By Sheldon Greaves
The year was 1981. I was taking a year off from the university… to go to college. I was attending Chemeketa Community College in my native town of Salem, Oregon in order to find out whether math was something I could learn to do, or not. It seemed the best place to answer that question was to go to a school where the teachers routinely worked with people unused to academia, and who just needed to learn the stuff. As it happened, I discovered that I wasn’t entirely hopeless. But that’s another story.
While I was there I decided to go “all in” on the math. To supplement what I was doing in math class, I signed up for a course in BASIC. For those of you who are too young to remember, BASIC stood forÂ Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. We worked on Apple II+ computers; state of the art. I had seen my first personal computer, a TRS-80, at a Radio Shack in Brussels. It floored me. Our machines sported green screens and 5 1/4″ disks instead of using cassette tapes for data storage. The disks were single-sided, but the judicious application of a hole punch could Â cut a new read-write notch that turned the disk into a double-sided floppy.
BASIC was a very simple language and therefore perfect for learning what one could do on a computer. Since it was an interpreted language, you could just play around with lines of code and see what they would do on the fly. If you needed to evaluate a slightly complex math expression, a few lines of code would give you an answer. As years went by, although I didn’t do much BASIC programming myself, I marveled at what others could do with it. As I worked on the Amateur Scientist CD-ROM archive, quite a few of those projects included code in BASIC. Programmers in more advanced languages used to sniff that “BASIC rots the mind,” which I consider a slander on a highly useful tool.
It isn’t clear to me that there is anything out there today that is so easy to learn and play around with. Apple’s HyperCard was an outstanding possible successor; object-oriented, very powerful, and yet easy to just cobble things together for highly specific and customized applications. It was also one of the first successful hypermedia systems before the world wide web. I’ve never quite forgiven Apple for letting such a good tool languish and die.
It seems to me, from my admittedly limited perspective, that there aren’t many tools for just messing around on the computer. If you need a special application and there isn’t an app for it already, you’re out of luck. The citizen science community in particular could, I think, benefit from some sort of simple, easy-to-learn, widely-available, and robust programming tool.
If one is out there, let’s hear about it.