Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Strace Buffer Display

 The "strace" tool is powerful and very useful. Recently a user of our software sent us an strace output that included a packet send. Here's an excerpt:

sendmsg(88, {msg_name(16)={sa_family=AF_INET, sin_port=htons(14400), sin_addr=inet_addr("239.84.0.100")}, msg_iov(1)=[{"\2\0a\251C\27c;\0\0\2\322\0\0/\263\0\0\0\0\200\3\0\0", 24}], msg_controllen=0, msg_flags=0}, 0) = 24 <0.000076>

Obviously there's some binary bytes being displayed. I see a "\0a", so it's probably hex. But wait, there's also a \251. Does that mean 0x25 followed by ascii '1'? I decoded it assuming hex, and the packet wasn't valid.

So I did a bit of Googling. Unfortunately, I didn't note where I saw it, but somebody somewhere said that it follows the C string conventions. And C strings come from long ago, when phones had wires connecting them to wall jacks, stack overflow was a bug in a recursive program, and octal ruled the waves when it came to specifying binary data.

So \0a is 0x00 followed by ascii 'a' and \251 is 0xa9. Now the packet parses out correctly. (It's a "Session Message" if you're curious.)

So, I guess I'm a little annoyed by that choice as I would prefer hex, but I guess there's nothing all that wrong with it. Hex or octal: either way I need a calculator to convert to decimal. (And yes, I'm sure some Real Programmers can convert in their heads.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

I want to love Grammarly

I've lived with a bit of a problem almost all my life. I'm a slow reader and a poor speller. I suspect I have a bit of a learning disability.

That's not my problem. If I really do have a learning disability, it is mild; my language abilities are not that far below average. And I'm an engineer, for goodness sake! I'm not expected to have a perfect command of English.

My problem is that I love to write. I've dabbled with fiction, humor, and non-fiction (this blog being a primary outlet). And I want the quality of my writing to be high.

When I had my first exposure to a spell-checker, I was ecstatic! Finally, a tool to save me huge amounts of time. When I first used one that suggested correct spellings, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. But their were still to many thymes that incorrect word choice, usually among homophones, led to mistakes not being caught. I knew that a grammar checker was needed to really get the spelling right.

Microsoft Word, for all the hate that is heaped on it, raised the bar. It catches many problems that "aspell" does not. Word is still not perfect, but it is *good*.

Enter Grammarly. There's a lot about it I really like. For example, instead of just showing you your mistake and offering suggestions, it explains why its a mistake. I.e. it is both an error checker and a learning tool. I'm using the Grammarly editor to enter this blog post, and it found a couple of things that the Firefox checker did not flag.

... But ... did you notice my mistake in the previous paragraph? "...it explains why its a mistake." The "its" needs an apostrophe. Grammarly didn't catch it. Microsoft did. But neither one caught the "thymes" in the prior paragraph. (Interestingly, the Firefox checker does flag "thymes".) Grammar checking is still an inexact science.

But never let perfection be the enemy of good. And there's a lot of good in Grammarly. I really want to love it enough to pay the fee. Why don't I?

My biggest issue is the file size limitation, which does not grow with the paid-for version. I maintain the documentation for our product, and some of those files are pretty big. Way too big, it turns out. I would have to mess with splitting and recombining them. Never mind the annoyance of doing that, the recombining introduces more opportunity for mistakes.

Also, I use a Mac, and Grammarly doesn't integrate with Outlook on Mac. And even the Mac Word plugin is size-limited, although it looks like maybe that limitation would be lifted if I were using Windows instead of Mac.

Also, it doesn't work well with local ".txt" files except through copy-and-paste. (It can read text files, but not write them.)

I'll probably pay for a month's worth just to see what the 11 extra suggestions are for this blog post. Maybe seeing them will change my mind. But I kind of doubt it.

EDIT (19-Sep-2020): I did go ahead and shell out for the pro version. So far it has provided a small improvement. Not sure it's worth the cost yet, but still early days. In most cases, it challenges me on something that probably does deserve a second thought, but I ended up keeping as-is.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Perl Diamond Operator

As my previous post indicates, I've done some Perl noodling this past week. (I can't believe that was my first Perl post on this blog! I've been a Perl fan for a loooooooong time.)

Anyway, one thing I like about Perl is it takes a use case that tends to be used a lot and adds language support for it. Case in point: the diamond operator "<>" (also called "null filehandle" or "null angle operator").

See the "Tutorial" section below if you are not familiar with the diamond operator.

Tips

I may expand this as time goes on.

Filename / Linenumber

Inside the loop, you can use "$." as the line number and "$ARGV" as the file name of the currently open file.

*BUT*, see next tip.

Continue / Close

Always code  your loop as follows:

while (<>) {
  ...
} continue {
  close ARGV if eof;
}

The continue clause is needed to have "$." refer to the line number within the *current* file. Without it "$." will refer to the total number of lines read so far.

In my opinion, even if what you want is total lines and not line within file, you should still code it like the above and just use your own counter for the total line number. This provides consistency of meaning for "$.". Plus, it's possible that in the future you will want to add functionality that requires line within file, and it's messy to code that with your own counter.

Skip Rest of File

Sometimes you get a little ways into a file and you decide that you're done with the file and would like to skip to the next (if any). Include this inside the loop:

close ARGV;  # skip rest of current file

Positional Parameter

Let's say you're writing a perl version of grep, and you want the first positional parameter (after the options) to be the search pattern.

$ grep.pl "ford" *.txt

Unfortunately, this will try to read a file named "ford" as the first file. What to do?

my $pat = shift;  # Pops off $ARGV[0].
while (<>) {
  ...

This works because "<>" doesn't actually look at the command line. It looks at the @ARGV array. The "shift" function defaults to operating on the @ARGV array.

Security Warning

Because of the way the diamond operator opens files, it is possible for a hostile user to construct a file that can produce very bad results. For example:

$ echo "hello world" >x
$ echo "goodby world" >'rm x|'
$ ls -1
rm x|
x
$ cat *
goodby world
hello world
$ cat x
hello world

So far, so good. "rm x|" is just an unusually-named file with a space in the middle and a pipe ("|") at the end. But now let's use my perl version of grep with a pattern of "." (matches all non-empty lines):

$ grep.pl "." *
Can't open x: No such file or directory at /home/sford/bin/grep.pl line 81.
$ cat x
cat: x: No such file or directory

Yup, grep.pl just deleted the file named "x". The pipe character at the end of the file "rm x|" invoked Perl's opening a filehandle into a command functionality (with the 2-argument open). In other words, by just naming a file in a particular way, you've made grep.pl do something unexpected and potentially dangerous.

This might look like a horrible security hole (what if the name of that rogue file resulted in deleting all your files?), but it can also be a very powerful (albeit rarely used) feature. The moral of the story is don't run *any* tool over a set of files that you aren't familiar with.

You can also instead use "<<>>" instead of "<>". But this requires Perl version 5.22 or newer, which rarely seems to be on any system I try to use. This will force each input file to be opened as a file, not potentially as a command.

Unfortunately, it also prevents the special handling of input file named "-" to read standard input. This is a construct that I do use periodically.

Tutorial

Many Unix commands have the following semantics:

cmdname -options [input_file [input_file2 ...] ]

where the command will read from each input file sequentially, or from standard input if no input files are provided. File names can be wildcarded. Most such Unix commands allow you to supply "-" as a file name and the tool will read from standard input.

The diamond operator makes this ridiculously easy. Here's a minimal "cat" command in Perl:

#!/usr/bin/env perl
while (<>) {
  print $_;
}


That's the whole thing. It takes zero or more input files (if none, reads from standard input) and concatenates them  to standard out. Just like "cat".

Specifically what "<>" does is read one line from whatever input file is currently open. If it is at the end of the file, "<>" will automatically open the next file (if any) and read a line from it. As with many Perl built-ins, it leaves the just-read line in the "$_" variable.

You should be ready for the "Tips" section now.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Perl Faster than Grep

So, I've been crawling through a debug log file that is 195 million lines long. I've been using a lot of "grep | wc" to count numbers of various log messages. Here's some timings for my Macbook Pro:

$ time cat dbglog.txt >/dev/null
real 0m35.423s

$ time wc dbglog.txt
195177935 1177117603 28533284864 dbglog.txt
real 1m44.560s

$ time egrep '999999' dbglog.txt
real 7m39.737s

(For this timing, I chose a pattern that would *NOT* be found.)

On the Macbook, the man page for fgrep claims that it is faster than grep. Let's see:

$ time fgrep '999999' dbglog.txt
real 7m11.365s

Well, I guess it's a little faster, but nothing to brag about.

Then I wanted to create a histogram of some findings, so I wrote a perl script to scan the file and create the histogram. Since it performed regular expression matching on every line, I assumed it would be a little slower than grep, since Perl is an interpreted language.

$ time ./count.pl dbglog.txt >count.out
real 3m9.427s

WOW! Less than half the time!

So I created a simple grep replacement: grep.pl. It doesn't do any histogramming, so it should be even faster.

$ time grep.pl '999999' dbglog.txt
real  2m8.341s

Amazing. Perl grep runs in less than a third the time of grep.

For small files, I bet Perl grep is slower starting up. Let's see.

$ time echo "hi" | grep 9999
real        0m0.051s

$ time echo "hi" | grep.pl 9999
real        0m0.113s

Yep. Grep saves you about 60 milliseconds. So if you had thousands of small files to grep, it might be faster to use grep.


Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Multicast Routing Tutorial

I wanted to direct a colleague to a tutorial on Multicast that explained about IGMP Snooping and the IGMP Query function. But I couldn't find one. So I'm writing one with an expand scope.


Multicast is a method of network addressing

Normally, when a publisher sends a packet, that packet has a destination address of a specific receiver. The sending application essentially chooses which host to send to, and the network's job is to transport that packet to that host. With multicast, the destination address is NOT the address of a specific host. Rather, it is a "multicast group", where the word "group" means zero or more destination hosts. Instead of the publisher choosing which receivers should get the packet, the receivers themselves tell the network that they want to receive packets sent to the group.

For example, if I send to multicast group 239.1.2.3, I have no idea which or even how many receivers might get that packet. Maybe none at all. Or maybe hundreds. It depends on the receivers - any receiver that has joined group 239.1.2.3 will get a copy of the packet.


Layer 2 (Ethernet)

For this tutorial, layer 2 means Ethernet, and layer 3 means IP. Yes, there are other possibilities. No, I don't care. :-)

Multicast exists in Ethernet and IP. They are NOT the same thing!

In the old days of Ethernet, you had a coaxial cable that had taps on it (hosts connected to the taps). At any given point in time, only one machine could be sending on the cable, and the signal was seen by all machines attached to the same cable. The NIC's job was to look at each and every packet that came by and consume the ones that are addressed to that NIC, ignoring packets not addressed to the NIC.

Ethernet multicast was a very simple affair. The NIC could be programmed to consume packets from a small number of application-specified Ethernet multicast groups. Multicast packets, like all other packets, were seen by every NIC on the network, but only NICs programmed to look for a multicast group would consume packets sent to that group.

Ethernet multicast was not routable to other networks.


LAYER 3 (IP)

IP multicast was built on top of Ethernet multicast, but added a few things, like the ability to route multicast to other networks.

When routing multicast, you don't want to just send *all* multicast packets to *all* networks. That would waste too much WAN bandwidth. So the IGMP protocol was created. Among other things, IGMP provides a way for routers to be informed about multicast *interest* in each network. So if a router sees a multicast packet for group X, and it knows that a remote network has one or more hosts joined to that group, it will forward the packet to that network. (That network's router will then use Ethernet multicast to distribute the packet.)

To maintain the router's group interest table, IGMP introduced a "join" command by which a host on a network tells the routers that it is interested in group X. There is also an IGMP "leave" message for when the host loses interest.

But what if the host crashes without sending a "leave" message? Routers have a lifetime for the multicast routing table entries. After three minutes, the router will remove a multicast group from its table unless the entry is refreshed. So every minute, the router sends out an "IGMP Query" command and the hosts will respond according to the groups they are joined to. This keeps the table refreshed for groups that still have active listeners, but lets dead table entries time out.

If the network administrator forgets to configure the routers to run an IGMP Querier, after 3 minutes the router will stop forwarding multicast packets (multicast "deafness" across a WAN).


IGMP Snooping

As mentioned earlier, in the old days of coaxial Ethernet, every packet is sent to every host, and the host's NIC is responsible for consuming only those packets it needs. This limits the total aggregate capacity of the network to the NIC speed. Modern switches greatly boost network capacity by isolating traffic flows from each other, so that host A's sending to host B doesn't interfere with host C's sending to host D. The total aggregate bandwidth capacity is MUCH greater than the NIC's link speed.

Multicast is different. Layer 2 Ethernet doesn't know which hosts have joined which multicast groups, so by default older switches "flood" multicast to all hosts. So similar to coaxial Ethernet, the total aggregate bandwidth capacity for multicast is essentially limited to NIC link speed.

So they cheated a little bit. Even though IGMP is a layer 3 IP protocol, layer 2 Ethernet switches can be configured to passively observe ("snoop") IGMP packets. And instead of keeping track of which networks are interested in what groups, the switch keeps track of which individual hosts on the network are interested in which groups. When the switch has a multicast packet, it can send it only to those hosts that are interested. So now you can have multiple multicast groups carrying heavy traffic, and so long as a given host doesn't join more groups than its NIC can handle, you can have aggregate multicast traffic far higher than NIC link speeds.

As with routers, the switch's IGMP Snooping table is aged out after 3 minutes. A router's IGMP query accomplishes the same function with the switch; it refreshes the active table entries.

Note that a layer 2 Ethernet switch is supposed to be a passive listener to the IGMP traffic between the hosts and the routers. However, for the special case where a network has no multicast routing, the IGMP Querier function is missing. So switches that support IGMP Snooping also support an IGMP querier. If the network administrator forgets to configure IGMP Snooping to query, the switch will stop delivering multicast packets after 3 minutes (multicast "deafness" on the LAN).

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Global STAC Live

I normally don't do product or vendor shilling on this blog. But I've always liked Peter Lankford at STAC, and I think he did a good job with this video:

www.STACresearch.com/spring2020

Yes, it's a funny advertisement, but instead of being just plain funny, it's actually pretty clever. And I don't just mean the jokes.

The Coronavirus has really disrupted professional conferences and events. Many are postponed, some are just plain cancelled. I assumed that STAC would be a casualty, but Peter is trying to make lemonade by making his 2020 summit virtual.

Now it's not like that has never been done before. Zoom has made quite a name for itself by saving the business meeting. (In fact, many meetings that used to be simple phone conferences have mysteriously and inexplicably drifted into Zoom meetings, I'm not sure why.)

So when I first heard that the 2020 summit was going virtual, I was like ho-hum ... another endless series of Zoom presentations. And it got me to thinking, what was going to be lost? The sales-oriented participants will of course miss glad-handing prospective customers. But what about engineers like me?

We'll miss getting together with our smart friends and colleagues that we haven't seen for a while, and maybe being introduced to their smart friends and colleagues for interesting conversation, war stories, and maybe even the occasional brilliant technical insight. Not going to get any of that out of a zoom presentation.

But Peter's video suggests that he was fully aware of that drawback, and he is experimenting with approaches to address it. I'm skeptical that I will be blown away by it, but I'm intrigued enough to give it a go. And whether it turns out revolutionary, or just another chat room, I respect Peter for effort.

Plus, I  just plain like the ad. :-)


UPDATE: June 3

At the end of day 2, I can safely say that the STAC Live event was well done. The speakers did a good job of dealing with the new format, and there were very few technical glitches. The system seemed to scale well.

In particular, it is nice to be able to replay sessions that you missed (or just couldn't pay attention to) the same afternoon. This is a clear *advantage* to this format as compared to a traditional in-person conference.

The technical content was also very good, but that's not what I want to talk about.

I'm a little sad to report that the social aspect turned out worse than I had hoped. It's not STAC's fault, nor the fault of Ubivent, the technology behind the virtual event. It's the fault of human nature.

When I travel to a venue to attend a function, I am engaged with the event. Yes, I sometimes check email, and will even sometimes hide in a corner to do an important call. But >90% of my time is spent being fully engaged with the people, both in and out of a session. So conversations happen naturally and productively. You get introduced to new people with similar interests. I made a very good friend at a conference a few years ago, just because I was there.

During STAC Live, the chat feature was there, but wasn't used very much. And like all chats, I might type something, and minutes would go by before the response came back. Why? BECAUSE WE'RE ALL BUSY, THAT'S WHY! During an in-person event, we are mostly engaged with our surroundings, but when attending remotely, we are balancing the virtual event with work. And work usually wins. And working from home means there's also family members and pets who need attention.

So even if the event technology were somehow more conducive to socializing, the attendees were not.

So, overall STAC was a good event, better than it had any right to be given the circumstances. And I've already learned some things that I plan to put into practice, so it's been well worth the time. But it being a virtual event does detract something meaningful. And I miss it.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Wireshark: "!=" May have unexpected results

How is it that I haven't sung the praises of Wireshark in this blog? It's one of my favorite tools of all time! I can't get over how powerful it has become.

Occasionally, there are little gotchas. Like when using the "!="  operator, a yellow warning flashes a few times saying:
"!=" may have unexpected results (See the User's Guide)
My first thought: "There's a User's Guide?" My second: "Couldn't you give me a link to it?"

OK, Fine. Here's a direct link to the section "A Common Mistake with !=". The problem is related to "combined expressions", like eth.addr, ip.addr, tcp.port, and udp.port. Those expressions do an implicit "or"ing of the corresponding source and destination fields. E.g. saying tcp.port==12000 is shorthand for:
  (tcp.srcport==12000 || tcp.dstport==12000)

So if you want the opposite of tcp.port==12000, it seems logical to use tcp.port!=12000, thinking that it will eliminate all packets with either source or destination equal to 12000. But you're wrong. It expands to:
  (tcp.srcport!=12000 || tcp.dstport!=12000)
which, doing a little boolean algebra is the same as:
  !(tcp.srcport==12000 && tcp.dstport==12000)
In other words, instead of eliminating packets with either source or destination of 12000, it only eliminates packets with both source and destination of 12000. You'll get way more packets than you wanted.

The solution? Use:
  !(tcp.port==12000)
or better yet, expand it out:
  tcp.srcport!= 12000 && tcp.dstport!=12000
I prefer that.

What's So Special About "!="?

It got me to thinking about other forms of inequality, like ">" or "<". Let's say you want to display packets where source or destination (or both) are an ephemeral port:
  tcp.port > 49152
Now let's say you want the opposite - packets where *neither* port is ephemeral. If you do this:
  tcp.port <= 49152
you have the same problem (but this time Wireshark doesn't warn you). This displays all packets that where source or destination (or both) are non-ephemeral.

At the root of all this is the concept of "opposite". With:
  a compare b
you think the opposite is:
  a opposite_compare b
But given the existence of combined expressiions, it's usually safer to use:
  !(a compare b)

Monday, April 20, 2020

Monday, April 6, 2020

Queen Elizabeth speaks

https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/europe/100000007072121/queen-address.html

(You have to click the little "speaker" in the lower right corner to turn on the audio.)

That's one classy lady.

Thank you, your Majesty, for your words of encouragement.

[edit 25-Aug-2020] I just re-watched this. I don't imagine that the British, as a people, are somehow more decent than the US, and even the political leadership in the UK can be just as nasty. But dammit, why can't even one US leader be this inspiring?

And yes, I already know the answer. The Queen doesn't have to worry about being re-elected, and can therefore side-step the politics. Elected officials *always* have to include the political angle in everything they say, especially on subjects that, rightly or wrongly, have become politicized.

But just because I understand it doesn't mean I have to like it.

Once again, thank you.

Steve

Monday, March 9, 2020

Friday, February 28, 2020

New animated short by Ivan Maximov

Sorry, no computer software today.

I see that Ivan Maximov, one of my favorite animators, has finally released his latest work:

"Lonely Monster Goes Out"

I really love Ivan's gentle style. I also like how, instead of being intensely plot-driven, most of his stories are small explorations of a fantasy world, with an over-arching plot added for cohesiveness. I also like to believe that he is preaching tolerance of differences between good people, although I might just be projecting my own interpretations. (-:

Some of my other favorites:
Or binge his whole channel. (And also his site for some things not on his Youtube channel.)

I don't understand why he isn't more popular, although it might be related to his low output rate.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Return of the Wiki

A while ago I migrated from a traditional hosting service to GitHub. One thing I lost in the process was access to a mediawiki installation for a personal Wiki. I like Wikis, and I've missed it ever since.

That is, until I finally looked a little closer at GitHub and saw that they support Wikis! DOH! So now I'm experimenting with it and so far I like it (still very early days). Each Wiki is stored in its own git repo and can be cloned and worked on off-line.

One problem is that they haven't integrated the Wiki repos with the general GitHub software very well, so the GitHub Desktop GUI application can't deal with it. The doc says it does, but the doc lies. You have to use command-line git.

But that's not a big problem. One of the reasons I like Wikis is a low-barrier to updating. And having to edit files, write them out, and then do the git commands to update is *not* low-barrier. So my usage will be almost exclusively via the web.

But it's nice to know that if my Wiki grows large, I can run sed scripts on the files to make global changes if I want.

Anyway, THANKS GitHub!

Matias keyboard FAIL

Like many Mac owners, I don't like the chiclet keyboards. I like an old-fashioned mechanical keyboard. So I finally got one: a very clicky Matias keyboard. And while I would have preferred a smaller keyboard (I don't need the keypad), I was very happy with it. For about a month.

Then the spacebar started "bouncing". I.e. maybe 1 time in 20 I get two spaces instead of one. I experimented quite a bit, and it's not the autorepeat, and it's not *me* that's bouncing. I can slowly press the key, and bam - two spaces. Or I can type my normal (pretty fast) speed and get periodic bounces. (Sometimes I can go an hour without a bounce, but then they come back.)

So I contacted Matias support, and after leading me through a series of unsuccessful steps, they sent me a new one. It arrived with NO BOUNCE! Happy-happy.

For about a month. Now the bounces are back.

I know baseball says 3 strikes are an "out", but I'm only giving them 2. The Matias is going in the trash as soon as my new Keychron K2 (with blue switches) gets here.

Wish me luck!


Update: It's been over 3 months now, and I am VERY happy with Keychron K2!

My only complaint is that the blue tooth times out even if I use an external power supply. Timing out blue tooth is a good thing when running on battery, but is unnecessary when it has external power. (NOTE: there is a  simple solution: don't use blue tooth. The same cable I'm connecting to an external power supply can simply be plugged into my laptop, at which point it's a wired keyboard. But I have some reasons for not wanting to do that. Oh well, I'm still very happy with the K2.)

Update 2: It's been over 7 months now, and the Keycron K2 is still going strong! It's a pleasure to use.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

I will miss you, Gahan Wilson

Gahan Wilson, creator of hilariously macabre cartoons, died last Thursday. His dark creations helped to shape my own sense of humor, even though as a child I was not able to enjoy them very often.

Thank you Gahan for teaching me that it is OK to not be main-stream.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Should everybody learn to code?

I saw something on SlashDot that raised the question: should all school children learn to code?

Yes.

For the same reason all school children should spend some time learning to sing, learning to do long division, learning to paint, learning some physics, learning some literature, learning to use a wrench and screwdriver, learning some history, learning some chemistry, etc, etc, etc. I believe that children who get a reasonably well-rounded, reasonable quality education grow up to be happier than those who don't, all else being equal. I don't have thousands of pages of peer-reviewed scientific research to support my belief, but I still believe it.

This does not mean that we should try to teach all children to be *good* programmers, any more than we should try to teach all children to be professional-level singers. We just need to introduce a wide-range of subjects so that they have a basic understanding of what the subject is about. After that, let their natural talents and interest drive where they go in-depth.

I never knew that software was my calling until I had my first opportunity to try coding in ... was it 1975? This introduction was *not* taught in school. It was a group called "explorer scouts", which may or may not have been associated with Boy Scouts of America, I don't remember. All I can tell you is that there were no uniforms, no camping, none of the trappings of Boy Scouts. The only activity I can remember was the programming. It was Fortran on a time-sharing system with a teletype. The fire it ignited in my brain overwhelms any other memories of the Explorer Scouts.  THIS is what I wanted to do; my path in life was obvious.


HOW TO TEACH IT?

So, how should programming be taught?  I don't know. I know there has been a lot of research and development in the area of programming systems for young people. Drag-and-drop icons representing programming constructs. I've glanced at them, and even used one briefly (it was a google doodle). It's OK, I guess.  I think an important goal is to give a child early success and a feeling of accomplishment. I don't think those systems actually teach *programming*, but I think they probably do teach some fundamental concepts that are needed for programming.

My concern is that those systems don't really give a flavor of what programing is like. If you sing in music class, you get a sense of what singing is. If you play touch football, you get a sense of what that is. I actually consider myself fortunate that I wasn't introduced to programming that way. I suspect I would have thought that it was kind of neat, but I'm not sure it would have lit the fire. Part of what inspired me with my exposure was just the limitless possibilities. I'm not sure you get that with drag-and-drop programming.

The problem with most languages is the sheer amount of infrastructure you need to master before you can do things.  To write a simple Java program, you need to define a namespace and a class.  To print something, you need to enter System.out.println("something");. To read a line from the user will require several lines of junk that would require hours of explanation if you want the person to understand what the lines mean. Granted, you could just boilerplate it and tell the student to ignore all that stuff till later, but I think that reduces engagement. As does the edit/compile/run cycle. I don't think Java is a good first language, at least not for young children (and maybe nobody).

I have taught a few people to program. Want to know what worked for me?

"NO!  DON'T SAY IT!  PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS DECENT, NO!"

Basic.

"GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH %@!&*$!!!"


BASIC???

Yep. And I mean BASIC Basic. Line numbers. One or two character variable names. No "else".

10 print "hello"
20 goto 10
run

I find that humor is a good teaching tool.  If your first program is an infinite print loop, it's kind of funny. Not very funny, but a little. Also, you definitely need a REPL (Read-Eval-Print Loop), which Basic is. No edit/compile/run cycle please.

It takes me an afternoon to teach somebody to program. We don't get sophisticated, but by the end of the afternoon we do end up writing a simple "text adventure" style game.

You are facing two doors.  Do you want the right one or the left one?
? right
A lion has just eaten you!!!
Try again?
? yes
You are facing two doors.  Do you want the right one or the left one?
? left
You found a gold coin!
Do you want to keep going?  Or turn around?  (answer "going" or "turn")
? turn
You are facing two doors.  Do you want the right one or the left one?

etc. See? More humor. How many ways can you kill the player?  :-)

I feel that the Basic language didn't get in the way of seeing the simple algorithm. Any other language would have obscured the simple beauty of what we were doing.

[Update] Now mind you, this is a one-day exercise! For somebody with more interest, I would have a second lesson with subroutines and gross Basic-style input parameters (globals, actually), and for the third lesson, we would switch to a modern language. Maybe Python? Maybe Java? Maybe Lisp? It would depend on who it is and what they might do with it.

Anyway, I did this 1-day lesson with my daughter (she was ... I don't remember ... maybe 10?) and she did well.  Afterwards, she did ask me some questions and got a little help.  Later that year she gave me a birthday present. It was a CD ROM with her updated adventure program. It has maybe a dozen "rooms" and lots of jokes and little surprises in it.  She was VERY proud of herself. (And me of her; I still have the disk.)

But she pretty much lost interest. I am confident it was *not* because of the primitive language. It was just because it didn't light a fire in her. Which is fine.

Anyway, I really think an afternoon of Basic is a good way to introduce programming to a newbie of any age.  I *know* it works.