It's not often you get to hear about a programming language, download it and write your first application before breakfast. Yet the toast is still warm in the toaster, and I'm looking at a ZDNet UK logo bouncing around in its own little window.
This is thanks to the proudly simple Shoes, a Ruby-based toolkit which has the evangelical mission of letting non-programmers get their mice wet without having to go through all the tribal initiation rituals that today's computing environments demand. It takes as its inspiration the glory days of the 8-bit micros, when you turned the darned thing on and started typing BASIC at the prompt, and it is fuelled by a group of around fifty programmers who channel the sheer enthusiasm of the code adventurers of that time.
Crucially, it uses its Ruby heart to combine that 80s spirit with the excitement of the online millennium. You can handle media files, link into the Web 2.0 world of services, and generally grab and fiddle with all the bits and pieces that make today's computing environment so much more than the solipsistic, alone-in-the-bedroom hermit's cell of the past. That's clear from the Shoes community, which is already building libraries of applications, tons of clear, focussed documentation. These people are on a mission, and they are led by one of software's most awesomely polymath stars, the deeply exciting and inspiring _why.
And the whole thing is a delight. Shoes programs are easy to read and write, gratification is near-instant, it's cross-platform on OS X, Linux and Windows, it has a splendid tutorial book called "Nobody Knows Shoes" and it has the dangerous tendency to be actually useful. People are writing Twitter apps in it, for heaven's sake. No, it's not finished. It will never be finished. There's lots of stuff it needs to go from "Wow!" to "WOW!". But it has the "Wow!".
I can already hear the tocsins. Bad programming practices! Security! Look what happened to Visual Basic! All true, and all utterly beside the point. While nobody denies that IT needs more engineering discipline, not less, and while Shoes is as undisciplined on the surface as a teenage disco, its purpose isn't to create programming geniuses who dream in algorithms while grokking the subtleties of style and business that characterise the finer traditions of professional coding. Its purpose is to light fires in the mind, to have people sit down at their keyboards and go "Aha! Now I see... so what happens if I try this? And that?"
The rest comes later. Without stuff like Shoes, it won't come at all.
Go. Download. Play. Show your kids – if they can get you away from the computer. It really is that much fun.