13 February 2008

Trying Programming Environments for Children

I am home sick today, feeling terrible and feverish, and should be sleeping, but can't sleep, so I thought I would try out some of the programming environments for kids. A while back I set up my son with the Haskell tools used for The Haskell School of Expression and Thompson's Craft of Functional Programming book, hoping my son would work his way into one of the texts a bit. He didn't get that far, so I thought I'd try out some other options for him.

I started learning when personal computers came with BASIC interpreters built-in, so I am looking for something equally as easy to start with, although I think teaching my son BASIC might be considered child abuse.

I thought I'd try to set him up with Hackety Hack, a Ruby environment found here. On Ubuntu Gutsy, I found that it segfaults immediately upon launch. According to the forum this issue has been reported for close to a year, with no patch.

OK, the next one on my list to try is Greenfoot. Greenfoot is Java-based, and requires a JDK. I haven't been a Java hacker since the dot-com crash, but at one point knew it pretty well, so how hard could it be for a feverish software engineer? My install of Gutsy tells me its java is "java version "1.7.0, IcedTea Runtime Environment (build 1.7.0-b21), IcedTea Client VM (build 1.7.0-b21, mixed mode, sharing)." So I'll try installing the IcedTea JDK. That looks promising, although the notes indicating it is a "temporary fork" make me a little nervous; Ubuntu lives up to its ease-of-use repuation, the JDK installs, and the Greenfoot installer now seems to be able to figure out for itself where the JDK is. The Greenfoot executable launches, and looks at least moderately interesting, so I'll call that a qualified success for now, and see if he can get his head around it.

I had it on my list to check out Nodebox, but that's for MacOS X only, and today I'm on the Linux box, so we'll save that for another sick day.

Finally, I wanted to take a shot at setting up Sugar, the Python-based environment that was designed for the One Laptop Per Child system. I'm not hugely keen on Python; having used Python and Ruby, I harbor a slight preference for Ruby, and I've got a laundry list of things I don't like about both of them. However, I'm being asked to use and get comfortable with extending several tools in my workplace that are based on Python, so for better or worse I'm getting myself re-familiarized with Python. It's quite a mature language with lots of libraries. My son could do worse, so let's see what Sugar has to offer.

There are various ways to get Sugar going on Ubuntu. See the Wiki pages here. To begin, I'm going to try the emulated route, where my Linux PC will literally emulate an OLPC laptop. The other options look considerably more complicated and error-prone; in particular, there is an absolute rat's nest of required packages. So let's see how painful setting up emulation is. First, we download a bzip'ed image file. While it is downloading, I install QEMU, which is not difficult. For now I'm not going to attempt to install the kernel support for accelerating QEMU; we'll see if it is really painfully slow. This machine is "only" a Pentium 4 2.8 GHz system that I built from parts a few years ago; pretty obsolete, but usually plenty fast.

So, image is done downloading, unzip it, and try running QEMU on it -- it works! Although it does indeed take a very long time to launch. I still find it quite surreal to watch Linux boot on top of Linux!

That's all for now -- I am still home sick, after all -- it's time to have some hot lemon tea and try to get a nap!

Followup: installing the kqemu acceleration tools does make the OLPC image run _significantly_ faster -- it is quite tolerable now, although I have no idea how it compares to how the image runs on the target hardware itself.


Flying Frog Consultancy Ltd. said...

IMHO, integrated graphics are a must for all beginners: it just makes programming so much more gratifying.

Mathematica is simply awesome for this. We're working on turning F# into something similar but we're not there yet... :-)

Flying Frog Consultancy Ltd. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Fred Ross said...

Is there a reason you're not trying Squeak?

Paul R. Potts said...

Hi Fred,

No good reason -- I just have never really used Smalltalk much so I just forgot about it! Thanks for the reminder. I will install it and let my son try it out and see what he thinks.