Limited palettes (was RE: I want to document but I need to learn first!)

Jerry Balzano gjbalzano at
Thu Mar 13 09:56:18 PST 2003

[Alan Kay, 3/11]
>> So the people who have been very successful at etoys are those that
>> are comfortable with any limited palette they are given. This has to
>> be widened before we can declare etoys to be a real release.
[Dean Swan, 3/11 (later)
>>You know, this could also be interpreted as a feature rather than a
>>limitation.  It's been my experience that constrained resource
>>environments encourage "better" design.

Dean -

I guess I have to weigh in on the side of those who would want a wider
palette of resources.  Interestingly, the smaller number of primitive
commands in BASIC vs LOGO back in the 70's was used as an argument for
BASIC (e.g. "BASIC is easier because there are fewer commands to learn");
in fact, your comment reminded me of a rebuttal of this argument provided
in "Mindstorms" which I quote here:

>An example of BASIC ideology is the argument that BASIC is easy to learn
>because it has a very small vocabulary.  The surface validity of the
>argument is immediately called into question if we apply it to the context
>of how children learn natural languages.  Imagine a suggestion that we
>invent a special language to help children learn to speak.  This language
>would have a small vocabulary of just fifty words, but fifty words so well
>chosen that all ideas could be expressed using them.  Would this language
>be easier to learn?  Perhaps the vocabulary might be easy to learn, but
>the use of the vocabulary to express what one wanted to say would be so
>contorted that only the most motivated and brilliant children would learn
>to say more than "hi".  This is close to the situation with BASIC.  Its
>small vocabulary can be learned quickly enough.  But using it is a
>different matter.  Programs in BASIC acquire so labyrinthine a structure
>that in fact only the most motivated and brilliant ("mathematical")
>children do learn to use it for more than trivial ends. (Mindstorms, p. 35)

Let me, however, add the following provisos:
(a) The "minimalist" exercise of "making do" with an artificially reduced
set of resources to accomplish particular (selected) tasks can be quite
valuable and satisfying, even if it is not something you would wish (esp on
novices!) as a constant state of affairs.

(b) Access to the relatively large set of resources should be controlled or
at least managed so as not to overwhelm novices, and there are a number of
ways to go about this.  HyperCard's five "user levels" constituted an
interesting attempt at this "shielding" of beginners from unwanted
resources, although I'm still not sure what I think of how well it worked.
And etoys does have its language resources organized into panes, but here
too I keep thinking a better way is on the tip of our collective tongues.

			- Jerry

P.S. I know I am invoking Papert a lot in my postings, but I am trying both
to celebrate his insights and take proper warning from (what I believe to
have been) his mistakes.  Not to confuse necessary and sufficient
conditions, I am nonetheless hoping that we Squeakers, by being more aware
of history (of both events and ideas), won't be doomed to repeat it.

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