Friends Of The Turtle
David D. Thornburg
Los Altos, CA
The Computer Faire Of The Turtle...
While some might argue with the exact date, I place the start of the Personal Computer Revolution in 1978. That was the year in which affordable desk-top computers were first made available to the general public. The big sellers that year, Commodore, Apple, and Radio Shack, are still going strong–as are other companies who joined in the explosion of enthusiasm which greeted these products.
But during these past years there was another revolution brewing – a revolution in computer languages which promised to make the newly affordable computer easy to program by its largely non-technical owners.
The mainstay of the personal computer revolution was the language BASIC. The fact that many hundreds of thousands of people are able to write programs in this language is strong testimony to its effectiveness. But BASIC has two problems. First, the threshold for learning the language is not very low and, second, the power of the language isn't large enough to invite the user to create extremely sophisticated programs. When BASIC was the only language in town, it was gladly accepted. After all, one alternative – assembly language –doesn't appeal to many first-time computer users; and more powerful structured languages such as PASCAL seem too complex for people interested in balancing checkbooks or generating games.
But, for a decade before 1978, research in university and industrial laboratories was pointing the way to a new type of computer language – a language with a low threshold for learning and a power so great that it could continue to serve the needs of its user at any level of sophistication. One such language, LOGO, was developed and studied on the East Coast, primarily at MIT. While research showed that this language was easy for children to learn and powerful enough for advanced applications, one problem remained – LOGO needed a lot of memory in which to run. As a result, most potential users had to be content either with reading articles about the language or, more recently, with reading Seymour Papert's book, Mindstorms.
And then, last year, the seeds of the new revolution began to sprout. Atari released its version of PILOT – a powerful yet simple text manipulation language which had been enhanced by the addition of a graphics environment similar to that in LOGO. At about the same time, Texas Instruments released a version of LOGO which had been compressed to fit on a memory expanded TI 99/4. With these two products, it was evident that a new class of computer language was starting to appear on small affordable computers.
The acceleration of this trend was most evident at the 7th West Coast Computer Faire held in San Francisco this March. This show was packed by attendees who, in my estimation, were the most computer literate group to ever attend this show. In past years an exhibitor was likely to hear questions such as: "Why can't I receive television signals on a color monitor?" This year I was asked questions such as: "What are the major differences between Atari PILOT and LOGO?" Many people had read Papert's book and were fully prepared for the revolution in user friendly languages. They were not let down. The presence of Seymour Papert as keynote speaker and the booths providing information on YPLA (Young People's LOGO Association), FOLLLK (Friends of LISP, LOGO, and Logic for Kids), and FOTT (Friends of the Turtle) set the tone for the release of several versions of LOGO for the Apple II. A special exhibit on the fourth floor of the Faire devoted considerable space to the demonstration of Apple's own LOGO product which was developed by LOGO Computer Systems, Inc. (LCSI). In addition to the language, other exhibits included a prototype of a "sprite" board for the Apple which allows the computer to control four animated turtles at once. Two floors down, another version of Apple LOGO was being offered by Terrapin – a company known previously for its computer controlled robot turtles. (I have copies of both the LCSI and Terrapin LOGO, and will report my opinions to you in a later column. At first glance, they are each terrific!)
Just as some people feel that IBM has legitimized the personal computer by entering the market themselves, one got the feeling that the presence of LOGO on the Apple (with its massive installed base) was going to help wean people from BASIC faster than might otherwise be expected.
Product and information booths were only one source of information on this topic. In addition, no less than a dozen demonstrations, workshops, tutorials and speeches were devoted to user friendly languages.
While I spent much of my time helping Addison Wesley show my book on turtle geometry (yes, Atari PILOT fans, Picture This! is now at your local bookstore!), I was still able to talk with many attendees and visit the other booths. Those people who knew about LOGO could hardly wait to see a version on their own computer.
Decked out in my Friends of the Turtle T-shirt, I visited with Rich Pattis who was demonstrating software supporting his excellent book, Karel the Robot (Wiley) – a book devoted to introducing people to programming through the medium of the turtle. While geared towards the beginning PASCAL programmer, Pattis' work shows a sensitivity that is characteristic of the user friendly languages such as PILOT and LOGO. The people from FOLLLK were acting as guides to the host of LOGO-based exhibits and talks. Larry Muller and his dad, Jim, demonstrated TI LOGO at the YPLA booth. Recent price reductions in both the TI 99/4A computer and in the TI LOGO cartridge have further fanned the flames on a product whose sales were already heating up quite nicely.
The Computer As A Mudpie
Considering the booths, talks, workshops, and enthusiastic attendees, it was clear that this year's Computer Faire was the focal point of the new revolution – the user friendly languages had come home at last. People were lined up against the walls to hear Papert's keynote address. While much of his talk was devoted to describing the function of the World Center for Informatics and the Human Resource (in Paris, France), he also talked about his view of the computer as a "mudpie" – a tool with which children could (through languages such as LOGO) make discoveries on their own and with which they could acquire for themselves information which was previously "taught" to them by teachers. It was easy to be swept along in the belief that we were witnessing the onset of a revolution which promises to be as significant as the advent of the personal computer itself.
I can state, without equivocation, my belief that languages such as LOGO and PILOT will completely displace BASIC as the popular programming medium in the next five years. This belief arises not from my own excitement with something new, but from the results of my own experiences with these languages over the past several years. I have had the pleasure of sharing these programming environments with children from second to sixth grade, as well as with teachers, college students, and artists. The enthusiasm expressed by these varied audiences is enormous.
And each of you who calls yourself a Friend of the Turtle is sharing in this new age of computing – in this new level of power now being unlocked in the Apple, Atari and TI computers all over the world.
Let the revolution continue!
For more information on LOGO and other user friendly languages, contact:
Young People's LOGO Association
1208 Hillsdale Dr.
Richardson, TX 75081
The FOLLLK Foundation
c/o Social and Information Service
San Francisco State University
1600 Holloway Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94132
and, of course,
Friends of the Turtle
P.O. Box 1317
Los Altos, CA 94022