Microsoft Excel has done more to bring programming to the people than anything else.


Part of it is the ubiquity, part of it is that it doesn't have the "I'm not good at programming" mental block, part of it is that it's very visual. no hidden state. very easy to find help for. and it encourages goal-oriented work.

· SubwayTooter · 2 · 0 · 3

@BestGirlGrace Also, I don’t think you can overstate the important of the reactive/interactive element. You fiddle with stuff, and everything instantly updates.


Also, you know what else makes programming in Excel easy? no variable names. The hardest problem in Computer Science, as they say, is naming things.

It’s almost like the spatial pronouns in ASL. Which intermediate computation are you talking about? The one I put over there.

@SenorOblong Yeah, dynamic langs with great tooling like JavaScript wish they were as visible and interactive as Excel. You can just click on the values you want.

@BestGirlGrace It can have hidden state (or near to) but those spreadsheets are the stuff of nightmares (aka people who should have graduated from excel some time ago)

@petra @BestGirlGrace Yeah, I have been wondering if there’s anything beyond excel that would make the transition to more complex use-cases more graceful instead of degenerating into piles of VBA macros, but I’m not sure it’s possible … I think the limited nature of raw Excel might be inseparable from the clarity of raw Excel. I think not being Turing-complete might be key to what makes it so usable.

@petra @BestGirlGrace Still, I wonder if there’s some way to cross, like, Excel and HyperCard.

@SenorOblong @BestGirlGrace My advice is generally Just Learn R, but that really depends on your use case

@petra @BestGirlGrace For most of the use-cases we’re talking about, that would be like recommending a lathe and milling machine for people asking how to fix their car, instead of just giving them a toolbox. You can build basically anything with a lathe and milling machine, including just about any tools and spare parts you might need, entirely custom; being a skilled machinist gives you the kind of dominion over metal atoms as a good programmer has over bits.

…but it takes a lot of skill to get good at it, and indeed an entirely different skillset than the toolbox, and you can do most of what you need more easily and quickly with the toolbox and some spare parts anyway.

@SenorOblong @BestGirlGrace Oh definitely, but most of the hellspreadsheets I've personally come across would have benefited from their maker taking a course in it. And tbh it's a lot more accessable than a lot of other languages I find, because it's not just used by people who would identify themselves as "programmers"

@petra @BestGirlGrace So what I was wondering about, is whether there’s any way to go from “something like Excel” to “something more suited to the sort of tasks people end up building hellspreadsheets trying to make” without requiring a fundamental change in every aspect of the model.

In other words: Something about Excel seems to have created a programming environment that is not only highly accessible, but actually useful. Is it possible to apply those lessons to create something similarly accessible, but with enough additional expressiveness that you could do those kinds of things without it turning into a hellspreadsheet?

@petra @BestGirlGrace And so that’s why I was bringing up HyperCard, which is also something that’s been described as a remarkably successful normie-accessible software platform (before Apple killed it through neglect, decades ago).

@SenorOblong @BestGirlGrace I don't think I've heard of hypercard, but I'm sure there has been an attempt to do something like that? It can't have caught on though

@petra @BestGirlGrace As far as I can tell, not really; most attempts at creating an “accessible” programming environment deliberately have p. much all been purely-visual drag-and-drop flowchart-spaghetti type deals.

@SenorOblong @BestGirlGrace There's SAS Enterprise Guide, but that's horrible to use for other reasons

@SenorOblong @petra Yeah, there's stuff like LabView and Scratch and BizTalk and any number of drag and drop-em-up code/UI designers, but it never works. GUIs are hard.

@petra @BestGirlGrace HyperCard was a software construction kit that was introduced in the 80s that used to come standard with every Mac.It really nailed accessible programming at the time, but was simultaneously powerful enough to use for serious development. It wasn’t updated to keep up with the times as software moved around it, and ultimately died of neglect.

@petra @BestGirlGrace Interestingly, it also had the Excel-like property where everything - both the system state and the scripting - was live and editable at any time.

@petra @SenorOblong I like R, but I wouldn't have enjoyed learning it as my first language. I used it for a stats class, and the non-computer science students did not care for it.

@BestGirlGrace @SenorOblong I find it takes stats students (without other programming background) a couple of classes to properly get it, at least when it's only being taught in the context of being a tool for specific problems and not for it's own sake? But ymmv
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