Tag Archives | Programming

Daniel McCracken, the Greatest Computing McCracken, Has Died

Shortly after I got interested in computers in 1978, I took note of the fact that there were a bunch of books about then-current computing topics such as FORTRAN programming by one Daniel D. McCracken. His work seemed to be everywhere. He was no relation, but learning of his existence pleased me–there are relatively few of us McCrackens in the world.

Daniel McCracken died at the age of 81 on July 30th of this year in New York, but his passing only made the news last week, and I only became aware of it today. Here’s Friday’s New York Times’ obituary, by Steve Lohr, who calls him the Stephen King of programming books.

McCracken ended up writing or co-writing more than two dozen books, including ones on major programming languages such as ALGOL, COBOL, Modula-2 and Pascal, as well as Web site development.  They sold a total of 1.6 million copies. McCracken also taught programming at the City College of New York until his death. His biography there says that he wrote the first programming textbook in 1971; I don’t know for sure that he did, but he was surely the first important author of such tomes. He received numerous honors from the computing industry and co-edited a book with Margaret Mead. Given his success as an author and long career as a teacher, he may have showed more people how to program computers than any other one person.

I’ve long known that his work had made a major impact because people in tech industry have frequently asked me–as recently as a couple of weeks ago–whether I was related to him. Some have assumed he’s my father. One correspondent, in fact, even remained convinced that I was the FORTRAN textbook McCracken, even after he saw a photo of me that made pretty clear that I wasn’t writing books during the heyday of mainframes He seemed to suspect some sort of conspiracy; I took it as a compliment.

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Resolved: Programming is Hard Work

Over at his New York Times column, David Pogue has reviewed Google App Inventor, the toolkit–currently in private beta testing–that aims to let normal non-gearheads write applications for Android phones with no programming knowledge. His experience wasn’t sensational. In fact, he found Inventor so cryptic, cumbersome, and glitchy that he was unable to write a program–even after he brought in an expert consultant in the form of his 13-year-old son.

I enjoyed reading the column: It’s an entertaining, necessary antidote to some of the initial hype surrounding App Inventor. But it also left me feeling a tad melancholy. The concept behind Inventor remains exciting, and I hope that Google sticks with it and eradicates at least some of the gremlins that David encountered.

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Android Gets a Build-Your-Own-App App

Got an idea for a smartphone app? If you’ve got an Android phone you might be able to build it yourself, thanks to App Inventor for Android, a new Google Labs program for Windows, OS X, and Linux that’s designed to make building Android programs as easy as piecing blocks together.

Steve Lohr’s story in the New York Times makes it sound sensational; here’s a video from Google showing a lady creating her first App Inventor app:

App Inventor is in closed beta at the moment, and Google says it’ll let folks in “soon”–you can sign up here. As you’ll see if you fill out the sign-up form, Google sees the program as an educational tool of particular interest to teachers and students.

It’s an exciting idea that’s more than slightly reminiscent of HyperCard, the brilliant visual programming tool that was a big deal on the Mac more than twenty years ago, and which is missed to this day. HyperCard or something similar would be a boon on the iPhone–even Steve Jobs has says he thinks so, although Apple apparently doesn’t have any interest in building such an application itself, and new restrictions in the iOS developer agreement prevent apps developed with the HyperCard-like RunRev from being distributed on the App Store.

(More and more, I think that the surface similarities between Android and iOS are less interesting than the fundamental differences in emphasis and philosophy–and the more different the two OSes get, the more interesting they’ll be.)

I still have a cranky-old-man rant about PCs getting boring when they stopped coming with BASIC and normal people therefore stopped learning how to write their own software. I can’t wait to get my hands on App Inventor–and to see whether it’s capable of creating programs which anyone other than their inventors will want to use…


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