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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Wed Jan 04, 2012 8:01 am

It seems that forum software has replaced my single quote marks with double quote marks.
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Wed Jan 04, 2012 5:28 pm

Chromatix said:


There are some constructs in Python that I cannot read due to very odd associativity rules and an apparent allergy to parentheses on the part of the designers.


Perhaps you"re not cut out to be a programmer, then.  "it"s a crap language because I can"t understand it" is a rather poor excuse for a criticism.

In reality, the list comprehension example you gave is perfectly understandable.  It took me a couple of seconds to "get it", but I could certainly read it for what it is.  And I don't even program in python.  As John Beetem says, it might well benefit from a bit more verboseness, but it"s very close to being a purely mathematical construct.  About the only argument I can come up with against it is its implicit integer-ness.  In any case, it"s not an example a beginning programmer is going to hit.

And yes, David, the single to double quote thing is horrible.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Wed Jan 04, 2012 8:14 pm

tufty said:

Perhaps you're not cut out to be a programmer, then.  "it's a crap language because I can't understand it" is a rather poor excuse for a criticism. 
I'm afraid I have to disagree with that.  IMO the purpose of a programming language is to communicate what a human programmer wants a computer to do using a language that both can understand.  It's also nice if multiple people and/or multiple computers can understand programs written in the language so they can work together.

Am I a terrible programmer because it's hard for me to understand APL's 17-character prime number generator?  (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A.....9#Examples)  I don't think so, because APL has a well-earned reputation for being a "write-only" language.  Some people think Haskell is wonderful.  Others don't grok it at all.  Chacun a son goût.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Wed Jan 04, 2012 8:59 pm

tufty said:


Chromatix said:


There are some constructs in Python that I cannot read due to very odd associativity rules and an apparent allergy to parentheses on the part of the designers.


Perhaps you"re not cut out to be a programmer, then.  "it"s a crap language because I can"t understand it" is a rather poor excuse for a criticism.

In reality, the list comprehension example you gave is perfectly understandable.  It took me a couple of seconds to "get it", but I could certainly read it for what it is.  And I don"t even program in python.  As John Beetem says, it might well benefit from a bit more verboseness, but it"s very close to being a purely mathematical construct.  About the only argument I can come up with against it is its implicit integer-ness.  In any case, it"s not an example a beginning programmer is going to hit.

And yes, David, the single to double quote thing is horrible.


IMO, and I've only been programming for 30 years, so its probably not that relevant, is that code that is incomprehensible to an experienced someone coming to it new is bad code, even if it works. To me, as a non-python person, that list example was almost incomprehensible, and yes, could have been written, as was show in a later post, in a much clearer way, for someone coming to it anew. To me, that makes the second version MUCH better code than the first version - I understood it, with NO knowledge of Python at all. I know which version I would want a team coding for me to use.

Of course, judicious use of comments would obviously help, and they were missing from both examples!
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Wed Jan 04, 2012 9:30 pm

John Beetem said:


tufty said:


Perhaps you're not cut out to be a programmer, then.  "it's a crap language because I can't understand it" is a rather poor excuse for a criticism.


I'm afraid I have to disagree with that.  IMO the purpose of a programming language is to communicate what a human programmer wants a computer to do using a language that both can understand.  It's also nice if multiple people and/or multiple computers can understand programs written in the language so they can work together.

Am I a terrible programmer because it's hard for me to understand APL's 17-character prime number generator?  (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A.....9#Examples)  I don't think so, because APL has a well-earned reputation for being a "write-only" language.  Some people think Haskell is wonderful.  Others don't grok it at all.  Chacun a son goût.



I am afraid I partially agree with Simon. You would be a terrible *APL* programmer if you didn't understand that example -- as it is not using particuarly advanced APL In general a "power" programmer in language X should be able to grok most of language X (and quickly grasp something new and unfamiliar in it). That doesn't mean he has to like it, though!

Now the other point is *should* something like list comprehension be used? That depends on the context. Basically you are generating a list, where every element matches the conditions on the right. Once you grok it, it is clear and it is brief.That is a win in my view as your code comprehension speed improves (as opposed to nested for loops, where you have to pause at the body of every for loop and keep more state in your mental stack!). I agree that one should avoid clever code but i don't see list comprehension as `clever'. May be the best that can be done is to aim for the middle ground (not newbies, not experts) and write the code that will be clearest to them.

And BTW, you should watch this (where Conway's Game of life is being implemented in APL in front of your eyes)!


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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Wed Jan 04, 2012 10:31 pm

Just one thing - when did the use of the word 'Grok' become acceptable to English speakers?
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Wed Jan 04, 2012 10:38 pm

Bakul said:


In general a "power" programmer in language X should be able to grok most of language X (and quickly grasp something new and unfamiliar in it).





Actually, one other thing, I completely disagree with that statement.

Some languages are just too different. I am sure I could produce a C++ template example that would be incomprehensible to a decent C++ programmer, never mind someone who programs in a different language! As it happens I could probably have figured out that Python example after 10 minutes of Googling (I don't know the list syntax of Python) - BUT WHY SHOULD I when the code should document itself by being clear and concise, and not overly obfuscated. Unclear code is the bane of anyone who has to maintain it, including the original writer of the code.
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Wed Jan 04, 2012 10:44 pm

Burngate said:



Quote from spock on December 10, 2011, 23:04
basic isn"t harmful but also not useful.

i always see those example here:

10 print "hello world!"
20 goto 10
and how great this is for kids.

in python the same is:

while 1: print "hello world!"
as great and with a useful modern language you can grow with.


I"d translate that basic bit as:

WHILE TRUE:P."Hello World":ENDWHILE
Which is BBC basic, but remarkably similar to the Python version!


or

Do: Console.WriteLine("Hello World!"):Loop

in VB.NET

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Wed Jan 04, 2012 10:55 pm

I wonder what my employer would make of the assertion that I'm "not cut out to be a programmer".  That is after all what I theoretically do for them all day.  On the other hand I don't regularly read about pure mathematics, where a construct similar to list-comprehension is presumably to be found.

That doesn't really change the fact that nobody has yet shown me a BASIC variant that will really work as a first teaching language - bearing in mind that an actual teacher may not be available - on the Raspberry Pi.

Instead the proposals are for Python and Pascal, which I also have objections to, and one or two more obscure languages which I quickly found major conceptual flaws in. Big objections also apply to other commonly-available languages such as Java or even Go (the example program on http://golang.org front page includes several lines of boilerplate for a "Hello World").

I already concede that real teachers might well be happy with using these languages, but a real teacher won't be available to most of the target audience - especially outside the First World, where even knowledge of English is likely to be patchy, and there is often no established tradition of computer programming.

So, short of outright emulating an 8-bit micro, what can we do?
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Wed Jan 04, 2012 11:04 pm

JamesH said:


Just one thing - when did the use of the word 'Grok' become acceptable to English speakers?



: ) When did Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land become popular? I have seen it used since late '70s/early '80s at least here in Northern California.

JamesH said:


Bakul said:


In general a "power" programmer in language X should be able to grok most of language X (and quickly grasp something new and unfamiliar in it).


Actually, one other thing, I completely disagree with that statement.

Some languages are just too different. I am sure I could produce a C++ template example that would be incomprehensible to a decent C++ programmer, never mind someone who programs in a different language! As it happens I could probably have figured out that Python example after 10 minutes of Googling (I don't know the list syntax of Python) - BUT WHY SHOULD I when the code should document itself by being clear and concise, and not overly obfuscated. Unclear code is the bane of anyone who has to maintain it, including the original writer of the code.


C++ is the exception that proves the rule : ) But seriously, a *power* C++ programmer should know templates. Templates are hard to implement and relatively easy to use. But there will come a day when you will encounter a buggy template....

I completely agree on writing clear and concise code. But an advanced feature of a language is not necessarily obfuscated! Templates fill a legitimate need in C++. Consider something like monads in Haskell or call-with-current-continuation (AKA call/cc) in Scheme. Both hard to learn for most people (as was for me) but they solve specific problems or provide flexibility not available otherwise. I would certainly not expose a new student to call/cc until the stage has been set where it will be useful but I would also not call a Scheme programmer an expert until he understands call/cc. Avoiding call/cc or templates or monads (when they are *exactly* the right solution) just to make a new programmer's life easy is not the right answer IMHO.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Wed Jan 04, 2012 11:43 pm

This comment stream has deviated from anything useful to Raspberry Pi, so I'll just make one more recommendation for Gambas for Linux:

Raspberry Pi will run GNU/Linux; Gambas is free, open-source BASIC for Linux.

Gambas is a professional-grade programming language and has an excellent IDE.  It enables OOP, classes, modules, and forms, and has a full set of components for scripting, arrays, database programming, network interfacing, etc.

Gambas does not need line numbers, GOSUBs, GOTOs, etc. -- in this way, the procedural code is very similar to QuickBasic.  Gambas allows you the option to use them, however, and line numbers are handy for debugging.

Gambas directly integrates Qt, so that you can directly read and edit the parameters for those toolkits in a sidebar on the Gambas composition screen.  This means that children (and everybody) can immediately drag and drop buttons, listboxes, pictureboxes and every other Qt object directly onto any forms that they are composing.

To download a free 365 page manual in PDF form, including project files in tar.gz format, go to this address:  http://beginnersguidetogambas.com/

After you get the guide, go to the Gambas main page:  http://gambas.sourceforge.net/...../main.html

I recommend reviewing what Gambas is, before judging that BASIC is not worth teaching to children.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Thu Jan 05, 2012 12:16 am

JamesH said:


Just one thing - when did the use of the word 'Grok' become acceptable to English speakers?



Circa 1961.

Wiktionary: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/grok

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grok


The Oxford English Dictionary defines grok as "to understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish rapport with" and "to empathise or communicate sympathetically (with); also, to experience enjoyment".


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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Thu Jan 05, 2012 3:55 am

Ok we are all probably a little biased one way or another, there is one sure way to find out:

Take 100 youngsters who have not yet used any form of computer, divide them into 10 study groups (in an even manner), teach each study group a different language (one being a fairly strait forward BASIC) to start with, fallow the evolution of all 100 case studies for ten years, document the positive and negative effects of each case as related to the language first taught, then report the results back for we shall have our answer.

Who ever wishes to pursue this I will be looking forward to your results in 2022.
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Thu Jan 05, 2012 9:29 am

spock said:


i don"t hate basic. my first computer was a sinclair zx spectrum too.

but "it was great for me 30 years ago" is no good reason for basic at all. the world has changed in the meantime and there are better alternatives that are worth looking into.


Not only has the world changed but so has BASIC. For an application at my college we transported the TreeMap application discussed in chapter 7 of Ben Fry's Visualizing Data written in Processing/Java with interfaces, classes, ..., with no problem, keeping the structure of the original program intact, and only having to make one or two functional changes. This was Visual Basic.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 06, 2012 2:48 am

I've just been scoping out a few things lately, a free version of Python I downloaded, Scratch, the Beginners Guide to Gambas... makes me wonder. During this whole process, has anyone bothered to define what age group you'd be starting with?

A lot of this stuff is just too heavyweight for kids. I remember the Color BASIC handbook that came with my Color Computer, it devoted a page to each command  of function, or class thereof, with sample program listings and cute little cartoon featuring an anthropomorphic computer. Radio Shack always excelled at that, spoon-feeding advanced concepts to kids.

I was 18 when I got that computer, but at the time I could easily see very young kids getting the hang of it as it was presented.

I'm not sure that there is anything but BASIC that you can start with when you're dealing with young users. Throw the structure and other stuff out the window, its the commands, functions and syntax you have to focus on. It's most common computer language that is probably the closest to written human language. It might be verbose, but it's easily read.

The biggest difference between what we used then and what we use now is that we now write for GUI's, and for that, most of us use GUI tools.

I look at Scratch and see how easy it is to understand, You drag and drop commands and functions like blocks and all of the parameters are laid out with entry fields with default values. You don't have to document it, it just is. That being said, the whole thing is a fishbowl. It's not going to take a student very far.

Most contextual text editors use color coding and are a major help in understanding source, but when it gets down to the meat of functions and parameters in the code line, in most editors all that is simply black text.

Maybe I just got spoiled over the years using VB and VBA, but it seems there's got to be a middle ground between commercial IDE's and what's commonly available in the open source community.

Maybe I'd want to coddle the kiddies too much. Maybe you need to just throw them in the shark tank and let them learn to swim around in the raw source. I just think that the attrition rate would be abnormally high if you did so. The last thing I'd want to see, though, is any student being taught some sort of pseudo-language or juvenile language that they will never encounter again... it's just a waste of time and brain space.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 06, 2012 5:15 am

Right.  I'd be very happy to see a dialect of BASIC - or a reworked equivalent - that retained the immediate simplicity and usability of the BBC Micro's default configuration, yet was powerful enough that experienced progtammers would not instantly feel embarrassed or cramped by it.

That's what I've been driving at.  Maybe I'm channelling Steve Jobs. 

So let's step back a bit.  In the absence of a BASIC implementation that is immediately suitable for the purpose, is there one that could be easily modified?

Or would it be sensible to start from scratch?  Bear in mind that the original BBC BASIC was contained within a 16KB ROM, so it's probably not a huge project to regain that level of functionality and efficiency.  We even get to reuse some stuff like GNU Readline and OpenVG to further simplify matters.
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 06, 2012 12:19 pm

Chromatix said:

So let's step back a bit.  In the absence of a BASIC implementation that is immediately suitable for the purpose, is there one that could be easily modified?
Or would it be sensible to start from scratch?


Gambas looked good to me though I haven't researched it in depth and found a few things I did not like about it ( square brackets for arrays ) but could live with. How immediately suitable for beginners or how easily modifiable I don't know.

For developing another Basic there are three choices -

* Building on something like Gambas

* Building something from the ground up

* Approaching it as a Basic to C ( or other ) translator

I personally favour the translator approach but that may preclude interpretation and easy debugging. I wouldn't say it's "not sensible" to start from scratch and you'll certainly get the exact language implementation you want that way.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 06, 2012 12:57 pm

To all us who think BASIC is useful language suitable for introducing people of all ages to programming and beyond, I propose we start another thread for exploring what options are available for the Raspberry-Pi.

There have been several suggestions for possible environments and implementations including BACON and Gambas and I am sure there were a couple more.

For those who believe in BASIC and its value as both a learning tool and practical development language for modern applications, I encourage you to come along and join in the discussion to help select a tool or tools and develop curricula for specific age groups.

I encourage those of you who don't believe, to offer constructive, intelligent, and useful criticism.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 06, 2012 1:04 pm

what's wrong with square brackets for arrays? :s if you are that nit-picky you really have to implement something from scratch (which then probably nobody will use).

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 06, 2012 1:39 pm

riFFraFF said:-

"...has anyone bothered to define what age group you'd be starting with? A lot of this stuff is just too heavyweight for kids."

This conversation seems to be going along the lines of looking for one language to teach in schools. I'm still hoping for a wider Computer Science approach.

Children are very flexible, so they can be presented with Scratch, Basic, Java script and even machine code when the time is right.

When my youngest son was 6 and wanted to know what I was doing, I introduced him to VB6. Of course he didn't start programming from square one. I started him off with some simple example programs (like flashing coloured forms) showed him what made it flash and let him experiment. I built a simple "rock fall" game, and again he played around with variables to change the size, colour and speed of flying objects.

Children, especially young children, need fast results. The level of simplicity/complexity needs to be in step with their age, ability and level of interest, because once you have lost them, you have lost them.

Initially, its about capturing their interest. Later on its about teaching them to reason. Teaching them to use their brains to think about problems and come up with solutions.

So even if they eventually drop programming as a subject (and the vast majority will drop it) they would hopefully have acquired some transferable skills, and have some idea about the technology that invades their daily lives.

Computer Science should involve discussion of the differences between a wide range of programming languages, and (ideally) provide an opportunity to experiment with many of them.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 06, 2012 2:36 pm

spock said:


what's wrong with square brackets for arrays? :s if you are that nit-picky you really have to implement something from scratch (which then probably nobody will use).


Nothing wrong with square brackets per se, but Basic arrays have typically used parenthesis and that's what someone having used Basic ( or a newbie typing in existing Basic programs ) would be expecting. I also recall Gambas also uses the C convention of array dimensioning so Dim var[10] provides for var[0]..var[9] where Basic usally (IME) uses Dim var(10) and provides var(0)..var(10). Again that would trip up some up.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 06, 2012 2:45 pm

spock said:


what's wrong with square brackets for arrays?


Well, you can't keypunch them on an IBM 026 keypunch... you need an IBM 029 and not everybody has an IBM 029 and multi-punching is such a PITA. 

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 06, 2012 3:21 pm

"Children, especially young children, need fast results. The level of simplicity/complexity needs to be in step with their age, ability and level of interest, because once you have lost them, you have lost them.

Initially, its about capturing their interest."

This is what i pointed out about 8 pages ago but seemed to have been ignored!. kids dont care about half (most) the things that are being discussed in these pages. It seems to be seasoned programmers that think like professionals, and that is not what is really required to spark a childs interest and keep them interested. Proof of that is in the current argument over square brackets for arrays? who cares! the device is going to be launched within weeks, it is getting very close to crunch time and i for one will end up using something like qb64 at the moment as python etc is too heavy for the young ones to grasp, and different versions are not even backward compatible, and wont be using half the other suggestions here as they are just way too in depth for newbies.... shame really as this device has sooo much potential and still no decided bread and butter basic language... one golden language wont suit all i agree, atleast decide which age groups your targeting and assign perhaps a tier of languages to progress through and follow on from.

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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Fri Jan 06, 2012 3:38 pm

When I first started playing with an Apple ][ in the early 80''s it took some time before I even understood the concept of arrays - I was using lots of variables to move stars about! Well, about 6. That's what forced me to learn about arrays. Point being, you can learn a lot even before the subject of arrays comes up. So square or round is fairly pointless - if the student hasn't become interested by the time arrays come up, it's not going to happen.
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Re: BASIC - more harmful than useful?

Sat Jan 07, 2012 4:00 am

One of the big advantages of BASIC is that it has a lot of books written for it - in the 1980s there were a lot of books which invited typing programs in and then tweaking them, and some of these even had different versions of the programs for several different computers.  I still have a small collection of these books from my beginning days.

The problem is that unless we explicitly emulate one of these old computers (and emulators certainly do exist), their programs are useless to beginners, who will not know how to convert the programs so that they run on whatever version of BASIC we cook up today.  The difference between square and round brackets for array subscripts would be an insurmountable challenge to many, as would the conversion to high-resolution graphics.  (BBC BASIC would interpret square brackets as enclosing an assembly fragment - I actually don't know what error message this would produce.)

Which all suggests that we may need a new language that keeps important characteristics of BASIC but is clearly different from it.  Then new books can be written, taking inspiration from old books perhaps, but naming the new language and thus not confusing people who come across the old books.

I think that it is possible to invent a language which is as simple to start with as BASIC - not requiring any boilerplate just to get words or simple graphics on the screen - but which has more advanced features, waiting only for the need to use them.

The important thing is to ensure that the advanced features never get in the way of learning the simple ones - they are not stumbled across by accident, nor required in boilerplate form to access the simple features.  If they show up in the middle of an older brother's code or in a book, it is possible to look up what they do by keyword or by symbol, and thus learn by example.

I'm developing some ideas along these lines privately.  If I can make anything of them...
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