[IMGCAP(1)]Are you smarter than a fifth grader? Probably not, at least when it comes to programming. With the emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in schools, it’s not unusual to find fifth graders who can not only code, but who can, and do, develop sophisticated applications.

Yes, there are apps for just about everything, but a lot of the time, they aren’t quite what you need, or aren’t available on the platform you are running (iOS, Android, Windows or Mac OS).

The ability to write your own programs lets you zero-in on precisely the task you need to accomplish. And being able to lay out the logic necessary to achieve that task has a positive effect on the way you approach a problem in a methodical and orderly fashion.

When you mention coding a program, many accountants break out in a sweat. But by the late ’80s, when personal computers really hit the big time, accountants were actively “rolling their own” applications, primarily in Lotus 1-2-3. Many people still use Excel as a programming language, even if they don’t realize what they are doing is actually programming. And if you really don’t want to learn to program, there are app makers that let you create an app in iOS or Android by just dragging and dropping components. Infinite Monkeys (www.infinitemonkeys.mobi) is an example of this type of app builder, but there are plenty of others.

But figuring out flowcharting and application flow is the hard part of application creation. Once you have this part nailed, actually coding it is relatively easy.

Learning to code on your own isn’t difficult. There are plenty of good books that will take you from zero to proficient quickly. And if you want to learn one of the newer languages, like Python, there are courses available at online learning centers such as Coursera.org.

BASIC and Scratch are two languages that are very easy to learn. BASIC was developed at Dartmouth in 1964 to teach computer science and programming. The original Apple // was programmed in BASIC, as were most of the original personal computers of the time. And Microsoft BASIC is what started the company down its path to world domination.

Scratch, another easy-to-learn language, was developed in 2003 at the MIT Media Lab to teach multimedia coding to kids in the 8 to 16 year old range. It’s a visual programming language—you just drag commands over to a work area. It’s great for creating games, but has been extended over the years and is useful for many other programming projects.

If you’re going to give learning to code a shot, a great place to start is with the $35 Raspberry Pi microcontroller I mentioned in an earlier post—the 80 Buck Office PC. This tiny computer comes with three programming languages included with the operating system—Python, Scratch and Wolfram Mathematica. Mathematica has some very sophisticated financial and statistical templates available and while it’s free with the Raspberry Pi, it costs a small fortune to purchase for a Windows PC.

Considering that the Raspberry Pi was developed to bring educational computing into British schoolrooms, it’s not surprising that an extended version of BASIC was developed for the Pi. It’s free for downloading from the developer at FUZE.co.uk.

But if you don’t want to bother building your own Raspberry Pi based system, FUZE offers a variety of enhancements ranging from a sturdy metal case and keyboard, all the way up to a complete system with the Raspberry Pi installed, and all of the operating systems and languages already supplied on an SD memory card.  

I have the next-to-the-top-of-the-the line model (the absolute top comes with a robotic arm kit). It contains everything but the monitor, is completely assembled, and includes project cards for learning to program in BASIC and even a wireless mouse. This model costs about $300 in US currency, and is well worth the price. It’s available at FUZE’s web site, or Amazon.co.uk. The case with keyboard (a U.S. keyboard is available), power supply and USB hub costs about $125 at downloadbuyer.com. You supply and install the $35 Raspberry Pi and add a mouse.

I think the FUZE, especially the T2-A model that I tested, makes a great gift for yourself, particularly if you want to learn to code. And it’s an especially great holiday present for a tween or teenager you know. The Raspberry Pi has digital and analog interfaces that can control motors, and read sensors. With the FUZE, this GPIO (general purpose input/output) is carried out to a board in a trough at the top of the case, and is perfect for learning how to interface a computer with the outside world. There are hundreds, or possibly even thousands, of projects at sites like Instructables.com, Hackaday.com and Makezine.com. In full dress mode, it is a bit expensive, but what better present could you give yourself or someone else than the gift of knowledge?

I love the FUZE. It takes me back to the days of playing with my Apple // and the languages it comes with, especially FUZE BASIC, are teaching me a lot about physical computing. And, in a pinch, with LibreOffice and the Chromium browser loaded, it serves as an extra PC in my home office. And with its black and red case, it looks exceedingly good while doing so.

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