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Critter happenings

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Since I had some Saturday errands to run, I decided to take the kiddo with me. And if you have a six year-old, you know that you can't just bundle up the kid and do your errands. You have to make it something SPECIAL.

Thankfully, that's easy to do. I took the kiddo with me to Starbucks and got myself a coffee and got her one of their little 75-cent triangular pastry thingies, which is enough to turn "riding in the car" into a "Super Special Daddy And Me Outing!"

Our Starbucks is right next to a T-Mobile store which had a bigass poster of the Google Phone in the window. And the conversation went like this. . .

Critter: [sounding very much like Veruca Salt] Oooh daddy. I need a Google Phone. I really need one of those.

Me: Why on earth do you need a Google Phone?

Critter: WELL. . .if I had a Google Phone I could call up all of my friends and I could talk to 'em every day and I could talk to them for a long time!

Me (under my breath): Well I think you just made a good case for me to not get you a friggin' Google Phone.

On another kiddo-related note, I just tried out Microsoft Small Basic. And, like a lot of Microsoft offerings, it has some compelling features coupled with some deal-breakers.

On the plus side, the syntax of the language is great for kids. It's a sort of cut-down Visual Basic (with no line numbers, danged fascists) coupled with some simple objects for I/O (text or graphics window), and some simple data structures. It also has a turtle graphics object, which is a great thing for kids, because the cute little turtle drawing lines makes things obvious for kids. For example, here's a program that draws a fractal tree with the turtle.

angle = 30
delta = 10
distance = 60
Turtle.Speed = 9

Sub DrawTree
If (distance > 0) Then

Stack.PushValue("distance", distance)
distance = distance - delta
Turtle.Turn(-angle * 2)
distance = Stack.PopValue("distance")


Some of the examples are more sophisticated (like a program that displays Flickr images), but most of the programs are simple enough to explain to a kid. There's also a little paddle-game that could be expanded to a breakout-game.

And if you're a kid who didn't write a breakout game in BASIC, then you just haven't lived :)

Unfortunately, the program has some drawbacks. First off, despite the program being quite small (a 3.5-meg download that installs to about 5 meg including the manual), the program's startup time is abysmally glacially slow -- around ten seconds on my quad-core box. When dealing with "hummingbird on crack" attention spans of most kids, that kind of startup time is a deal-killer.

Also the help needs some more help. It has a cute little command-helper that expands to a couple of sentences of help-text in the little side-window, but that's not enough. Even if the side-window had a "more help on this" button that'd open up a browse-able and search-able help window with an example of the command in action, it'd help.

Finally, the program runs multi-instance and multi-document (aka MDI). My choice would be to run multi-instance and give each instance a single expanded document, as that'd be a bit easier for kids to deal with. Overlapping windows aren't as obvious as you think, especially if you're a kid. Being able to open several documents at once is important for Visual Studio, but not for something like this.

The included PDF file (I thought Microsoft was all about XPS, go figure) looks like it's intended to be printed and followed as a step-by-step guide for kids. That's a nice start, but the online help needs to be more helpful.

In conclusion, it looks like a good start for parents who are nostalgic to teach their kids some bits of how programs work. I hope it doesn't get abandoned in its current state.

On a good note, the program doesn't appear to be finished. Given that it's on their "development labs" site and a couple of the toolbar buttons seem to be permanently grayed (syntax check and build), I'm hoping that it'll have its big bugs fixed. If it does, I'll install it on Maggie's lappy so we can both figure how to say "20 GOTO 10" in a structured way :)
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