Getting back to basics

by Rael Dornfest

I've been spending some wee bit of my evening time lately getting back to basics--PBASIC, to be exact. I picked up a one of Parallax's nifty little Basic Stamp Discover Kits on a recent visit to that geek supermarket, Fry's electronics. (The "never shop when you're hungry" addage doesn't only apply to food, you know.)

I'm not quite sure what on earth posessed me to do so. Perhaps I'm ever so slightly caught up in this retro trend. Or taking a stroll down amenesia lane to the simpler days of BASIC and sub-16K hacking. Or was it triggered by this year being BASIC's 40th (and nearing mine)?

Parallax does a nice job of packaging up a BASIC Stamp 2 module, programming board, manual, "What's a Microcontroller" [PDF] gentle instruction/project book, and bag o' components (LEDs, resisters, capacitors, buttons, potentiometers, jumper wires--all the stuff I pulled willy-nilly from various radios and such before I knew better).

The packaged software is Windows- or DOS-only, but I found MacBS2, a nice Mac OS X Stamp programming application based on a Parallax's Mac PBasic tokenizer library. I bridged the serial connector to USB using a Keyspan USA19 USB serial adapter I had lying about from my now-disused Handspring.

I've not had a tremendous amount of time to sink my teeth in, so for now I'm just working my way through the simple examples in the "What's a Microcontroller" book. I've caused LEDs to blink at my very command, built a reaction-timer game that's oddly satisfying, and am on to servos next.

It's rather satisfying, I must admit, to spend time with something so incredibly simple (send HIGH to P3 and the light goes on) yet engrossing. I've no particular purpose in mind at this time, although I find myself noodling on the necessary schematic and source for recreating some of those LED-based hand-held games of the 70s. Or that bizarre calculator watch game where you pick off scrolling numbers before they reach the left-hand side of the LCD.

I'll keep posting my adventures here in the hopes that there are others of you taking a break from the complex systems you build by day to get back to BASICs.

Are you too taken in by the simplicity of yesterday's programming?


2004-10-25 21:52:09
Book: "Physical Computing" by Dan O'Sullivan and Tom Igoe
I've been meaning to mention the wonderfully approachable "Physical Computing" by Dan O'Sullivan and Tom Igoe (I know Tom by way of ETech). The first time I cracked the book I didn't have so much as a resister on hand. Now that I've the kit to go with it, I'm finding it all the more engrossing.

Also, Tom's got a good set of notes from his ITP Physical Computing class and a nice library of code examples and lab exercises online.