Sunday, January 17, 2010

Using BASIC To Destroy The World

I first got interested in computers in the early 1980's when my dad brought home our first honest-to-god computer. I don't remember exactly what it was; a TRS-80? I just remember that it was squat, ugly, and unwieldy. There was no floppy drive; you loaded programs into memory with a cassette recorder. Programs that likely had about thirty lines of code took forty minutes to load. It was awesome.

As the years went by, computers came and went. IBMs, a Commodore 64, and a host of custom built machines my dad put together (he still does that today). But early on in the computer parade, we had one that came with a large set of hardbound guides. They explained everything from setting up the equipment to the technical specs of the machine itself. One covered MS-DOS (you know it today as a command prompt -- how the mighty have fallen).

But one book stood out. I read it cover to cover and it dominated my life one summer. The book was simply titled, "BASIC Programming Language".

BASIC is a dead language. It was clumsy and not very powerful. You couldn't create graphics with it, at least not anything beyond ASCII animation. But you could destroy the world with it.

I wrote lots of BASIC programs during that summer. Programs that tracked my school courses. A simple ELIZA program. The Vulcan Satellite.

Based, I think, on a plot point of one of the worst movies ever made (it would have been out at about the right time, anyway), the Vulcan Satellite was a computer controlled space probe that could be used to bombard any world city with a powerful laser. You gave the Vulcan coordinates and it would maneuver itself into position. The laser would fire and report telemetry back to calculate casualties. Please don't judge me; I was a protogeek with an inferiority complex.

The point is computers were these mysterious things that took time and effort to figure out. They came with magic books that you could use to create cool things (or useless wastes-of-time, depending on your bent). Computers have evolved. They come put together and preloaded. You turn it on, answer a couple of questions, and you're done. You don't have to know anything about DOS commands or a programming language to use a computer. That is definitely an improvement. Advances like that have made computers ubiquitous. Just about anybody is willing to buy a machine, plug it in and go.

The downside is it's also taken away the mystique and removed the curiosity factor that made people like me fall in love with computers. It was a necessary sacrifice but it still aches a bit. I could recreate the old Vulcan Satellite in C# or even Visual Basic, but it wouldn't be the same. Mainly because I'm not eleven anymore, but also because Visual Basic doesn't require you to type in line numbers. Sigh.

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