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Mother and Son Speak the Same BASIC Language

December 26, 1985|DOROTHY PIER | Pier is a Thousand Oaks free-lance writer

When Jeanette Sullivan and her 17-year-old son, Dave, discuss problems at the dinner table, their family sometimes can't understand them. They speak in two computer languages--BASIC and assembly.

The situation becomes worse in the office at their Thousand Oaks home, which contains both an Apple and an IBM computer, along with two thermal printers. Both dressed in turquoise, both with shoulder-length blond hair, they view the green print on a dark screen and slip into an alien tongue.

" Hi res is one word," Dave said as his mother's fingers flew over the Apple keyboard.

"You have to access the location that makes the speaker click," he said.

'Peek and Poke'

"Kids like to peek and poke," said Sullivan, slipping another floppy disc into the machine.

"Sometimes you make a silly mistake like using an A string instead of a B string," Dave said, describing one of the problems of programming.

"Beep, beep," says the Apple computer, expressing its own thoughts.

This deviation from the usual mother-son relationship began in 1980, when Sullivan returned to work as a teacher of gifted children. Dave, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at that time, became one of her first pupils.

It culminated recently when their book, "Applesoft BASIC Subroutines and Secrets" was published by this summer by the Hayden Book Co., based in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. The book is, as the end of its 21-word title suggests, "A Collection of Programming Tips, Tricks, and Techniques for The Apple II Plus, IIe and IId."

As complicated as its name sounds, Sullivan began to compile the book's programming hints to challenge the children in her classes. She looked for kernels of ideas the students could expand upon according to their abilities in art, writing and math.

Asked Son for Advice

Collaboration with Dave came about when she began to ask his advice on ideas that stumped her.

Many of the programs in the book teach the user how to turn the computer into an intriguing toy. They can make it into a musical instrument, playing the theme from "Star Wars," and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" or, for the more serious, the Brahms lullaby or bars from Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

Amateur programmers can teach their computers to draw elliptical flowers or write words in the shapes of pyramids and mirror images. They can make messages constantly run across the bottom of the screen or place a permanent headline over the top. Users can even connect several drawings together and produce them one after another as if they were a slide show.

There are also practical tips for a person who can already program in BASIC, but wants his work to look more professional. For instance, the book contains a program that will place text and graphics on the screen at the same time, which often can't be done with ordinary programs.

"These are simple ideas it would take years and years to accumulate going to computer-club meetings, reading magazines or learning them from friends," Sullivan said.

Book Is a Hit

The book, which is available in bookstores for $18.95, sold 5,000 copies in the first month it was available. It has proved so popular that the publisher quickly printed a second edition.

"It's the kind of book I wish I'd written," confessed Gary Talbot, who teaches four classes of computer programming a day at Thousand Oaks High School.

"It's not complicated. It's short and sweet. I assign it to students, who have finished the work I've assigned. For people who already now how to program in BASIC, it's more fancy.

Russ Herron, vice president of Appleholics, an organization of 200 Apple Computer users in Ventura County, also praises the Sullivans' book. Herron, a former professor of science and math at St. John's Seminary, explained that the book will not teach anyone to become a sophisticated programmer, but can be an aid in a home office or classroom.

"It has tips and guidelines," he says. "It's practical.

Returned to College

After 13 years as a housewife and volunteer, Sullivan not only went back to teaching, she simultaneously returned to college to learn the uses of computers, earning an associate in arts degree in data processing from Moorpark College.

Frustrated because she could not find a book about programming in BASIC machine language easier than college level, she began to write her own. That book still sits in a cardboard box, however, because so many authors had the same idea at the same time.

"You'd be sitting there typing at the computer when I went to bed at night and still be there when I'd get up in the morning," Dave reminded his mother. "It was like you never left it."

For a while, Dave, too, became obsessed. He spent five hours a day at the computer trying to figure out the programming in video games he had played.

No Easy Task

"One error in 1,000 commands and it wouldn't work," he recalled. "The mistake would take forever to find." After a while, he decided to try simpler tasks.

"I made up programs that might be hard for other people, but were not that complicated for me," he said.

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