Slinging code the easy way

by Alan Zisman (c) 2000. First published in Toronto Computes January 2000

Beginning Programming for Dummies, by Wallace Wang, IDG Books, $29.99
Visual Basic 6 for Dummies, by Wallace Wang, IDG Books, $42.99; Deluxe Compiler Kit, $59.99
Teach Yourself Visual Basic 6 in 24 Hours, by Greg Perry with Sanjaya Hettihewa, Sams Publishing, $28.95

So you?re pretty handy with a computer, are you? You play games, word process, fiddle with graphics, even have your own web page.

Well, sorry. Unless you can also sling code?I mean, write programs, you can?t call yourself ?computer literate?.

At least, that was the idea that made the rounds during the first decade or so of the personal computer. From about 1975 to 1985, its was widely believed that in the not too-far distant future, we?d all be programming. Programming languages would be commonly taught in the high schools, in place of, say, French or Spanish.

Somewhere along the way, though, that definition of computer literacy died out. Still, there?s a lot to be said for learning a little programming. It?s a great way to get a better sense of how a computer thinks. And who knows? You might even turn it into the start of a new career!

Wallace Wang?s Beginning Programming for Dummies is another of the wildly popular yellow-covered series, that has moved from its computer-roots to titles like Planning a Wedding for Dummies and more. With this book, though, the series returns to its roots?computer literacy. This volume is subtitled: Your introduction to QBASIC and beyond. Some might find that a bit odd?QBASIC is a DOS-based programming language that Microsoft included with DOS versions 5 and 6 in the early 1990s?surely, it has no place in this era of Windows and beyond?

Wang obviously thinks otherwise. He points out that QBASIC is still included in Windows 95 and 98 (though typically not installed), and shows how it can still be used as a tool to understand a wide range of programming concepts. At the same time, he doesn?t limit himself to QBASIC?the book often compares a piece of code in QBASIC to the same code in C, Pascal, or Java. Wang goes a bit beyond the BASIC basics with introductions to working with arrays, pointers, object-oriented programming, sorts and searching. Finally, chapters on HTML, Javascript, and Java move us into the on-line future. A solid intro for readers with interest but no background in programming.

The same author takes us more firmly into the Windows world with Visual Basic 6 for Dummies, an updated book to accompany the latest version of this popular Windows programming language. Like Visual Basic, itself, this book spends a lot of time making it easy to create a user interface. Unfortunately, it spends much less time on the actual programming needed to make the interface do anything?the coding examples, while generally amusing, are too brief to be really helpful. Several times, it suggests buying a companion, More Visual Basic for Dummies to learn what you may really need.

This book is available in a basic $42.99 version, which includes a CD with the book?s sample code and a set of demo-versions of commercial Visual Basic add-ins. The $59.99 Deluxe Compiler Kit adds a second CD with a VB6 Working Model Edition. This can be used to create and save real Visual Basic programs, but lacks a number of key features of the commercial version?help files, for example. Most importantly, despite the name, it?s lacking a compiler?you can?t create EXE files that can run on their own.

Looking at the title of Sams Teach Yourself Visual Basic 6 in 24 Hours, it?s only fair to wonder whether you real can learn to program in a day. Of course not! Like other books in the series, it?s organized into 24 lessons?so if you do one an hour? well, you get the point.

Unlike the Dummy books, this volume lacks cartoons, or sample programs with amusing choices. But well less funny, it?s a more solid introduction to VB programming, offering, for example, more in-depth examples, without losing the beginning reader. Each of the lessons ends with a quiz and exercises, with the answers in the back.

24 Hours also includes a CD?in this case, along with the source code for the book?s examples, and a set of 3rd party product demos, and a copy of Visual Basic 4.0 Control Creation Edition. While it may seem odd to include an older edition, the two versions are similar enough that all the sample code in the book can be run in version 5. Like the version in the deluxe Dummy edition, the Make command, to compile your work into a stand-alone program is disabled.

Still, at about half the price, it?s twice the book.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan