Short Story Title: Exploiting an Unfair Advantage

Story Type: Fiction


This Short Story is Chapter Nine of "Early Microcomputer Experiences"

Date Written: July 11, 2019

Written By: Joseph T. Arendt

Copyright (c) July 11, 2019


Dr. Silver held my lab report high and declared to the class, "This is how to make a professional looking lab report."

He had picked my report out because I had typed the entire thing, then printed it on my ink-ribbon, full-sized paper, dot-matrix printer. I was the only one that did that. The other students had handwritten their reports. However, other students had stapled on printouts for data analysis using a linear equation solver either with 14-inch wide paper from the PDP mainframe or with narrow silver-colored printouts from thermal printers used from programmable calculators.

A student protested, "You did not ask us to type up our reports, so we didn't have to do it."

Dr. Silver declared, "You do not have to type it. However, doing so makes it look more professional. Here is another nicely done report, although hand written."

Next to me, Bruce whispered to me, "That's mine."

Dr. Silver held both my report and Bruce's report out. Then, he put those down and pulled out another hand-written report that he showed to the class.

Dr. Silver rhetorically asked, "How am I supposed to read these chicken scratches? If your lab reports do not meet minimum standards for neatness, then I am taking points off! At the opposite end, I will add points for nice presentations. Joel, I see you have a printer and a microcomputer."

I admitted, "I do."

Dr. Silver picked up my lab report again and flipped to the back pages, then showed the class, "Joel Kant's got a program to solve linear equations on his microcomputer."

I said, "I converted the FORTRAN program to BASIC."

Dr. Silver nodded, then pulled up Bruce's report and flipped to the back of it. It had stapled on silver paper about three inches wide. I knew that was thermal paper from Bruce's thermal printer that he used on his fancy programmable calculator.

Dr. Silver stated, "Bruce, I assume you have a similar linear equation solver working on your programmable calculator."

Looking annoyed that Dr. Silver let the class know it was his report that was considered almost as neat and professional as mine, Bruce acknowledged, "I do."

Dr. Silver showing the narrow silver colored paper at the back of Bruce's report and the full-sized ink ribbon dot matrix printed paper on the back of my report, then announced, "For the quiz on Thursday, you can bring in whatever technology you own. Bruce, you can bring your programmable calculator and thermal printer. Joel, you can bring you microcomputer, and along that wall is a plug. I assume you cannot run your microcomputer on batteries?"

I said, "I need an outlet."

Other students began protesting. Tom and I were the only one in this class that had microcomputers because Tom also had a Vic-20 microcomputer. Besides Bruce, about six or seven students also had fancy programmable calculators that could use programs to solve a small system of linear circuits. The rest of the class only had ordinary scientific calculator, so solving linear equations took a lot of writing on paper besides button pushing on a calculator.

Dr. Silver explained his reasoning, "When you become electrical engineers, you won't be artificially restricted in the technology available to solve problems. The time to get used to that technology is now!"

After class, an EE student came up to snarl at me, "Brownnoser!"

Bruce defended me, "That's not called for."

The EE student snapped at Bruce, "You're just as bad a brownnoser as Joel! The rest of us aren't rich like you two, so cannot afford a fancy calculator with printer, much less a microcomputer!"

Another EE student chimed in, "You two are the teacher's pets! This is economic discrimination! The grade you get is determined by the technology you can afford!"

Bruce snapped back, "I worked my butt off all summer for a bunch of ungrateful tourists in the Dells this summer to afford my programmable calculator and thermal printer. If you want one, then maybe you should get off your duff and do the same!"

Tom got between Bruce and the other two and said, "Look, even a newly hired faculty member trying to be a big shot like Dr. Silver can't get away with flunking two-thirds of the class for them not having cutting edge technology! Thursday's test will be possible to pass with just a conventional non-programmable scientific calculator. I suspect at least one person with a conventional but non-programable calculator pulls off an A on it."

The two unhappy EE students looked at Tom. They seemed to decide he had a point because they both went away without further words.

As Tom, Bruce, and I walked back to the dorms, Bruce told Tom, "Thanks for getting those two jerks off of Joel and me."

Tom said, "I'm sure they don't know I also own a Vic-20 microcomputer!"

I asked, "I'm certainly bringing mine in. Are you doing the same?"

Tom grinned and said, "I'd be a fool not to! If Dr. Silver gives me an unfair advantage over other students, I'm taking it! I just wish I had a printer like you do, Joel. Still, writing down what's on the screen isn't too bad. I wasn't going to tell those two jerks that I was bringing my own microcomputer, though!"

I remarked, "Nobody's ever accused me of being rich before. I'm just scraping by due to Dr. Richards hiring me at the MSLC as a tutor."

Bruce remarked, "Being on the cutting edge of technology is expensive!"

Thursday came. Bruce helped me and Tom carry our gear. I set up my system, taking up two desks. I had even brought my printer. Tom set up his equipment on another desk. Bruce got his fancy calculator and thermal printer arranged and going. A few others set up fancy calculators and thermal printers that were similar. Nobody but Tom and I had microcomputers.

Those of us setting up had just gotten our tasks completed when Dr. Silver came in. He handed out the tests.

I took mine. It was mainly a series of linear equations, two problems with two variables, one with three, and the last with four. I started typing. In less than twenty minutes, I had my printer making its BRRRRRT noise. Once the paper spat out, I would be done.

Looking around, I saw that Tom had the values from the last problem on his little TV that acted as a monitor. With an ink pen, he was writing them down on his test paper. Bruce's thermal printer was spitting out it's narrow ribbon of silver colored printer. Others were also printing on thermal printers as well for those lucky enough to have them.

I took my paper out of my printer, went up to Dr. Silver's desk, used the stapler there to attached them, and turned in my test. This was the first time in my entire life that I was first person to turn in a test.

As I started taking down my computer system, Tom went up and turned in his test. This was followed by a guy I didn't know well with stapling on thin paper from his thermal paper. He was immediately followed by Bruce doing the same.

Bruce, Tom, and I had our equipment packed while most of the others were still writing away. We and a few others with programmable calculators left the room as those with non-programmable calculators glared daggers at us.

As we got away from the classroom, Tom while still lugging his TV monitor in his arm said, "I've never been as certain of an A on a test as that one! Yet, I see the point of those who claim having the microcomputer was unfair."

Struggling with my own heavy equipment, I said, "Same with me! The test was written in a way where it's very easy if one had a linear equation solver! I was not too surprised Dr. Silver allowed Bruce's type of portable equipment. That fits easily into a backpack and can run on batteries. My computer is hardly easy to bring to the classroom. I did not expect it to be allowed."

Bruce was carrying my printer just out of the goodness of his heart and suggested, "I think Dr. Silver used you two to drive home hard the point of how useful microcomputers can be. While that's a valid point, I doubt this made you guys any friends among those who are only working with inexpensive nonprogrammable calculators."

Tom said, "They won't like you much either with your portable gear. You got done almost as fast as Joel and I."

Bruce responded, "It's a little slower typing on a calculator than using a proper keyboard. Still, those owning only nonprogrammable calculators aren't going to be too fond of me either."

Tom grunted and shifted his load to get a better grip as we got closer to the dorm building, then declared, "Dr. Silver certainly knows electronics, math, and science. However, he doesn't seem to pay much attention to social awareness!"

I asked, "What do you mean by that?"

Tom elaborated, "It doesn't show much social awareness letting Joel and me get away with practically free A's on this test by using our microcomputers. Neither did that crazy idea of having homework due on the very first day of class! Same goes for deliberately putting on such a huge load of work due the Tuesday after Labor Day weekend that it could only be done by remaining on campus. Furthermore, most professors would not so publicly have praised and identified the two best reports in a class either, as accusations of brownnoser and teacher's pet naturally follow."

Bruce said, "He might not be socially aware, but if he is trying to reduce the class size, he's definitely succeeding."

Tom predicted, "It'll get smaller still when these test results come back!"

The next week when Dr. Silver returned the test, it turned out Tom, Bruce, and I all had gotten our A's, as expected. To my surprise, only about half of the others with programmable calculators like Bruce's had gotten A's. I guessed some had not adequately learned to use their linear equation solvers before taking the test. Two of those who merely used nonprogrammable calculators had also managed an A, so that slightly lessened the claims of it being greatly unfair for Dr. Silver to allow students to use whatever technology they owned. A few students did drop the class after these test results were returned.

A couple days after we got the test back, I was working at the MSLC doing math tutoring when Tom showed up. Even though we were in the same Calculus III class, he had me rather than Karen help him. I was relieved that I successfully helped him. I was feeling like a real math tutor.

As Tom put away his book and papers, he told me, "When you get done working, come over to Albert's room."

I asked, "Why?"

Tom replied, "He's got four disks of software for his Commodore 64. Rather than him just saying how great it will be some day in the distant future because the hardware is so much better than our Vic-20's, maybe we'll finally get to see this supposed greatness in action."

After I finished work, I went to Albert's room. Tom Anderson and Bruce Brown were already there. All three were peering at the screen. Albert's roommate Mark was at his desk, looking intentionally disinterested. He was wearing over-the-ear head earphones, apparently to help ignore the others.

I told Albert why Tom said that I should come here.

Albert nervously said, "None of my new software exploits the sound and graphics of what a Commodore 64 can do. It's all in monochrome graphics using PETSCII. I hope you won't be disappointed. The really great Commodore 64 software still isn't out yet."

Bruce put in, "This is all software written for a Commodore PET, like the one Dr. Domain owns. Still, you've got to see it, Joel! Some of it's great, and works perfectly on Albert's machine! Albert, can you show him that animation of the Canadians going to the moon?"

Tom chimed in, "I want to see that again!"

Albert dutifully typed on the keyboard of his Commodore 64. What this ended up being was an animation about three or four minutes long. It made very creative use of the special symbols of PETSCII to draw a rocket, a launch pad, the rocket taking off, stars in the sky, the rocket losing its lower stage, the lunar lander coming down, astronauts getting out and walking around. The clubs symbol for card suites was supposed to be the maple leaf of the Canadian flag.

I replied, "That's really great, Albert!"

Albert said, "This program comes from TPUG, which is the Toronto PET Users Group. I know somebody in Irate City who got disks from TPUG, then made me copies."

Albert showed another short video, this involving a sailing ship going to an island then crudely depicted people on the beach. It was also amusing, but not the instant classic of Canadians going to the moon.

Next, Albert showed a game of checkers. Tom, Bruce, and I kibitzed Albert through a game. Despite our help, or more probably impeded by our suggestions, Albert lost against the artificial intelligence. Although checkers had no color since the PET computer had no color and the program had not yet been modified for the color capabilities of the Commodore 64, the game played well.

After the checkers game, Albert brought up a game of Space Invaders. It only used PETSCII graphics and the game was written in BASIC rather than machine code or Assembler and the keyboard rather than a joystick was used to control it, but it played amazingly well.

Bruce declared, "I can hardly believe this was done without redefined graphics! This is amazing!"

Albert also showed a text adventure game written for the PET called Dog Star Adventures. As with the other games, it had no redefined characters nor color. Yet, the game started with the use of special PETSCII characters to draw Darth Vader's head. Us three onlookers carried on with Tom loudly humming the Darth Vader movie theme. Mark ripped off his headphones.

Mark complained, "What are you guys carrying on about so loudly?"

Tom pointed at the monitor, "Look at Darth Vader's head."

Mark did so, and reluctantly admitted, "That looks really good!"

However, the rest of the Dog Star Adventure game was merely text of the sort like typing SOUTH, SOUTH, GET CARD, OPEN DOOR, DOWN, and other one or two word typed commands. It ended up being one of my favorite text adventure games after I had a chance to play it on my own.

Although he liked Darth's head, Mark lost interest when he saw the game was played by typing, so put his headphones back on and resumed deliberately ignoring us.

Still another PET videogame had the player and the computer opponent do magic weather control. Each had a city, and the other tried to destroy that city in their turn with floods, lightning, earthquakes, and so forth. It was one of the most imaginative videogame concepts that I had yet seen, nothing at all like coin-op fast arcade action games.

We played games until finally it was time to leave to get some sleep.

I stopped by Albert's dorm room again on Saturday afternoon to work on some homework with him. Mark was not around. Albert had the radio playing softly though his stereo. I dislike having the radio playing when I studied, but Albert claimed it helped him as long as it was not too loud. I had to admit that he was not playing it too loudly, so it stayed on. Since our tasks were drudgery that took time but did not require deep thinking, I found I did not really mind the radio. We had most of the work done when Darnell Priest showed up.

Darnell said, "Albert, I heard from Tom and Bruce that you got a bunch new games for your Commodore 64."

Albert gave his explanation that these were PET games, so do not expect color, redefined graphics, or sound effects, but some of the games were good anyway.

Albert started Darnell with the PET version of Space Invaders. Darnell approved of it, playing it several times while Albert and I got the last details done on our work.

Darnell asked after playing that for a while, "What else is good?"

I suggested, "I like both Dog Star Adventures and the Weather Game."

Darnell asked, "What's the Weather Game?"

I explained, "It's a game where the player and the A.I. computer opponent each have a city. Each takes turns doing storms, lightning, earthquakes, and so forth to try to destroy other's city."

Albert added, "It's a clever strategy game."

Albert brought the Weather Game up and demonstrated it to Darnell, but Darnell did not care for weather-as-weapon game as much as we did.

Moving on, Albert then brought up a different game had a stickman shooting at a flying saucer. The stickman would sometimes in a speech balloon yell, "A.F.O."

I had not seen this game yet, and I asked, "Why A.F.O. rather than U.F.O.?"

Albert said the game had originated in Japan, and perhaps that was how U.F.O.'s were referred to there.

Darnell didn't like the A.F.O. game that much either. Albert let Darnell read through the disk directory himself to make his own choice. Darnell found a game that I had not noticed yet. This came was called "Toker."

After Darnell tried it out, he loved it so much that he ran downstairs and then brought back his roommate Gerald Jacobson. After playing only a few times, the two were good at it. Darnell then wanted Albert to try it.

Albert declared, "I don't like playing fast-reaction types of games, but prefer strategy games like the Weather Game or even checkers where I can take my time."

Darnell and Gerald urged me try "Toker." I did. In PETSCII characters, a water-pipe or hookah was shown as was a crude drawing of a human face. Since no redefined characters were used in the game, the drawings were very crude with just circles, diagonals, squares, and so forth, yet the intended meaning remained clear.

Darnell explained to hit a certain key for face-man to draw in air. He had me try it. I soon had the crudely-drawn fire at the top of the crudely-drawn hookah go out. The lines representing smoke above the hookah disappeared. This meant I had lost the game. Darnell had me try again. This time, I tapped the required key much faster. The face-man started coughing from inhaling too fast. I had again lost the game.

Darnell explained that the player lost in either of the two ways that I had just encountered. The trick was that the player had to watch a bar graph and keep the bar in a certain range by tapping the key not too fast but not too slow. He showed me how it was done. By tapping the key at just the right pace, the water pipe suddenly got replaced by what was supposed to be psychedelic display and the face-man got very animated with spinning eyes. The hair of the face-man also suddenly stood up into spikes, like cartoon Bart Simpson's hair.

Darnell laughed at his success with the reward with the crudely drawn animation.

Gerald played next, and got the same spinning eyes result. Both players were delighted.

By coincidence, as this game was being played, Albert had the radio on softly in the background as they were playing this game. A song had the lyric "smoke a pint of tea" a day. Darnell thought that was hilariously appropriate, telling me that the song lyric did not really mean "tea," but rather what this game referred to.

Gerald explained, "It would otherwise not make much sense to smoke tea rather than brew it. Get it, Joel?"

I replied, "Yes, I got it."

I reflected that in their shared dorm room, Gerald had a large collection of beer, both exotic empty cans and others that were full waiting to be drunk. Darnell had an impressive collection of hard liquor. Based on how they reacted to this game, I suspected they liked more than just ethanol as a substance of choice. Yet, they were both academically very strong students in Computer Science with no danger in any of their classes. To each their own, I figured.

I looked over at Albert, who seemed neither amused nor annoyed, but as disinterested as if he had not heard the exchange. He was writing away with a pencil on his homework, but this homework was in a Computer Science class I did not have so knew little about.

Perhaps inspired by the topic of the game, Darnell and Gerald went away to their own room for about twenty minutes. When they came back asking to play the game "Toker" again, they were in a very jolly mood. They seemed able to win practically every attempt. I gathered the great appeal they found in the game was about the not-very-hidden meaning of the game rather than the challenge of the actual gameplay itself.


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