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Computerized scoring of the 1997 meet

A reminiscence of the 1977 spring meet, which I enjoyed almost entirely indoors.

I was one of the few intrepid freshmen from the Class of 1980 to venture to the winter meet at McGill. The introduction of this 16-year-old novice to arctic cold, Earl Jette, UMO alums, the DOC Van, the 69 Club, and the defrosting of Lex Bond '78's frostbitten feet on my bare abdomen left an indelible impression on me, and marked the end of my WW competitive career. However, faced with the alternative of actually attending classes, I continued to play a supporting role in future spring meets.

During that same winter I was introduced to the company of Dan Saucy '79 and Ann Lucchini '77, working on the computerization of Winter Sports event scoring. To any freshman who served as a mindless automaton standing on the outrun hill of the ski jump, staring straight ahead and hoping feet would land directly in front of your eyes, this was an attractive prospect. Eventually Dan and I would receive nice-looking awards from the NCAA for "Significant Contributions to the Success of the 1978 Ski Championships" for our efforts. At the time, computerized scoring of such meets (at least at the college level) was quite novel, and for events in which the second run start order is dependent on the standings after the first run this innovation was a most welcome alternative to having hordes of competitors standing around a table occupied by frazzled scorers with calculators.

With technology comes dangers, of course. Dan and I discovered that in the cool environs of the ski jump judge's stand, for example, portable dial-up terminals with built-in thermal printers do nothing but spew blank sheets of gently-warmed paper. We were prepared - so we thought.

The meet director that spring was Chris Mumford '77, and he did the spring meet an admirable service by creating the first WW automated scoring program. Most events, of course, belong to either the time-based or the points-based variety; either the winning time gets full points, with slower times scored proportionally (like pulp toss) or certain activities score points out of a theoretical maximum total (axe throw). There are a few time-and-distance or time-and-style oddballs like felling or chain throw, but they're not too hard to handle. Chris was not (and is not) known primarily as a technologist, but that term was taking a computer course. At the time there were essentially two computer courses at the College - computers for scientists, and computers for everyone else. Being a history major, Chris was enrolled in the everyone-else version (I don't know what the difference was). Of course, the plural "computers" in this case is a misnomer, as there was only one of them in Kiewit and it was larger than my car (my present car, that is, for I was too young to drive at the time - but that's a different story).

Chris implemented his scoring program for the course, and it performed extremely well. The professor was quite impressed, and was very pleased to know there was a real-world application of this project coming up soon (it was a winter term course). Chris' expertise and familiarity with the rules of WW meets served us well, and we were all ready for the big event - so we thought.

At the time, all access to the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System outside of the computer center was through dial-up 300-baud terminals. These usually took the form of electric-typewriter-sized portable terminals, usually with the aforementioned thermal printer feature. For temporary but office-like locations, one could borrow a DECwriter full-size terminal with tractor-fed regular paper and an acoustic coupler into which the handset of a telephone would be inserted to make the connection. We had two of these set up in Room 14 to handle the event.

Registration was to take place at Robinson Hall, with the off-site events at Storrs Pond being reported back by runners. This meant that the first day's events were not going to quite be real-time scoring, as the data entry would happen after the fact, but we would have complete results and standings at dinner that evening. And the second day's events on the Green would feature prompt reporting of each event, and event-by-event progress towards the final meet standings would be enjoyed by all - so we thought.

One of the themes of the WW meet is to remind us all that there are some tasks best suited to low-technology solutions. To do a job well, one doesn't always need a battery or an AC power cord, or even a 70cc two-stroke engine. Sometimes all that technology gets in the way of the real job, and distracts from the task at hand. We end up spending too much time or money focusing on the tools rather than on the job itself. And as the competitors started rolling in, we were taught that lesson again.

Ann and I, being at the nerdier end of the C&T membership spectrum, were staffing the two terminals for team registration. The first few teams went through without a hitch, and we were just settling into that smug complacency that precedes all hell breaking loose when all hell broke loose.

It is often said that what is practical in theory is theoretical in practice, and what works in the classroom doesn't always turn out so well in the real world. Such was the case that spring weekend of 1977. The first thing we discovered was that our software (written in Dartmouth BASIC) stored all information about competitors and teams in arrays. To make it easier for students to start working with arrays, Dartmouth BASIC would automatically allocate space for five array elements in any array if you forgot to explicitly state how big you wanted the array to be. We realized that - surprise! - we had more than five teams, and the test meet used in class did not. Ann and I started scrambling, and editing the software on the fly as teams rolled in. There's nothing like facing a team of Smitties tired from a long drive, standing in front of you and waiting for you to finish debugging your software, to keep you motivated. Ann and I survived and got through registration, most certainly creating at least as many errors as we fixed.

The next day was rather like clearing a minefield; one never knew when the next step would go astray. As is the custom, a few "special" events were thrown into that year's competition, and - surprise! - they weren't included in the software. Fortunately, we were safely installed several miles away from the actual competitors, allowing us a bit of distance and breathing room to scramble. By the end of the first day we had pretty much caught up. I think we encountered all the variations of time-based and points-based events that day, so the second day's events brought no new surprises. Ann and I were, of course, utterly terrified and gun-shy at this point, and dared not venture more than a few steps away from our terminals until the bitter end. I distinctly remember times and scores being shuttled in by Kim Rosenau '77 and others, and occasional glances of calm concern from Put Blodgett and mild bemusement from Sam Smith.

All's well that ends, they say, and we made it through. It was another triumph of chubberdom over technology for the record books. Competitors went home happy, the final scores bore more than a passing resemblance to the teams' actual performance, and a good time was had by all. And within a few months, of course, all the cautionary lessons learned were tossed aside and we all went on to bigger and more ambitious adventures in technology. I presume this year's events will feature a network of iPhones and millisecond telemetry from the finish lines.

McEd (Ed McNierney, Dartmouth'80)

P.S. I do not wish to give a disparaging impression of Chris' role in this event. During the meet itself he was the meet director and was far too busy attending to that important job to do much other than offer moral support to Ann and me, which he did in abundance. And none of us are immune from the kinds of programming oversights we encountered - over 30 years later I encounter them nearly every day; had Ann or I written the original software we would have contributed our own unique quirks to trip us up. Nor did it occur to us to do something as ambitious as actually test the software in advance! Chris contributed much to the success of that 1977 spring meet and to support the continued future of the event.

The 1997 results

Read more about Woodsmen's Weekend history