Noogler, Day 13: A Day At the Races

I'm starting on this one before I leave the office. I figure I'd be better able to write these when they're fresh in my mind.

I'm not sure if you recognize the title. It's a Marx Brothers film. I'm aware of the fact that I make a lot of references that people don't get, but sometimes that takes me off guard. Like today; I told a guy, "Welcome to the jungle. We've got fun and games." He had never heard the song I was quoting; when I said that it was a mid-80s song, he said he was about so (1'6") tall at the time. Every now and then, I'm reminded that I'm the old one around here.

This was as we were getting on the bus. "What bus," you ask? Why, the Google bus to take my team to the go-kart track.

You see, today was an off-site team (Ads SRE) event. We first went for lunch (Cafe Moma, which serves "multi-cultural comfort food"). I had just shown up; I slept late this morning.

After lunch, we all piled onto the bus, which is one of the usual Google buses. It's pretty much like a nice charter bus with TVs, wireless Internet access, etc. And a bunch of geeks having conversations about various geeky things. For example, I was talking to the guy next to me about how much I'd like to see a recreational mathematics course; it turned out that he used to teach such a course (by a different name) at a university. Others were talking about things like switching fabrics, new gadgets, and influential people in the computer community.

At the track, we all signed in, and changed into jumpsuits. After that, we were given a briefing about the rules of the track. We divided into two groups, and each group was given 10 minutes on the track to get used to it.

Now we're ready to race. Here's the rules. We were divided into teams of 3s and 4s. Each team had a kart, and we'd decide who the first driver would be. The race was for 45 minutes, and everybody on the team had to drive. When we'd want to switch drivers, we'd write the car number, the driver's name, and a note on a markerboard, and hold it up. The driver would then drive into the pit stop after the lap, and swap out with a different driver.

But, because this is SRE, we had to make things difficult. The boss brought puzzles. Once your driver pitted, while your replacement driver was getting ready, the others on your team would have to put together a puzzle. Only once that was done could your driver leave the pit.

My team consisted of myself, Yao (an officemate), Eric (my mentor), and Basab (an older Indian man whom I didn't know). Yao was the best driver, followed by me, Eric, and then Basab.

We used Yao for the qualifying round (10 minutes), which was a mistake. We didn't know it, but the qualifying driver would also be the first driver for the race. That meant that he was already getting tired when the real race began. Meanwhile, we looked at what the puzzles were.

They were maps of the US with the 50 states cut out. On the board, under each piece, was the state's capital marked with a dot and the name. As Yao raced, the rest of my team made a strategy. We'd avoid putting me and Eric back-to-back, since that would mean that Yao and Basab would have to solve the puzzle. Seeing as how that involved US geography, Eric and I were probably marginally more qualified to solve it. We decided to split the driving time with Yao for about 13 minutes, me for 12, and Eric and Basab for about 10 each. This was to give our better drivers more time on the track, while still giving everybody a chance to drive. The rotation we picked was Yao, Eric, Basab, and me.

This plan saw its first weakness when Yao got tired and pitted. We hadn't considered that our plan would lead to him starting with 23 minutes in the car, which is a LONG time! While Basab and I started on the puzzle, Eric put on his helmet and got in the car. Basab and I started on the puzzle, and Yao joined us a minute later once Eric was in the car. We finished the puzzle and Eric took off.

We considered another problem: the puzzle takes about 2 minutes to solve, so we subtracted that from each person's time-on-track preparations. We worked out about when to bring Eric in, and gave him a "last lap" note. Unfortunately, between when we gave him the note and when he pitted, lots of other cars were pitting. Since there were only three puzzles, we had to wait for one of those to come free before we could start.

Yao and I waited for a puzzle to come free, and Basab went to relieve Eric. Once the puzzle was free, I called to Yao and we jumped on it. Eric joined us, we finished, and sent Basab on his way.

Now, Basab was rather self-conscious about his speed. When I had talked with him earlier, I wanted to be both encouraging for him to go out and do his best, but also making it clear that the point was to have fun, not to win. It came off as a rather schizophrenic talk. In the end, in order to not hold the team back, he pitted after just about five minutes.

That left me, our last driver, with 15 minutes to go! I suited up and hopped into the car. Once I got the signal, I headed up to the line and floored the gas.

You can look at the maps at if you like; we were on the Monza track. Unfortunately, the start line isn't marked on that map. If you're going along the bottom (left to right), you can either take the track, or go straight into the pits. The ramp out from the pits is just above it, so the pits are kind of an extension of that bottom-left turn. The start line is just after that, near the bottom left. So the first turn is a little bit down from the center of the map.

I'd figured that the hard spot would be turn 7, the U-turn in the right center of the map. I asked one of the workers there about that, and he said that no, the toughy is the chicane at turns 3-5. The thing to do is to try to take a tight line on it, and you can pretty much floor it; the bridge right after the chicane is going to help you recover traction going into the straightaway.

Generally, things went pretty well. I got pretty frustrated with one car on the track, who had about four cars stuck behind him, despite being told by the track marshals to let us pass. There's a blue and yellow flag that's used to signal this; he ignored that flag for about two full laps while I was behind him. (I later heard one of our more vocal employees griping about his behavior; we never did find out who the driver was.)

My biggest problem was at turn 9, the U-turn a little bit above the center of the map, just to the right of the chicane. You take that turn pretty much blind to what's on the other side. Well, there had been a spinout there, and RIGHT on the other side were three karts stopped. I slammed on my brakes as soon as I came around that turn, and although I had lost a lot of speed going into it, I still wasn't able to brake fast enough to avoid a small collision. Not enough to be a problem, though.

After the race, they gave out medals to the top three teams. The go-kart facility provided medals, and our boss provided another set of medals. I liked our set better: gold, silver, and bronze pagers. (I later examined one: they were real pagers, just obsolete, from Weird Stuff, spray painted, with "Google SRE '07" written over their screens.)

We went to a classy looking place where we ate and drank and played pool. There, they gave out prizes to the top few teams, the top individual lap, and the slowest individual lap. They also gave everybody a pretty nice socket set. The handle was stuck in the foam in mine; I had to use my Leatherman to pry it out.

After that, I came back to the office, caught up on my email and a few other menial tasks, and sat down to write this. Despite my protests in Monday's entry, today WAS an all-play-and-no-work day.


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