Dr. Miller, my advisor, did a great job of identifying opportunities for Transy’s computer science majors that would help them gain a variety of valuable experiences. Some of them didn’t require much expertise—doing set-up and gopher work for high school competitions or counseling at camps, for instance—but he found summer programming opportunities for a number of us as well, at the college’s IT department and at the local IBM office. The most fun activity he organized for us, though, was arranging for a team to compete in the Association for Computing Machinery’s annual programming contest in November of my junior and senior years. That first year we surprised even ourselves with our success.
Eight folks loaded into a college van early on the Friday before Thanksgiving of 84 to drive north several hours to Kalamazoo, where Western Michigan University was playing host. There were the four who’d be competing on Saturday morning (James, Mark, Cathy, and me), Dr. Miller and David, a very recent grad who now worked in IT, to serve as chaperones, and Michelle and Jim. Michelle, a fellow junior CS major, went with us both as alternate and female company for Cathy; Jim was an alum from a few years earlier who was in grad school and had served as senior counselor at the programming camp back in June (Mark, Michelle, and I had all worked it, too). Since the summer, Mark and I had been teaching ourselves bridge, dealing out hand after hand in the dorm. We didn’t have much of a bidding system and we knew nothing about defensive signaling at that point, but, if nothing else, we were enthusiastic and persistent. The two of us spent much of the trip on Friday playing against Michelle and Jim, who were also trying to learn.
The day we left was sunny, the temperature seasonable. With Daylight Savings over for the year, it was dark and brisk when we went for dinner after first checking in at WMU and then the place we were staying. We weren’t far from the interstate, so the bright lights of restaurants and hotels pretty well filled the view. That sight is still what comes to mind when I think about “the suburban Midwest.”
The welcome and final briefing started at 8:15 the next morning. Scoring was based first on the number of problems correctly solved. The tie breaker was the total length of time it took for one’s correct submissions, so a lower score was better. Penalty points were awarded for each incorrect submission. After discussing the conditions of contest, competitors from 47 teams were taken to an adjacent building. At 9:00, each group was handed four problems and given four hours to do with them what they could. We hadn’t discussed a plan of attack in advance; each of us wound up taking one problem as our own. As soon as I saw Problem 1, I knew it had to be mine, and not only because it involved programming a card game.
I didn’t learn bridge when I was growing up, but I had played the trick-taking game Rook from a pretty young age. Along with dominos, it was one of my Papaw’s favorite games to play, so it was no surprise that a deck (the one pictured above) wound up in our house. It’s a bidding-then-trump-setting partnership game; the goal is to take tricks that contain point cards (5’s , 10’s, and 14’s, plus the “bird card”) to reach your bid. I have a number of fond memories playing, but what had me excited that morning in Michigan was recognizing the solitaire variant I’d taught myself years earlier after finding instructions at the back of the Rook rule book.
I knew the mechanics of the game well enough that it’s possible I had a leg up on some of the other teams when it came to writing the code. Even if that wasn’t actually true, I did put something together that gave correct output on their test data on the second submission. It had taken about three hours to complete it (my copy of the problems came from Dr. Miller—that “Score = 210” is in his writing and must be my minutes plus penalty). It was the second problem our team had solved—Mark had gotten his on the first try about an hour earlier. Because of how we’d divided the labor, he and I weren’t of much use to James or Cathy as things wound down. Just before 1:00, Cathy submitted her code for testing. We learned after time had expired it had run successfully. The folks back in the auditorium in the other building, getting regular live updates, knew how we placed before we did.
Only one team, Michigan State, had solved all four problems. There were several with three right, but because of Mark’s relatively early success, we finished fourth. We’d caught lightning in a bottle—as you can read below in the article Michelle wrote for the school newspaper, for at least one day tiny Transylvania, enrollment 800+, was better than Notre Dame, Purdue, and all other competing Kentucky schools, including UK and Louisville. It honestly was stunning; we practically floated home.
The following year the competition was in East Lansing, so we had another long van ride. Suzanne replaced Cathy, and history did not repeat, as I don’t think we got anything to run. That was valuable experience, too—it’s good to be kept humble.
Tina Turner had blown everyone away in the summer with “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” It’s clearly the best song on Private Dancer, and was fully deserving of being a #1 hit. But if you press me for my favorite from that album, I’ll always go with “Better Be Good to Me.” It’d be many years before I realized it was a Holly Knight creation, originally recorded by her band Spider in 81. The first words that spring to mind to describe it are electric and hot, and that’s before even taking her performance in the video into account (why am I realizing only now that’s Cy Curnin of the Fixx trying to gain her affection in this clip?). It’s jumping up to #9 on this show, and would reach #5. I don’t associate it particularly with our foray to Kalamazoo two weeks later, but it was one I was absolutely loving right at that moment.