The Computer Date Dance by
50
(76 Stories)

Prompted By Dating

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Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a high school far, far away, there was a computer date dance. Before dating apps, before apps, before smartphones or cell phones or personal computers.  Think FORTRAN and computer punch cards.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, in a high school far, far away, there was a computer date dance.

The U.S. had an active space program and the future was clearly cyber.  What more important new frontier than digital dating?  And so, the student council embarked on plans to have a computer-matched dance.

This may have been promoted by a friendly, playful and extremely geeky fellow named Bob, a senior with intense computer interests.  He would be able to pull off the computer match magic. Bob was a friend of mine through the Unitarian youth group, a year ahead of me.  He had let me use his car to take the Maryland driver’s license test; unfortunately it was a old stick shift station wagon I had never driven. Unsurprisingly, I failed parallel parking in it—but the gesture was sweet.

In any case, he took on the dance project, and developed a questionnaire for each participant.  The answers were key-punched onto the computer cards, which were fed into the computer (he must have access to one somewhere—certainly not at school).  He programmed some algorithm to optimize answer matches for what must have been around a thousand students.

The entire school awaited the results with both hope and trepidation.  The results were to be posted the morning of the dance.  Who would be matched with whom?  When the list came out, rumors rippled throughout the school, along with disbelief.  How had a popular cheerleader matched with the schlumpiest guy in the class?  Something seemed wrong with the results of the all-knowing machine.

Bob later confided in me that (predictably in hindsight) the computer program had crashed, and he was in a panic.  In the end, he resorted to a backup plan that that was essentially a random match, and hoped for the best. The dance proceeded, but was somewhat of a fiasco, and as far as I know the school never tried that again.

I lost touch with Bob after high school, but he ended up becoming the ninth employee at Microsoft, later founded Quicksoft, and maintained an interest in psychedelics.  He died unexpectedly at age 53.  His Wikipedia entry (Bob Wallace 1949-2002) is a good read.

Oh, and my computer date match?  Was it a random match, a true match of answers, or a deliberate manipulation?  I don’t know, but I matched with Bob.

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry


Characterizations: funny, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Great story, Khati! Of course the program crashed, but how funny that Bob then used a random match program and the cheerleader wound up with the geek and you went to the dance with Bob! And the whole dance was a fiasco.

    Interesting that Bob went on to Brown University (and studied with Andy Van Dam – my daughter, also a computer type, went to Brown, but stayed clear of Andy, though he is legendary; a story for another day) and was so involved in the early days of Microsoft.

  2. Wow Khati, some story!
    I’m sure at least one match wasn’t random – geek or not Bob knew a good thing when he saw it – he wanted you!

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Terrific story, Khati. And weirdly reminiscent of the efforts of our high school student council to put on a computer date dance my senior year. I helped with it, but the “Bob Wallace” of our class, really was in charge, as his father was an early computer guru at Yale and had access to those huge, punch card-driven and FORTRAN-based mainframes of the day. And with the same results: the program crashed and we, literally, picked our dates out of a hat at school a week before the dance.

    I do recall somehow ending up with the consensus hottest girl in our class and being accused by my pals of having fixed the whole thing. I was mainly just relieved that her football playing boyfriend didn’t think so and saw no need to punch my face in. Conversely, I’m betting Bob planned to end up with you.

  4. Marian says:

    What a great story, Khati, and so much for computer matches. I can’t help but wonder if some of those random matches worked out, or if in the ideal world, the computer matches would have resulted in more “hits.” I guess that’s for a computer geek to figure out.

  5. Suzy says:

    Khati, when I read this story, it triggered a vague memory of having a dance like this at my school. I am sending the story to everyone in my high school class to see if anyone else remembers it or if I am hallucinating.

  6. Jeff Gerken says:

    I suspect that Bob’s choice for his date was not as random as he might have claimed. And I wonder, knowing the path that you eventually followed, if his algorithm had any allowance for alternative matchings.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      No alternative choices I recall. 1967 was just a little too early for that to be included, although I have no doubt he would have been happy to do that. Times have changed in many ways, and certainly dating is one.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    I love this story, Khati. Poor Bob when his grand plan failed and he had to resort to random matches, except that he chose you. So I guess he was a pretty smart guy.

  8. This is such a cute story, Khati…kind of classic with its early computer snafu!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Of course computers don’t have snafus any more, ha ha. It is kind of funny how everyone thought there was some sort of magic that would occur with the machines. I notice that some seem to think “artificial intelligence” is likewise smarter than it turns out to be. At least for now.

  9. Hmmm… wonderful story Khati! I suspect that the station-wagon loan and the ‘random’ dance match might not have been so accidental. Ask the spirit of Bob. There are no coincidences!

  10. Susan Bennet says:

    Fabulous story, Khati. Before its end I was rooting for Bob to become a computer industry success. I do want to report that a couple I know who have been married 47 years were matched perfectly in the mid-1970s via the this same “mainframe” method. Fast forward, my niece met her now-husband on OKCupid seven years ago. There must be something to it.
    I concur with everyone else that your high school dance match was NOT random!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I love your computer match stories! The more recent cyber versions have gotten more sophisticated, but it still takes chemistry to make the real match—although you can at least up the odds with a pre-screen. I wonder how the traditional human matchmakers would compare to the machines—a re-do of the human vs computer chess match.

  11. Dave Ventre says:

    My bet is that it was deliberate. Planning is what computer programmers excel at!

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