The First Programming Book I Ever Read

Over the holidays someone gave me a copy of the first programming book I ever read. In rereading it, I found almost as much as when I first experienced it at nine years old.

Book cover

The first thing you need to know is that since it was published in 1983, I didn’t know how to find an interpreter for the code in 1999. All examples were run via thought experiment. Because of this fact, I think that this book did more to get me excited about the idea of programming than it did to impart knowledge. In this way, I think it follows a higher-level version of the “give a man a fish…” saying.

This book will teach you how to write simple programs in BASIC for your computer. Its purpose, however, is not to make you a programmer. Its purpose is to help you understand computers, to think about how computers can help you in all kinds of ways, and to discover how much fun you can have when you learn how to talk to computers.

Content

BASIC Programming for Kids explains how to write simple BASIC programs for The Apple II+/e, Atari 400/800, Commodore 64/PET/VIC 20, TI 99/4A, Timex Sinclair 1000, and TRS-80. (The programs still run in Chipmunk Basic.) The fact that such a book could be written for ten different platforms is a testament to the ubiquity of BASIC in personal computers at the time, but the book does spend a lot of time explaining special cases and how to rewrite the examples so that they run on some of the platforms. (Apparently the Timex Sinclair 1000 was an awful machine.)

It begins with a 30-page chapter on how to type and use the prompts on the various platforms. Then the language is taught over ten chapters, with exercises at the end of each chapter. There is a final chapter with some example programs, and then appendices for reference, troubleshooting, editing, and information about computers in general.

Here’s a quick example to refresh your BASIC memory:

NEW
10 FOR J = 1 TO 5 
20 PRINT "JUMP";J 
30 FOR C = 1 TO 3 
40 PRINT "CLAP";C 
50 NEXT C 
60 NEXT J 
RUN

After rereading the book cover to cover, I have only two new thoughts. First, that the author did a good job of conveying the joy of computing to young readers. Second, that the BASIC language was an awful mess but succeeded for very good reasons.

Review: Positive

This is a good book. I’m glad I found it when I went looking for it. Here’s an example that follows a description of what variables are:

You can put variables in a program, like this:

NEW
10 N = 2
20 X = 5
30 PRINT N + X

What will that program print? Run it and see if you guessed correctly. Notice that lines 10 and 20 don’t make anything happen on the screen when you run the program. They tell the program to do something inside the computer, but only the word PRINT makes a message appear on the screen.

Now change lines 10 and 20 to give the variables some different values.

It’s a small, self-contained, understandable example with a concise, complete explanation and an invitation to experiment. In this way, it mirrors the style of Zed Shaw’s Learn Python The Hard Way. It never blames the reader for being wrong, and in fact seems to encourage the reader to forgive his or her own mistakes while writing programs.

So yes, it’s a good book. But about this BASIC thing…

BASIC Sucked, But Worse Was Better

Seriously, what is this crap? Specifying a line number for each statement before the program is finished? REM? No proper functions? How did anyone survive this?

Oh, the alternative was to use assembly, or to slip into an AI laboratory. Right.

The two great things about BASIC as it existed in personal computers was that it was extremely simple, and it was everywhere. Ault was able to describe almost the entire language with extensive examples in a hundred pages of large print, and those pages covered the vast majority of PCs on the market at the time.

The reason I was able to understand the book without actually using a computer was because of the simplicity of BASIC and because of Ault’s ability to explain it using terms no more complex than necessary. At this point I should mention that this book may not actually be the very first programming book I read, but it was certainly the first one I understood. I really don’t remember.

…And Also Worse

Before rereading this book, I had mostly forgotten what BASIC really was, and didn’t necessarily agree with the statement that BASIC causes brain damage. Now I agree wholeheartedly, and I speak from experience. BASIC crippled me for years.

At its core, BASIC is a crappy way to express a state machine. The syntax encourages tight, unreadable balls of spaghetti. GOSUB is a poor way to break out functions. Most of the punctuation feels very ad hoc.

I can’t help but contrast this mess with Scheme. All other concerns aside, Scheme makes a great teaching language because there is almost no syntax and code is inherently hierarchical. Beginners simply learn new words. Everything else is gravy.

But I didn’t learn Scheme, I learned BASIC and stuck with it for about six years. I went from TrueBASIC to Visual MacStandardBasic to METAL BASIC to BlitzMax. I would occasionally try to learn a new language, but would quickly become frustrated with the lack of easy-to-use IDEs and graphics libraries. (During this period I was writing nothing but games.)

Languages like METAL BASIC had few features and libraries, but for me that was as much of a strength as it was a weakness. Rather than spending hours searching for which giant package to import, I could browse a complete list of commands less than twenty pages long to find what I needed, modules and namespaces be damned. When I was done writing a game, I could click “Compile” and email it to my friends instead of asking them to download Joe Shmoe Player 3000 or tearing my hair out over config files. (For this reason, I think Processing and BlitzMax are currently the best platforms to learn game programming with.)

I spent so much time in the game bubble that I missed out on many early opportunities to learn new language concepts.

What Everyone Knows Is Wrong Today

Today’s popular languages are objectively better than BASIC in every way. Features, syntax, libraries, the works. But for a kid who wants to write games by typing into a window and clicking COMPILE or RUN, the language options are limited to Processing, BlitzMax, and whatever GameMaker uses. None of these are real-world languages, so anyone starting out with them will not have a smooth transition to the next stage in their development as a master of technology.

I won’t bother rehashing what others have said about this problem or yearn for the days of the BASIC-prompt-as-main-interface. I’ll just say this: make better tools, write more books and tutorials.

Resources

Invent Your Own Computer Games with Python is comparable to BASIC Programming for Kids. Better, even. Python’s tools are not ideal for children, but they are good enough to teach programming with.

Here are some ways to create games with a good write/run/distribute tool, but not necessarily with good documentation for those new to programming: