Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Learning to Code

Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song for June is called "The Cross-Examination of the Bee." This is the third and final song about the on-again, off-again feud between The Elephant and The Bee.

I have a challenge for you. Name Apple's all-time top competitor.

You might be thinking of Google, Microsoft, or Samsung. Maybe you'll reach back a few years and come up with Dell, Palm, or even IBM.

Nope. Many of these companies have managed to grab some of the market share, but saying they have a genuine turf war with Apple is like saying the Cleveland Browns have a rivalry with anyone. It's not a rivalry unless there's a history, and both sides are emotionally invested. As far as I am concerned, there is only one competitor that ever came close to matching Apple toe-to-toe. Commodore.

The Londons were a loyal Commodore family. We early-adopted the living hell out of the Commodore 64 in 1983.  Something had to fill the ten year void between the death of Orson Welles and the birth of Miley Cyrus, and the C64 did so charmingly. As soon as I touched its sleek, tan little body, I knew that I was laying my hands on the future. When I closed my eyes and tried to picture the 21st century, all I could imagine was people with Commodore keyboards and disk drives taped to their torsos. For some reason, these people always had shiny, asymmetric hairdos and button-down shirts with triangle patterns.

We set up the C64 in the pantry; the computer room hadn't been invented yet. The first time we plugged it in, I painstakingly typed "PLAY PAC MAN" and hit return.


Okay, that was disappointing. But then I realized that this was just the Commodore's way of saying, "I love you. Keep trying. We'll get through this together."

Soon I learned to speak its exotic language. There is nothing as simple, as perfect, or as elegant as BASIC. It only utilized capital letters, so everything you typed looked like shouting. This felt very natural to my seven-year-old brain.

Within a year, I was programming unique interactive games, like this one:

20 IF A$ = "YES" GOTO 40
30 GOTO 10
50 GOTO 10

Soon, I was writing programs that were hundreds of lines long. Interactive adventure games with complex environments, graphics and music. There were just so many creative ways to accuse the user of playing with doo-doo!

Notice that I have not used the word code. The first time I ever heard someone use that word in reference to computer programming was years later, when I was in college. My freshman roommate was a computer science major, and he found a way to use word at least once in every sentence. "We have to code a system that tells an imaginary elevator what floor to go to. I have to write 500 lines of code by Monday. If anyone calls while I'm coding, tell them I'll get back to them when I finish all my lines of code." Come on, Josh. What are you, a military cryptographer?

My son turned eight this month, and he expressed interest in learning to write computer programs, so we downloaded this amazing bit of software called Scratch. It's a kid-friendly programming platform designed by the good folks at M.I.T. Malcolm thinks it's pretty cool, but I am OBSESSED. Somehow, for nearly 30 years, I forgot how much I loved doing this. Now I can't remember ever wanting to do anything else.

Here's something I've been working on for a little over a week. I gave it the dorkiest 80s video game title I could come up with. If you want to actually play it, download Scratch and I'll email you the file.

With warmest regards,