slightest oversight or public scrutiny, of AI that is programmed from the start to be predatory, parasitical, voracious, insatiable, amoral and relentlessly sociopathic.


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