Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Capitol BEST

For anyone not familiar with BEST, my last post includes a summary of what the competition is about and my various exploits on the Tom Bean High School and Middle School teams.

This year’s game was fairly straight forward. The teams had to drive their machine from their starting corner of the field up on to a raised platform using a ramp. The outer, lower part of the field and the ramps were only wide enough for one machine at a time to pass any particular point. On the platform, there was room for all of the machines. They had to grab small cardboard boxes and 20 oz. bottles filled with sand from a 2 ft. square in the middle and more boxes from the corners. If they collected and scored with the correct combinations of colored boxes and bottles, they got bonus points worth a lot more than any single score. Bottles were worth the most points for any single item. After grabbing stuff, the teams had to drive down another ramp and to the far edge of the lower field to drop their stuff and score.

It was extremely different working on the staff rather than on a team this year. First, there was no great pressure to come up with awesome design ideas or to memorize the rules within 48 hours after kickoff, which was, to some extent, a relief. There was some pressure to look and sound confident and authoritative, or at least there would have been if those things didn’t come completely naturally to me.

Second, I started out not knowing anyone. I felt like it was an accomplishment to know half of the crew’s names after the first evening of setting up for kickoff. Of course, I’ve been doing lots of name-learning down here.

All of my loyal readers will already be familiar with the earlier events, so I’ll jump right in to the preparation for Contest Day. I arrived at Akins High School at around 5:45 Friday evening. I had been stick in rush hour traffic for about an hour (fancy that, stuck in rush hour during rush hour. Honestly, how do I not think of this stuff?) and was expecting everyone and all the stuff to already be there, since Greg (Greg Young, Capitol BEST director) had asked us to be there at 5. He apparently hadn’t thought about the traffic, either, as he arrived with the truck full of stuff about 15 minutes after I did. Most of the setting-up, preparing the field, arranging tables in the pit, checking in the teams, checking machines, and such only took about three hours. The next five and a half hours were spent mostly on setting up the wiring for the field scoring, tiebreaker system, and the wireless network for the computers. We ran into an amazing array of problems including a wireless camera that completely jammed the network, software glitches, more software glitches, and unreliable tiebreakers. The last one we never fully worked out, partially because the head referee and the head scorer were not coordinating very well and the scoring program wasn’t always ready for the next match when it started. That completely threw off the tiebreaker system. The rest, though, we finally got working by about 8 Saturday morning. We were close at 2:30 that morning, when we accidentally tripped an alarm the teacher escorting us forgot to turn off. The cops insisted that if we couldn’t contact the principal (and of course, we couldn’t), we had to leave and come back after 6. I never understood what that accomplished.

Compared to most places I had been to for BEST contests, the Akins HS gym building was fairly small. It only had one small hallway in the front of the building, concessions, restrooms, the gym itself, and a back hallway. The volunteers’ hospitality rooms had to be in another building to the side. The school in general was typical of high schools in the Austin area: it had several separate buildings arranged in a loose ring around a central courtyard-like area just about big enough to enclose TBHS. It’s an amusing design. From the size of it, I hope the students at these schools get more than 4 minutes to get from one class to another; that was the passing period back home, and it was only barely enough even in our tiny school.

I got about two hours of sleep between being kicked out and coming back for the competition on Saturday. Getting that little sleep is pointless; I felt sleepier at 6 that I had at 2. Once again, I worked mostly on finishing the networking and such. We finally had most of it working by 8, which, conveniently, was when drivers’ meetings and such started. This, like all of the meetings and presentations held by the staff, was a lot lower-key than I was used to. I was used to Ted and Steve and the cheerful, upbeat style they brought to everything they did. I was used to being greeted at my drivers’ meetings by the official head referee and kit and RC experts, all of whom were clearly extremely confident and capable and all had many years of experience even during my first year, 8 years ago.

Next we had the opening of the game and a skit by the Akins HS drama club, which was really cheesy, and not even in a particularly funny way (I hadn’t known that was possible). It got good, though, when the game started. I was officially in charge of the “red” corner of the field, which didn’t really mean that much. All of the refs roamed wherever the action was fairly freely. The first few games all had really low scores. I would guess that a full half of all scores made overall during the day were either “0”s or “1”s, since the teams officially got one point for tripping the tiebreaker. For reference, the lowest other score possible was 5 points, and including bonus points, it ramped up quickly from there. This meant that most people didn’t even notice that our tiebreakers were also only working properly about half of the time, which was definitely convenient for us. There were several other problems during the first half of the day or so: several teams were not ready when the head ref started the match, since he didn’t give any warning and didn’t usually even check all of the drivers or other refs for confirmation. This meant we ended up having to give lots of 20 second penalties for drivers having to turn on their machines after the whistle or something like that. I was kind of surprised at how many drivers managed to jump their machines over the edge of the field as they were starting out. I think I had about three of those in my corner throughout the day.

During the second half of the prelims, things started hitting the fan a little harder. I had to disqualify several scores made after the buzzer that ends the round or that were not completely in the scoring area. Two of my teams jumped the edge during this half; the rules say we have to disqualify them from that match if the leave the field, even if they could get back in. My corner also started having radio problems. In order to minimize interference, all BEST hubs now have special field radio systems. The teams have to turn in their transmitter crystals, rendering them powerless to do anything without a direct cable connection. The teams have to use our receiver boxes and plug in to our transmitters on the field. Our radios are not flawless, however, so we have to check on every accusation every team makes that our system has a problem. 90% of the time or more, the team just has a mechanical problem. At least once during the prelims, though, my red radio system did indeed stop working. When Greg was called over to decide what to do, I intercepted him and explained to him that “If it’s our radio problem, we run the match again, right?” in that tone that said that this was not really a question. That had always been the policy back home, and I completely believed both that it was a good policy and that our radio had definitely stopped working during that match. I was completely surprised that Greg seemed to be seriously considering to just continuing the game without worrying about it, which I was fully prepared to fight. That just wasn’t right. He decided to give that team another chance, though, so I found them and brought them back to the field. After we got them ready for their make-up run, we found that they also had a mechanical problem: one of their motors could not move for some reason. I could hear it buzzing as they tried to move it. Rather unwisely, the driver started arguing with me and Greg that the radio was still not working. By then, we had wasted enough time and had to send them on their way. It was a funny sort of coincidence, that they had both radio and mechanical problems at the same time. We at least tried to do the right thing. A few rounds later, another team decided to mess with us and our radio problems. They somehow made it look like their machine was not receiving a radio signal, even though we tested the receiver and found no problems. The driver then pulled his team’s tether cable (the wired drive system for teams to use in the pit area at contest) out of his pocket right after the game and drove the machine around. I don’t know how or why they made their machine seem to not work. In keeping with doing the right thing, I promptly ordered them off the field.

By the semifinals, the problem frequency had gone down considerably and the game got a whole lot more interesting. The best machine was a quick, single-object grabbing machine with a box to hold stuff in that had really good drivers. During the prelims, other teams had sometimes blocked them from getting to their scoring area (since the lower part of the field was too narrow to get around a properly placed machine and attacking such a machine was a disqualification offense). The problem with this strategy was that it kept the team doing the blocking from scoring any points. And, overall, it didn’t work; this team still had the highest prelim average, almost double the second place score. The second and third place teams both tried to grab all or at least many of the bottles (the high-point objects) at once. This gave them really high scores in any match where they actually pulled it off, but they could only get to the center before the other machines and successfully grab and score several bottles about once in three matches. They also came really close to getting interference penalties several times; once during the prelims, I actually had to take a driver’s transmitter and disqualify him from a match for knocking some bottles out of another machine’s grip, which is seriously bad sportsmanship. During one of the semifinal rounds, I had to release a slight tangle between these two mass-bottle-grabbing machines.

There was one particularly memorable moment in the first round of the semifinals. The team with the quick, well driven machine, Liberal Arts and Sciences Academy, or LASA, had already made a big score. With about thirty seconds to go, they were on the lower field between one of the mass-bottle-grabbers and that machine’s scoring area. They had a perfect chance to block another machine, get a little payback for the blocking they had suffered from earlier. Instead, the LASA driver chose to back his machine all the way into the closest starting corner and let the bottle-grabber go by. They ended up getting to their scoring bin with about 5 seconds left and weren’t able to drop anything before the buzzer. I was amazed at the graciousness of the LASA driver, and absolutely had to shake his hand after that match. He explained that he refused to use the same cheap tactics the fatalist teams had used against his team earlier. He didn’t elaborate on the fact that the bottle-grabber did not have enough time to score, anyway. That action, backing away and letting this machine at least have a chance to score really impressed me. It was both an amazingly sporting gesture and a justifiable tactical decision, since LASA’s earlier score earned much more points than the bottle-grabber could have gotten and they didn’t have good odds of making that score in the time left, anyway. This is the ideal I would look for if I were still in BEST competitions: be sporting, be generous, and still win. An awesome combination.

LASA did end up winning in the end. The two bottle-grabbers each only got one big score during the three final matches, just like I predicted from their success rate during the prelims. LASA, however, was able to maneuver around them as they fought for position over the bottles and pick out several boxes and a couple bottles of their own. It was exactly the right approach. They also ended up winning the BEST award, as they had one of the biggest teams there and therefore had more than enough people to compete well in all the BEST award captions (see the BEST web page for the details). The short explanation is that the BEST award encompasses a bunch of less important stuff that doesn’t directly involve building or running the machine. Because it involves more students with more diverse abilities, though, the national BEST organization decided a couple years before my first contest that it should take precedence over the machines’ game award. I have never agreed with this; without the machines, there would be nothing for the notebook writers or the presentation speakers to do. I do understand their reasoning, though, and at least one game winner always goes on to state from every hub, so I don’t fight it too hard. As it turned out at Capitol BEST this year, they got to send five teams to Texas BEST. Since LASA and one of the bottle-grabbing teams both got BEST awards and qualified for state with those, the game awards went to the other two finalist teams and all four finalist teams go to advance, along with one other that placed 3rd in the BEST award. Once again, check the website if you care about the details of how this all works.

I have decided that I have to be more forward about organizing the field staff next year. I figured I might as well mostly stay quiet and see how things went my first year. In the process, I found several problems. The head ref didn’t reliably check for readiness until the semifinals, after I had been making a point to make a visible thumbs-up signal that my red team was ready for several of the last few prelim matches. He also didn’t wait for the scorer to reset the software and be ready for the next match, which led to the tiebreaker system not working any more than half of the time. The teams didn’t seem to all understand our plan for the flow of the game, which I think was mostly because they didn’t get a strong introduction and clear instructions at the beginning of the day. All of this is stuff I can fix next year.

Even with all the problems and negative calls I had to make, I thoroughly enjoyed the game. There are few places I would rather be than watching a bunch of cobbled together duct-tape and plywood tinker- toys lurch around the field. There’s a certain beauty in watching six weeks of hard work in action. It probably helps a lot that I know exactly how hard those kids worked on those contraptions. I also know that somewhere amongst all those proud designers, builders, and drivers, there had to be at least one who had the best day of his senior year right there at Capitol BEST. And I am extremely proud to have been a part of it.

No comments: