Monday, February 2, 2009

Consider the type-in

When I was a kid, as most geeks over about the age of 25 will remember, computer magazines often included many, many type-in programs. I never had enough patience to type them in, but the installed base of many of these old programs, many in BASIC, with many games and productivity programs, had to have been huge back in the day. I've been looking (without a whole lot of success) for some of these old programs, but the magazines are hard to find and the books that collected them were usually cheaply-printed paperbacks. Some are floating around on the net (the Wikipedia article links to a few archives), but for the most part, except for the random shell scripts and the like that appear in magazines like MacLife and Linux Journal, the form is dead. (In fact, I do have one such program typed in somewhere, a WarioWare-style minigame from a series of kid's adventure books called Micro Adventures. It is a painfully difficult game under the best of circumstances, and porting it to Chipmunk Basic proved pointless, since there's no way to throttle down the execution speed.)

Now I'm not going to lie -- to a certain extent the form isn't necessary. Certainly the many tedious pages of machine code that marked such programs as SpeedScript (a favorite program of mine when the buffer lag on geoWrite started driving me batty) aren't welcomed anymore. But I still think there's value in the form -- for one thing, programming has passed back into the realm of the Priesthood (aka Eric Raymond's "cathedral"). Most people don't even realize that almost every computer OS comes with at least two programming languages already available by default (usually some sort of shell scripting as well as JavaScript), and almost every high school and college student has had to purchase a TI or HP graphing calculator at some point. And robotics, especially in the form of things like Lego Mindstorms and the iRobot Roomba, has become quite popular as a hobby since NASA's Mars explorations proved that a robot doesn't have to sing and dance to be interesting. (Sadly, kiddie computers like those made by VTech no longer include even basic programming functionality, and out of the major gaming consoles, only Sony even gives lip service towards supporting homebrew development, by allowing Linux on the PS3. Nintendo grudgingly allows it but does not support it, and Microsoft has a history of open hostility.)

All that being as it may, we're actually in pretty good shape as far as facilities are concerned if anyone wishes to bring this sort of magazine or book back on the market. As I said, JavaScript is probably a logical place to begin, as it's standard on all three major web browser engines. shows the amount of work that's done on graphing calculator platforms despite the unabashedly weird syntaxes of RPL and TI-BASIC. And we can't forget the ready availability of languages such as Perl, Python, and Lua (all of which can be readily interfaced to graphic toolkits like Tk), as well as special-purpose languages such as Inform; all of these products are open source software and readily obtained and installed on whatever platform you choose.

So will anyone do this? Although the format would have to change a little (less condensed listings, more comments), it would certainly help to train a new generation of hackers, and for those that don't wish to do the typing it would be trivial to get the pretyped versions. What say you sirs?