November 2006

Bytes for All…

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Summary of discussions for the months of September-October 2006
‘And the winner is …… Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. Lasting peace can not be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty’. Yes, this years Nobel Peace Prize goes to Bangladesh. And we at Bytes For All are thrilled that grassroots level efforts in the developing world are finally acknowledged by the rest of the world. Another month of lively discussions on the BFA readers list has concluded and here’s the summary of discussions on this ever-expanding list of diverse views.

Why Johnny cant’ code
Johnny is a typical child in today’s world. Faced with an onslaught of information, need to learn more and more in a short spell of time, and the need to excel no matter what. An article on how a computer now days have no provision to run the BASIC language was posted by Fredrick Noronha on the list. Read the entire article at http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2006/09/14/basic/. According to the article computer technology giants like Microsoft, Apple and MIT Media Lab are bent on providing information consumption devices, not tools that teach creative thinking and technological mastery. Young programmers are now fed continuously on a diet of GUI and drag and drop based tools to design software. Gone are the days when it was possible to dirty your hands with line-by-line coding so that you actually learn and appreciate how the guts of your computer work. In short Microsoft and co. are perpetrating high-end rapid development tools, while systematically exterminating coding languages like BASIC, PASCAL, C etc.

One of our readers, Larry Press opined that as languages like BASIC and PASCAL outgrew their roles as just teaching languages and came to be used for real time applications they grew in complexity. Making them difficult to learn. He wondered whether a renewed effort at creating a new GUI based language on the lines of BASIC was required to create interest in coding.

Vickram, agreed with Larry that a new teaching language was required. He added that in our excitement to create visually appealing applications, we have been forgetting that, as newer paradigms like SIMPUTER and other hand held devices come on the computing horizon, resource hungry GUI application are likely to become redundant. What we need is cheaper technology for all kinds of people including those with functional illiteracy (visual disabilities, learning difficulties, reading/writing difficulties for both neurological and linguistic reasons). And what is better than a simple coding language. Munir Husan argued whether it was necessary to hook every one to programming at such a young age. There are other things our kids need to learn besides programming. Like how to use the Internet in a good way. Learn programming if you have the aptitude for it. Geeks will learn it anyway! Another reader Morshed opined that in the earlier days one had to write lines and lines of code in COBOL to get a decent statistical analysis. Today you can do it in the twinkling of an eye with packages like Excel. According to Morshed programming should be left to computer science professionals and the rest of us use intelligent applications to solve problems. Johnny need not code. Karl Brown deferred with Morshed, saying that the world’s need for programmers, is only going to increase not shrink in the years to come, because applications of tomorrow are going to be very complex. Broadband, wireless and everywhere-on connectivity are not going to programme themselves! Development tools are becoming high end. No one uses assembly language anymore. But that does not mean, you need not know how to program! You can compile beautiful spreadsheets and pour your heart out on a blog. But who is going to write the next version of Excel and code the blog? For lovers of BASIC, Karl provided a link from where you can download a free version (run able on Windows XP even!) http://www.geocities.com/KindlyRat/GWBASIC.html.

Kragen Javier Sitaker, too seemed to disagree with Morshed. Intelligent applications like Excel have their bugs. So what saves the day for you: good old programming! Learning to programme conditions you to think logically and abstractly about your programme and that is an important skill. According to Edward Cherlin: BASIC is not a very good language to learn programming, since the programming model in BASIC does not teach you how computers work. He says the best languages to learn programming, are FORTH, APL and LISP. By virtue of being purely mathematical they allow you to go as close as possible to the core of the computer. Larry argued that if that was the criteria, isn’t
Assembly Language the one that takes you closest to the bowels of the computer.

So we are back to square one!  Larry stressed that in order to learn the ‘math of computing’ the need for a simple language still stands. Satish Jha found it hard to fathom everyone’s fetish for coding. In the hierarchy of designing, analysing, coding, testing, managing, selling each one has his/her own role and place. In Satish’s words Johnny does not make his own chair, table, train, airplane, road. Why must he code? Larry countered saying that the goal was not to turn Johnny into a professional programmer, but to introduce the concepts of algorithmic thinking to him. When we teach physics and biology in schools we don’t expect our children to become physicists and biologists. Lisa Thruston disagreed with Edward saying that LISP was a difficult language to learn for an 8 year old kid. BASIC still stands. Gihan Dias, felt that the point is not which programming language is used. But what kids ‘do’ learn and ‘how’ they learn using
computers. Having fun with PowerPoint is as effective as writing code in BASIC. ‘To be or not to be (a programmer!) that is the question’.

What to do if your computer is infected 

Pubudu Wickramarachchi, Debug Computer Peripherals Sri Lanka, posted an interesting article on the above topic. You can know if your computer is infected if:

• Unexpected messages or images are suddenly displayed on your screen
• Unusual sounds or music played at random
• Your CD-ROM drive mysteriously opens and closes
• Programmes suddenly start on your computer
• You receive notification from your firewall that some applications have attempted to connect to the Internet, although you did not initiate this.
• Infection via e-Mail can be if people complain of receiving lots of e-Mail from your address when you have never sent it.
• Your mailbox contains e-Mails without a senders address.
• Other symptoms can be: your computer freezes frequently or encounters errors
• Your computer slows down when programmes are started.
• The operating system is unable to load.
• Files and folders have been deleted or their content has changed.
• Your hard drive is accessed too often (the light on your main unit flashes rapidly)
• Applications freeze or function erratically. For e.g. you cannot close the application window.

Some of the symptoms above may indicate hardware or software problems. If you suspect virus here’s what you do:

• First of all don’t panic! It will avoid you unnecessary stress and loss of important data.
• Disconnect from LAN/Internet immediately as most viruses come from there.
• Keep your Anti Virus software up-to-date with patches (do this on an uninfected computer available to you).
• Run a full system scan. A good anti-virus programme should be able to make your system as good as new.

Read the entire post :
http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/bytesforall_readers/message/8748.

Electricity and computing
Partha of Bytes For All had the following poser for all readers: Some time back there was acute power shortage in Dhaka city of Bangladesh. Since computers depend heavily on electricity, have we thought about alternative power sources to run our computers especially in areas where electricity is a luxury? Many readers replied with case studies, views and innovative suggestions. Subbiah Arunachalam, suggested solar power. Countries close to the equator can exploit this natural resource to the fullest extent. Another option: wind power. And how about manual power! Pedaling a bicycle like device to charge a battery, can power a computer for 40 minutes. Arun also cautioned that conventional electricity was as of now was the cheapest option. Not as far as impact on the environment I guess. Hakikur Rehman suggested pumps driven by ground water circulation. Ananya Guha of IGNOU suggested solar panels. Gaurav Chakraverty of TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) said that his organisation was trying pilot projects on Solar and Bio Gasifiers.

The idea was to look at the demand estimate and then design custom panels leading to optimisation of the power output. The actual power requirement of the equipment could be reduced with tweaking of the design. Gaurav also suggested every community ideally needs to produce its own power and not depend on the government run power grid. Surplus power can always be supplied to the grid.

This is where bio gasifers come in. Monjur Mahmud suggested a simple thing like a car battery. At least that’s what they use in Bangladeshi villages to power their TV’s. O.P. Goel suggested taping running river water from the hillsides to power small locally made turbines. These light up, up to 100 houses and even power a flourmill. This experiment has been going on in Himachal Pradesh, India. Nice to know, that our readers are thinking out of the box. For more read our readers list

Bytes for All: www.bytesforall.net
Bytes For All Readers Discussion:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bytesforall_readers
Bytes for All Summary Archive: http://www.bytesforall.net/Summary/
Bytes for All discussion summary compiled by: Archana P. Nagvekar, Bytes for All, India

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