What Happened to Fun and Educational Programming?

    Back in the seventies I became addicted to computer magazines. In the early sevenities I had studied computers, working with keypunch machines, greenbar paper and mainframes like the IBM 360, but then the microcomputer revolution burst on the scene and I fell in love Atari, Apple, Commodore, TI, Sinclair, Radio Shack and all the other little computers. I haunted the newsstands for issues of Byte, Compute! (in all it’s various incarnations), Dr. Dobbs, InfoWorld, On Computing, A+, A.N.A.L.O.G., Popular Computing, ST-Log and my favorite Creative Computing. I was so addicted to computer magazines I’d read magazines devoted to computers I didn’t even own. A common feature to all of them was the type-in program, which encouraged readers to learn to program. At the start of this revolution it was assumed that everyone would eventually have to learn to program and most secondary schools and colleges started introducing computer literacy classes. Then the revolution was networked.

    So what happened? I think most people learned that they hated to program. It’s a tedious activity that I took to. I made a career of programming. I’ve heard that interest in programming has fallen off so much that Bill Gates has to beg Congress to be allowed to hire foreign programming students. The big brouhaha is the claim that American kids aren’t smart enough, don’t know math and science, and would rather play video games than write them. That may be true, but I’m guessing there might be other reasons.

    First, there is little incentive to custom program when there are so many free programs around. How fun can a 200 line type-in game be compared to some million line monster that was produced like a Hollywood movie? The open source crowd has made a virtue out of volunteer programming, so that tends to remove the greed incentive. It’s a strange era we live in where the richest man in the world is a geek who climbed to the top of his pile of money by programming and the young people of today revolt against Gate’s model of success by advocating a commie paradigm of programming. That’s like refusing to join a gold rush and taking up alchemy. When I was young I foolishly protested the draft and the Vietnam War, but who’d have imagined later generations would grow up to protest against making money.

    There are other reasons why programming isn’t as popular as beer-can collecting or poetry writing. Home computers used to come with a programming interpreter built in, but now-a-days you have to have an IDE that takes the dedication of a Ph.D. student to learn, and to give away your masterpiece you have to convince your friends to install some massive runtime. Programming is no longer little. If kids put as much work into learning to play the guitar or singing as it would take to program they could be rock stars – that’s why there’s American Idol and not American Hacker on TV.

    The real reason why kids don’t want to program, study math or science, or become engineers is because those careers have no sex appeal. Even lowly desk jockies in The Office, appear to lead more exciting lives than someone who sits in front of a screen all day typing in keywoods. When hot women are interviewed on reality shows about the men they’d like to meet you seldom hear one wishing to hook up with a programmer. Not only is programming a male profession, but it appears to be for omega males. It’s lucky I snagged a wife before I discovered microcomputers.

    With the video game industry becoming bigger than the movie industry it’s a wonder that video game programmers aren’t as glamorous as movie directors or screenwriters.  (Even I can’t picture them being compared to actors.)  Since programs are now written by teams, why aren’t there programming cards like baseball cards, so kids could collect the Microsoft players, or the Apple players or the Linux players – hell the kids on Slashdot certainly argue over their favorite teams as much as any kid ever argued over football teams.  Unfortunately, programming is about as exciting as plumbing so its doubtful we can ever make it into a skill that kids dream of making it big in.  Sure there are millions of us who love to program and we can make more money than plumbers but the profession is just not going make kids want to study in school.  I wonder how many kids would want to be rock stars or movie actors if it required calculus?



5 thoughts on “What Happened to Fun and Educational Programming?”

  1. Just stumbled upon your blog… I identify with you in so many ways, first as a 60 something computer guy (almost retired), having gone through the mainframe era, then first in my family/office/circle to get a microcomputer, going paperless (ScanSnap has been the breakthrough), dBase III, ASP, what to do in retirement (lose weight #1 here as well), and on and on.

    I still use ASP and JavaScript built with Notepad/Notetab. I’ve yet to find an IDE for webdev that suits. For PC computing, I got on the Powerbasic bandwagon years ago and love it… no bloatware.

    In my career, I’ve made money using 5 programming languages (weaned on IBM Assembler), dabbled in 3 others, and keep coming back to Basic (including ASP/VB/VBA/PB). I’ve been a database administrator/analyst since the days of IBM’s IMS and have done a fair amount of work in 5 different database systems overall.

    But like you, the old body and mind doesn’t cooperate like it used to, and I also find modern life more and more disruptive and noisy with too much change for the sake of … hey look, there’s a squirrel !

    1. It’s funny how many old computing guys like us are out there. And now we’re all retiring. A friend of mine, who is retiring from FedEx said he mentioned the word minicomputer to some younger programmers the other day and they didn’t even know what they were. He said, you know, VAXes, PDP-11, etc. No clue.

  2. I never used a VAX or PDP, but I had forgotten my stint with the DEC Alpha which was a screamer in its day, with Unix or the special version of Windows written for it. Not a minicomputer per se, but a ‘server’.

    The trick today is to try and latch on to technologies that are going to survive for a while, so we can have a better chance of managing our code and file/database formats and convert/redistill them to new/common formats so they can be passed to the next generation.

    And a big problem today with technology are hidden ‘features’ that we didn’t bargain for, features that spy on us, do things without our knowledge, or have ‘surprises’ (deletion of data after 3 bad password attempts, for example). The ‘smartphone’ environment is especially untrustworthy and ‘the cloud’ is still dubious, IMHO.

    Retiring,,, I have a number of friends who now do contract work from home and have to turn away jobs. Cobol, now with a number of enhancements, is still a huge player, BTW. Online teleconferencing and whiteboarding is a big help too.

    Paperless… hope to see you write an article on a good inexpensive Faraday cage, to protect our digital content from EMPs. I think about things like that.

    1. I think it’s an all or nothing situation with civilization now. If civilization collapses we won’t care much about falling back to using paper. We’ve gone too far down the Internet path to turn back now. I trust Dropbox, but shouldn’t. I keep meaning to set up a program to sync my files between two or more cloud services. And there’s still the problem of people breaking in. The more backups you have, the more places you have to protect, and keep in sync. Hell, I have 50GB of space at a cloud service I have no idea who they are. It just maps to my machine.

      One day I hope we have companies that protect our data with the same level of protection as banks protect our money.

      1. I think of the files on my PC’s hard drive as the original baseline set, and copies on external USB drives as backups. I have several external USB drives and they all have the same stuff as what’s on my PC. I use Beyond Compare to keep them in sync. I usually sync to my main USB drive at least once a day, and the others once a week, or whenever I bring the offsite drive home for syncing, usually once a month, or so.

        I see where BC4 now has DropBox support. In case you’re interested, they do have a free trial. I also use BC to sync my webfolders (local PC files versus what’s on my ISP webfolders).

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