☞ Recapturing that HyperCard Feeling

HyperCard, a Macintosh program from the late 1980’s, was my gateway into computer programming. It allowed a smooth on-ramp into the world of code, attempting to remove the boundary between users and creators when it came to software by allowing everyone to easily build their own programs. And we need to recreate these kinds of tools.

I recently wrote a piece for BBC Future about HyperCard and its specific properties, as well as a need for rekindling this kind of approach. Here’s the beginning of the piece:

Last year I set out to build a simple piece of software to let my daughter practice her “sight words” as she began to learn how to read. This was nothing fancy, just a program that flashed words for her to memorise on the screen.

I’m not an expert programmer by any means, but while this task wasn’t hard, it required some work and effort, not to mention the accreted experience of about 20 years of coding. But most people can’t do this kind of thing: there simply aren’t tools currently available for making lots of types of software without sophisticated computer programming. 

It wasn’t always this way. At least on the Macintosh, there was a time when this was possible. In my own personal retelling of computer history, even though the Macintosh was released in 1984, its potential was not truly achieved until 1987. What really confirmed the earth-shattering nature of the Mac for me was that year’s release of a piece of software called HyperCard. This one-two punch of Macintosh and HyperCard changed how I thought about computers.

Read the rest of the piece here. And if you are interested in this world of end-user programming/“no-code” tools, or are actually building tools in this space, I want to know.

In my book Overcomplicated, I explored the byzantine complexity of technology, a complexity that is increasingly approaching some aspects of biology. And one form of technology is the law, including tax codes.

So when my wife recently showed me this wild chart from the IRS, that is “An Illustration of the Modern United States Tax System”…

Taxpayer Roadmap 2019

…the first thing I thought of were the charts of biochemical pathways from Roche:

To be clear: the convergence of complexity in biology and tax law, while interesting, is not a good thing.

A few shorter bits:

  • Here’s a fantastic line about the power of spreadsheets (and programming and replicability): “you can calculate literally anything, and transmit not only the results of those calculations, but the actual environment itself, to anyone in the world, and expect that if they have a computer, they can replicate your results.”

  • From an article about the future of AI, there is this suggestion: “programming digital assistants to refuse to answer philosophical questions, especially about the bounds of reality.” Heady stuff.

  • Check out “Pipe: How the System Call That Ties Unix Together Came About”: It’s full of Unix history, but really focuses on the fundamental principle of interoperability and the importance of being able to plug tools together.

  • And, in case you missed it, here’s a short story I wrote earlier this year: Constant Decay.

Until next time.

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