Monthly Archives: July 2010

BC Diary: Day 4

Wednesday:

Making Wednesday work

I’m vertical the instant my alarm goes off at 5:15. If I even think about the snooze button, I’m lost.

By the time I’ve showered and dressed, it seems like too much trouble to try to pick up some breakfast, so I head on down to catch the 6:00 am shuttle. I’ll just eat the cranberry-nut power bar I’ve been carrying around since I left home last Saturday. At least we’ve got the new shuttle route, which as of a couple of days ago, delivers and picks up from the loading dock entrance to B5, so we don’t have to make that long trek from the lobby down all the escalators.

Why so early this morning? We’ve got 27 Sr WE teams coming in to start fencing at 7:30 this morning. Originally scheduled for a different day, this event was moved to today (over BC objections) because of complaints that it was too close or too far away or on the wrong side of the individual WE event—I don’t even remember the specific reason anymore. In any case, this was the only time we could make it fit into the day, and if we can’t get the first few rounds done before the second wave of events comes in at 10:30, we will be in serious trouble.

We’ve all started cataloguing our cognitive deficits. I need to speak more slowly than usual—if I don’t, the words that come out of my mouth are not quite the words I’m trying to say, sometimes not even close. We’re being very careful going up and down the BC stage steps. More of us are muttering to ourselves the way Tanya and I were last night, attempting to be hyper-conscious of what we’re doing.

what happens when we slow down

Our relative down-times, like waiting for pools to come in once the 8:00 events are out, are almost the hardest to cope with. It’s better to wander the hall or do a Starbucks run than just sit. If we stop moving, we become aware of how tired we are, which is dangerous—if I just sit still, I realize that about 75% of my brain just wants to let my eyes fall shut so I can sleep. The other 25% is an emotional basket case—that section of my brain just wants to sit and sob. I can’t let that part leak out at all.

There are twelve events today, three of them team events, each one coming in as the previous one finishes, ending with that appalling 53 Sr ME teams scheduled to start at 4:00 pm. The individual events are fairly impressive, too: 183 in 14ME, 63 in Div I MF, 87 in Div IA MS, 124 in 12WF, 76 in 19WS, 28 in 10WE, 192(!) in 12MF (at 2:00!), and 75 in 10MS.

So why are yesterday and today so big and complicated? Why aren’t events spread out more evenly throughout the week? In fact, we could easily work up a schedule with evenly sized days—but most fencers and their families would scream bloody murder at such a schedule. To do it, we’d be picking events based solely on their size and weapon, to make sure we balanced the referees needed for each day. We wouldn’t be able to group the age-level events together, or the divs fairly close together. A family with a 12-year-old competitor wouldn’t be happy at all to have her Youth12 event on the first and her Youth 14 event on the next-to-last day, nor would a Veteran fencer much care to have his age level event and the Div 2 event he wanted to compete in separated by five or six days.

Creating a workable SN schedule is not a trivial exercise. We have a list of two or three dozen scheduling criteria, stating which events should be within a couple of days of each other, which should not be on the same day, which should occur before or after which others, and so on. Many of the criteria conflict with each other, and the entire list is long overdue for updating. For instance, we’re long past the days when we could balance the right-of-way weapons with epee—saber is no longer so small that its events can be squeezed into the corners left over between epee and foil events.

We often respond to complaints about the SN and NAC schedules by telling people to please let us know if they can come up with better ones. Many take this as snark, but we are completely sincere (possibly even desperate). We understand that we are probably falling into familiar patterns when we create schedules—a few fresh minds looking at the puzzle might well be able to come up with solutions we have missed.

A couple of weeks before SN, when we were preparing for the scheduling meeting for next season’s NACs, Tanya sent me some files from a self-professed spreadsheet geek who’d been looking at this year’s SN schedule in terms of “strip-minutes.” His calculations showed most of the days this week required 12,000-14,000 strip-minutes, with Tuesday at 16,678 and today at a daunting 20, 553. It’s a completely different and very interesting way of looking at things than we’re accustomed to and may well turn out to be useful for future scheduling.

For years, we’ve used a scheduling spreadsheet devised by George Masin for our planning. It tends to make us think in terms of event rounds—we fill in the number of competitors for each event, and it estimates round times and shows us how many strips we need in each weapon for each half hour through the day. We can adjust the times allowed for pool and DE bouts in each weapon (when the timings changed, for instance, we increased the foil times so that foil and epee now use the same bout durations), and we’ve used the program so much that we know where it tends to be off in its projections and by how much.

(If you’re interested in more detail about schedule planning, there was a recent thread on fencing.net—Nationals Schedule Posted—which discussed schedule making in some detail. In particular, you can find links to the scheduling criteria and event numbers in post #12 in that thread.)

Every few hours today, I do what I think of as a “consolidation” column in the strip chart on my iPad—I note exactly which rounds of which events are on which strips right now. By late afternoon, I’m wandering from one event tableau to the next, searching fruitlessly for strips I can steal for other events. Every strip has been in use for hours, and by 5:00, when the 12MF pool round should have been ending, I’m still looking for strips for seven of those pools, not to mention the 16 or 17 more strips we need for that infernally large ME team event.

Eventually, the earlier events finish, the boys’ foil pools finish, and by the time I have more strips to give to the ME teams, they’ve progressed far enough into their tableau that they no longer need them. Once again, we’ve made it through to the downhill slope and just have to let the final rounds fence out.

As it quiets down, I take a look at tomorrow’s schedule. Lo and behold, not only is the day smaller, but no event will need more strips for its DEs than it uses for its pools. It’s such a straightforward day that I can plan out the whole day’s strip usage without needing to wait to see how the middle hours go.

As I finish tomorrow’s strip plan, I realize my ankles hurt. I take a look and discover that I no longer have ankles—I have elephant stumps instead. I trudge over to the trainers and get a couple of ice bags, come back, sit down, and put my feet up, plopping the ice onto my ankles. All that obsessing over the strips we didn’t have all afternoon distracted me from drinking all the water I should have been drinking. Even though I’ve probably drunk at least three or four liters of water today, it’s not been enough. I realize I’ve been thirsty all day—a bad sign I know better than to ignore. Unfortunately, until just now, I didn’t even notice. The ice helps, though as usual it’s excruciating while it does its work.

I notice that Tanya isn’t scheduled to work tomorrow until 4:00, and shuffle over to where she’s sitting. “I’m thinking you should take the day off until your team event starts tomorrow. It’ll be your only chance for some time off before you take over as chair.”

“Funny you should mention that,” she says. “I was about to come over and tell you that I’m taking the morning off because it’ll be my only chance before I take over as chair.”

The other reason she’s taking the morning off is that when she started uploading today’s results to the website, she found herself trying to upload the same file two or three times, at which point she decided she’d reached her wall, and the results would just have to wait (much to the chagrin of many who’ve already forgotten that daily posting of results is a recent innovation and not a hallowed tradition).

Actually, Tanya wasn’t even supposed to be taking over as chair. But the person who was supposed to be chairing for the last five days of SN found out last Monday that she couldn’t get off work, so Tanya scheduled herself instead. At least she’ll get a few free hours tomorrow.

Once the epee teams finally finish, I have a little run-in with one of the medal teams, who are taking their own sweet time getting themselves to the awards area for their medals. “Hey, guys, we really need you to get over there. Grab what you need to wear and put it on while you’re walking over.”

“You have to understand,” one of them says, “we just lost a match.”

“You have to understand,” I reply, “most of the officials left in the building have been here since before 7:00 this morning and have to be back here in less than six hours.”

“Well,” says one, “you guys didn’t get around to starting this event until after 4:00 this afternoon.”

At that point, I just have to walk away. The only thing that saves them from a black card is that I can’t face doing the paperwork.

Stats:
  • Number of individual competitors: 814
  • Number of teams: 102
  • End time: 12:45 am
  • Hours worked today: 18.75
  • BC hours cumulative total: 70.5

Alarm’s set for 5:30 am.

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BC Diary: Day 3

It’s Tuesday, the first of our two hardest days of the tournament.

To start the morning off, I’ve got 22 pools of 16ME, 30 pools of 14MF, and 8 pools of Div I MS. That takes every strip but the finals strip, which is good, because we’ve lost a few at check-in—we’d thought we would be short a strip this morning, which would have meant having to flight at least one pool of MS, not something I ever want to do in a Division I event.

Suddenly a saber referee is in front of me, asking for a second call on a fencer who’d withdrawn before the close of registration due to an injury. Of course, it’s a pool of 6. I grab the microphone and tell the saber referees to stop the fencing and bring back the pool sheets. Turns out the withdrawn fencer has a brother in the event and the wrong brother was withdrawn. Both are highly ranked, of course, and this being Division I, we redo the pools and start over with the correct brother. This costs us probably 20 minutes, but won’t much affect the overall schedule for the day, because the saber pools will still finish well before we need strips for anything else.

As the saber gets going again, a coach comes and asks whether the one or two bouts fenced before the correction will count, and I tell him no—it’s as though they didn’t happen. He looks disappointed. A few minutes later another coach asks the same question, and is pleased to learn those bouts are thrown out.

At 11:30, I’m going to need the foil and epee pools done (they’ll each be going to 16 strips for their DEs), so I’ll have someplace to put the 13 pools of 14WS and 9 pools of Div I WE coming in then. That’s where the crunch will start—the foil and epee pools will take longer than planned, and we’ll pick up more delays as the day progresses.

Once again, the morning’s saber DEs will go on 4 strips instead of the 8 planned, because there are not enough high-level saber referees available. The event will take longer, but the fencers and coaches will be happier—and once again, I pick up those 4 extra strips to use somewhere else.

Gradually, as the foil and epee move off the strips they won’t keep for their DEs, we get the second group of events out. Now I have to start looking for space for the events starting in the early afternoon: 12 pools of 12WE, followed at half-hour intervals by 19 pools of 12MS (flighted, of course—I’ll be able to give them no more than 12 strips to start with) and 20 pools of 16WF.

Now we’ve got a black card in the Div I MS. Normally all I need to do for a black card is sign the report as BC chair, but this time the fencer decides to appeal. This means we have to organize a meeting of the official bout committee—the BC chair, the head referee, and a representative of the Tournament Committee. Eventually, after interviewing the referee and the fencer and other witnesses, and reviewing a written statement from the fencer, we vote unanimously to uphold the black card. The whole process probably takes at least an hour and a half, during which I have to keep popping in and out to figure out which freed-up strips should go to which events coming in. When we used to have co-chairs for SN, one of us could handle strip management and the other took care of protests and angry coaches and ranting parents. That’s a luxury that went away when the financial deficits appeared.

The extra strips have arrived! Once the fencing shrinks down later in the day, Ted [Li, head armorer for SN] says they’ll replace the two banana strips and do something about strip 58, which we really need usable for Wednesday.

Everybody slogs on through the afternoon. Somehow we eventually find the strips to get the last of the round of 32 matches out for the 19MF Team, and we’re on the downhill slope—from now on, strip usage will shrink and our only challenge is endurance. How the referees can still see anything at all is a mystery to me.

The voucher dinners are getting pretty grim. We’ve discovered that the BBQ place at the top of the escalator has better and more choices than what’s available within the hall, and now we’ve got Chick-fil-A as long as their supplies last, but usually by the time we BC folk manage a few minutes to go get food, everybody else has run out and we’re stuck with the hot-dog-and-a-drink again at the main concession stand. Well, at least this SN is keeping my out-of-pocket expenses really low.

Despite the delays, we manage to start the last rounds of bouts and matches before midnight, so we’re allowed to let them finish. Otherwise, we’d have had to make the remaining competitors come back early the next morning to finish before the regular day started—there’s no way they’d have fit into “normal” fencing hours on Wednesday.

Ted Li tells me that the banana strips have been replaced with straight ones. For strip 58, they will move the strip so it’s not placed on top of the access plate. (He can’t put a sectional strip in the same place because the plate would damage it.) But it turns out it can’t be done until morning because he needs the house electrician to move the power lines out of the way. He promises it will be done before fencing starts in the morning. I hope he’s right.

While the final team matches are going on, Tanya and I sit next to each other at our laptops. She’s converting today’s tournament files to PDFs and uploading them to the USFA website. I’m working on the strip plan for tomorrow, the really ugly day. Suddenly we can’t help laughing at each other—we’re each muttering out loud, talking ourselves through what we’re doing so we don’t make mistakes.

Tomorrow’s going to be a killer.

Stats:

  • Number of individual competitors: 907
  • Number of teams: 38
  • End time: 12:30 am
  • Hours worked today: 17.5
  • BC hours cumulative total: 51.75

Alarm’s set for 5:15 am.

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BC Diary: Day 2

[A note on post timing: This diary is, of course, mildly fraudulent. Though I’m writing these entries to sound contemporaneous with the events they describe, they are actually written several days after the fact. I’d hoped to be able to write about the first five days on my day off Friday, but Days 0 and 1 were all I was able to complete. (More about that when I get to Day 6.) I’m finishing up everything after Day 1 here at home—after several naps. Unfortunately, by now all the days and events are pretty well mushed together in my memory, so I’m forced into less detailed, more general discussions of events.]

Monday:

Up again at 5:30 for breakfast at 6:00 to be ready for the 6:30 shuttle over to the GWCC.

Looks to be a relatively straightforward day, if long. Yesterday was larger than we like for the first day; we’d prefer a smaller day while we all remember our routines and get used to any oddities in this particular setup. But everything went fairly smoothly, if slowly.

The slowness is worrisome. The schedule depends on each round of the morning events finishing relatively on time in order for the later events to start. If a pool or DE round is slow, then the delay will cascade through the whole day. No matter how well-organized we are, we can’t start a new event until there are vacant strips to put them on.

Remarkably enough, we haven’t had many complaints about delays starting DEs. Often, when we get complaints about long delays between pools and DEs, it’s from fencers in pools of 6 who haven’t realized that we’re still waiting for the last few pools to come in. Most referees who finish early are really good about going back out to see if they can help with the slower pools, but until that last pool is done, we can’t start the DEs.

Today seems to be the personality shake-down day. I think it’s partly because we’re all so concerned about Tuesday and Wednesday, which are by far our largest days this year. If the first two days are running one to two hours later than expected, what’s going to happen when we get to the days not even projected to end before 10:00 or 10:30? Those 53 ME teams that don’t start fencing until 4:00 pm on Wednesday are looking scarier and scarier.

I think that’s the main reason we’re all so testy today. Everybody’s got their own way of organizing their paper to keep track of it, and instead of accepting that as normal, we’re all seeing everybody else’s way as wrong because it’s different from our own. Or we’re getting annoyed at the person who jiggles his leg or the other one who hums as she slices and sorts bout slips. I hope we’re just getting it all out of our systems before the really hard days start.

This is one of the best BC staffs I’ve ever worked with. The table side is essentially interchangeable–I’d trust any of them on any event, and every one of them will jump in to help out with a problem or pick up an extra event without being asked if someone else’s runs late. The computer side is equally strong.

Most people don’t realize how crucial temperament is for national bout committee staff. We need people who understand the software and the tournament formats, of course, but we also need people who work well with each other, who can negotiate the fine line between letting the others do their jobs and jumping in to help when necessary. We need people who, when they make a mistake (and we know we will occasionally make mistakes, no matter how much we try to avoid them) do what is necessary to correct it without letting it throw them.

By late afternoon, most of the crabbiness seems to have worked itself out, so I’m a bit more hopeful about tomorrow. We still have to worry about the midnight rule (we aren’t allowed to start a bout or team match after midnight), but it feels like we’re all settling into our routines now, getting a bit more tolerant of each other’s quirks.

If only the Under-19 Women’s Foil could move a little faster. They didn’t close registration until 3:00, so they’re the ones we’ll be waiting for tonight. It happens in every weapon, but it always seems more pronounced in women’s foil—no matter how well the DEs move along, at the round of 8, everything seems to slow to a crawl. Suddenly, every fencer wants her full ten minutes between DEs, bouts are closer, and each and every one seems to go to time. Every event feels like it has to be almost done when there are only 8 competitors left, but in the point weapons, there’s usually at least another hour and a half before the end.

This is the time when I like to make the strip plan for the next day. It’s relatively quiet, at least as quiet as fencing venues can be while fencing is still going on, and there are few interruptions from spectators and coaches. I can sit and look at the schedule and see how many strips the 8:00 events will need for their pools. Lots of people have been teasing me about my iPad, which I’ve been trying out for strip management instead of the traditional paper-and-pencil on a clipboard. I’m using a spreadsheet to reproduce the simple chart we use—rows for strips and columns for rounds—but the big advantage with the iPad is being able to give each event a unique color. Instead of squinting over penciled-in columns to see where I’ve assigned any given event, I just have to look for the right color, which jumps right out at me. It almost—but not quite—makes up for the bizarre strip layout we have.

Tuesday strip plan on my iPad

Sometime tomorrow afternoon, the strips to replace the bananas are supposed to be here, plus we should be able to have the roll-out on strip 58 moved so it’s not on top of the power access cover. We’ve heard that the rumors are that strip 58 shouldn’t be used because it could electrocute the fencers, but it’s purely a matter of uneven footing that could cause fencers to trip.

I’m still happy we’ve been able to put the gold medal bouts for the wheelchair events in the finals area. It’s about time—they’ve been stuck off in their own area for far too long.

Nine colors on the strip chart for tomorrow. The morning lays out easily, but I can only plan the first few rounds—how the later events go will depend on how well the morning rounds conform to projections. I just hope we’ll be able to get the medal bouts for the last events started before we all turn into pumpkins.

Stats:

  • Number of individual competitors: 821
  • Number of teams: 18
  • End time: 10:45 pm
  • Hours worked today: 15.75
  • BC hours cumulative total: 34.25

Alarm’s set for 5:30 am tomorrow.

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BC Diary: Day 1

I head down to breakfast around 6:00 am.

Getting around the Westin is silly. For the officials’ breakfast, we have to take the elevator down to the 9th floor and then take an escalator up to a 10th floor ballroom. For me, the officials’ breakfast is always pretty quiet and sparsely populated–the armorers, a couple of the trainers, and the BC computer operators are usually the only people there as early as I am (though a very few people, such as the folks from the national office who have to get the venue opened up, are even earlier). Then when we’re ready to go to the venue, we go back down the escalator to the 9th floor, take the elevator to the 5th floor, and then down another escalator to get to the street level exit.

Oh, good–the shuttle is already there waiting for us. It’s a short ride to the Georgia World Congress Center, and the shuttle drops us off at the lobby entrance. It’s not that I’ve never been to the GWCC before; I know how big the complex is–it’s just that I always forget how big it feels when you’re actually there–and it’s a long trek from the entrance down through the bowels of Building B to Hall B5 at the far end.

I always like those few minutes early in the mornings before many people have arrived. The venue is quiet, the aisles are clear, the chairs are still in neat straight rows. The scoring machines are not yet whining, coaches and fencers haven’t yet begun to yell, and it still seems barely possible that the schedule might work, despite the huge numbers of competitors we have.

As my table staff arrive on the next shuttle run, they stake out their spots on the BC table, hang their event signs, and pick colors for their paper. With so many events on only three computers (we used to have six for SN–I suppose it saves on both staff and equipment expense to have only the three now), we need the colors to help keep all the paper from all the different events properly sorted.

I hand out the strip allocations I worked out yesterday. As much as possible, I try to put pools on strips that will also be used for the DE rounds for the same events. For example, the Youth 14 Women’s Epee has 17 pools, so I put them on four pods of four, plus one extra strip. For their DEs, they’ll use the 16 strips in those same pods of four, and the extra strip will be freed up for something else. The Under 16 Men’s Foil, though, with 21 pools, will need more strips for their DEs, which will go out on 24 strips so that they’ll finish a little more quickly than they would on 16. DEs on 24 are tricky to set up, though. There’s no easy way to divide a DE table into six parts; you can only break it into halves, quarters, eighths, or sixteenths. The 16 MF will be divided into eighths, so that each of the eight groups of three strips will run half a page of the four-page table. With the strange strip arrangement we have, that means almost every group will be spread over pod barriers, which is inconvenient for both referees and fencers.

As the room fills up, we discover that the sound system, which was fine when tested yesterday, sounds more and more garbled as the room fills up; there seem to be dead spots, as well, including the referee corral behind the bout committee stage–we need to remember to check there for referees who don’t come when called.

Damn. There’s a withdrawal or no-show on the strip in a pool of six in one event, leaving us with a pool of 5 among the 6s and 7s. I decide to stop the fencing and reset the pools. It’s fairer to the fencers but it means the schedule is already slipping by half an hour. (Sometimes a medical withdrawal during a pool will leave us with a pool of 5, but there’s nothing to be done at that point–we’re stuck with it.)

Some of the fencers who checked in upstairs with the new scanning system appear as no-shows, Joe goes up to check into it–turns out that the people doing the scanning weren’t waiting to make sure one scan was good before doing the next one. He tweaked the code a little, too, in addition to clarifying the instructions to the check-in staff. I guess this means the new system is officially in beta. It’s almost always the human factors, though, that we have to focus on the most to make things work right.

The water situation is really frustrating. There are five-gallon water stations (four or five, I think) around the hall, refilled on a schedule about every three hours. For this limited service, Christy tells us, the USFA is paying somewhere around $20,000 for the ten days of the tournament. When you consider that the dozen bout committee staff alone will need a minimum of six gallons a day just sitting and standing, it’s ridiculously inadequate. Near the restrooms closest to the BC stage, there’s a drinking fountain with a nice high arc good for refilling bottles; I’m not sure how many other drinking fountains there are in the hall. I do a lot of pointing toward that fountain.

We also do a lot of newbie education, explaining to first- time fencers and parents how the tournament will work, where and when strip assignments will be posted and how to understand them. I wish some clubs would do a better job preparing their SN qualifiers for what to expect here. We don’t mind explaining things at all, but those families shouldn’t feel so lost when they arrive.

We need to do the 16WS DEs on 8 strips instead of 12 because of the referee shortage. (It’s not only the long delays in officials’ pay causing the shortage; there are also a number of referees who will no longer work SN because of the brutal working conditions.) It turns out that this actually helps–it frees up 4 strips I can give to other events. The schedule is still slipping, though–the foil and épée events are slower than projected, so I don’t yet have strips for the events starting mid-day or later.

The 19MS has 18 pools, but it will be flighted, too, because of referees. It always seems unfair that saber is so often flighted, but it’s so much faster than the other weapons that it makes sense. At least all the saber fencers are used to it by now.

Flighting is really hard on the referees who are here working, though. A typical saber referee today might work a pool and a DE quadrant in the 16WS, then a pool and DEs in the 10WS, then grab lunch quickly–15 or 20 minutes today will be a leisurely meal–before reffing two flights of 19MS pools, then their DEs. That referees can see anything at all after 12 or 14 hours of this is miraculous.

How can there be 18 pools of 10MF? That’s a DE table of 128–four pages of little kid fencers. Where do they all come from that young?

The schedule is still slipping–I’d guess we’ll be at least an hour later than the projected 9:15 finish. The 14 pools of 19WF starting so late in the afternoon certainly will not make up any of that time.

We get the meal vouchers for all the officials who will be staying after 7:00 pm, and in short order discover what can be had for the $10 value: a hot dog or sandwich and a soft drink. In theory one could also get a salad, but none of the food vendors seem to have any left. At the Papa John’s cart, you can get a personal cheese or pepperoni pizza and a soft drink, but you have to add $.50 to the voucher.

Around 9:45 we start to hear all the fireworks going off. Sounds like a pretty good show, and we can definitely tell when the big finale starts–the pops and bangs come fast and furious.

Last touch of the last event (19WF, of course) is at 10:30. All we have to do now is get the awards done, and we can catch the shuttle back to the hotel.

Uh-oh. Some referees who’ve been waiting for the shuttle say it hasn’t come for a long time, so I call the number I’ve been given for the shuttle service. It seems they were told to stop at 10:30, and the dispatcher wasn’t able to reach anyone who could authorize them to continue, so they’ve gone home. Sigh. Those of us who’ve stayed latest will be walking back to the hotel among the crowds still dispersing from the fireworks show. Not a good finish to the first day.

Stats:

  • Number of individual competitors: 702
  • Number of teams: 15
  • End time: 10:30 pm
  • Hours worked today: 15.5
  • BC hours cumulative total: 18.5 hours

Alarm’s set for 5:30 am.

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