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23 Mar 2008
My Dad Vs. Atari

Here's a fun little story...

My dad, once upon a time in 1980, wanted to create a computer program that would play seven card stud. We had an Atari 400 with a tape drive at the time, but that didn't stop him. After a long, hard year of typing and learning graphics and making me and my brother test it out, he not only had a working poker program, he had a poker program that had some really effective artificial intelligence built into it. We loved the game at home and had high hopes when he submitted it to the Atari Program Exchange, or APX.

APX was Atari's way of encouraging its user base to create programs for the Atari platform. Folks like my dad would create a program, send it on in, and Atari would market them to other Atari owners. Every year, Atari would give out prizes to the top three games made by the user community.

In 1981, my dad's program got second place.

I can't really fault the judges, though. First place went to "Eastern Front", a really good simulation of war on the Russian Front in World War Two. I loved that game.

Fast forward to 2008... a man named Larry Summers moves in near my dad... my dad asks if he's the same Larry Summers that worked with Chris Crawford on "Excalibur", another wonderful title from APX. It turns out, it *is* the same Larry Summers. Well, they get to talking, and Mr. Summers tells my dad that he was a programmer with Atari, not just an enthusiastic user. Summers goes on to say that he did a lot of the programming on "Eastern Front."

Hold on there... Did I hear that right? Did my dad come in second place not just to "Eastern Front", but to the might of Atari itself? If so, then his second place is even sweeter. He did "Seven Card Stud" all by himself. I know. I was there.

My dad and Summers talked some more. They remembered how Atari had offered everyone working for them a prize if they could create a World War One dogfighting game. Both of them had worked on a project to make that game and both had based their ideas off the hit flipbook game, "Ace of Aces". I remember working on the graphics with that and then we suddenly stopped the project in 1983. What stopped my dad? It was an ad in Byte magazine for "Spitfire Ace". It looked exactly like what we were trying to do. The difference was, whoever programmed it had gotten everything to work in it.

At that point, my dad decided that programming wasn't for him, not as a full-time job. He reckoned whoever it was that made "Spitfire Ace" would be the guy with a future in programming.

That guy, by the way, was Sid Meier. As in the Sid Meier that made the Civilization series, among other smash hit games... My dad's quite the keen observer of talent, if I say so myself.

Anyway, that's a true story from the golden age of computing. I'm glad my dad won that prize for "Seven Card Stud", by the way. With the money he won, we could afford an Atari 800 with a floppy disk drive. Man, that machine was fast! Well, fast for 1982...

by Dean Webb

15 Mar 2008
Carpe Senator

After the Texas State Academic Decathlon awards assembly concluded, I approached one of the awards presenters to mention some hopes and concerns I have for the program. I'd like to see it in more schools, with more students in each school giving it a try. Well, this particular presenter was in a good place to talk about these things: she was Florence Shapiro, head of the Senate Education Committee in the Texas State Senate. She asked me to email her with my ideas, and I did.

Yesterday, I got a nice, 40-minute call from one of her staff to discuss my ideas. I'd like the state to define "Academic Decathlon" as a course so districts won't hedge when it comes to offering it as a course. Next, I'd like to see some sort of benefit for students who attain a certain minimum score in the competition so they could be considered in the "Texas Top 10%", or some other bonus like that to recognize how hard they worked for the sake of learning the joy of learning.

I'm optimistic about this. Just remember this, kids: all politics is local politics and carpe senator!

by Dean Webb

Posted at:10 Jan 2009 06:22:16 PM

No Words portraits and romantic illustrations.

What's there to say?

I got words and pictures.

I got a message board.

Like I said, what's there to say?