Nine hours. Eight AM to five PM. A normal work-day can often pass by like a snap.

But Ditch Day is anything but normal: it’s amazing how long nine hours can seem when you feel responsible for filling every minute of it with undiluted awesomesauce of your own design. And yet in a bizarre case of Schrödinger’s Scheduling, there’s also nowhere near enough time for all the awesome puzzles you’ve been dreaming about for years.

And it’s not just a matter of saying ‘well ok, they’ll watch this lecture for an hour, take five minutes to walk to the next location, where they’ll do a supervised activity that will be timed for 45 minutes… etc.’ Not at all. It’s a matter of trying to guess how long an group of unknown (from within a subset) group of Caltech undergrads (certainly not known for predictability) will take to finish a series of tasks that have never been completed before.

Testing by friends or alumni can give some puzzles a rough time estimate, but between the variations in prior knowledge (“hey, this puzzle is just like this one I saw in a magazine three years ago!” vs. “So…where’s the puzzle?”) and external circumstances, it’s like trying to extrapolate from a small experiment in a lab to the real world in extremely non-ideal conditions.  Other puzzles really are one-shot affairs and their time-footprint can only be guessed.

Combine those considerations with my desire to weave a coherent story through the puzzles and planning became a terrifying beast. It involved layers of buffers, contingencies, what-ifs, and a really big whiteboard (spoiler alert):

2010-04-08 17.37.52

As the weeks ticked down towards Ditch Day, Oren and Mike’s huge double essentially became our war room. Random electronics, maps, sketches, and drying painted objects were strewn wall to wall.

In the end most stacks hit surprisingly close to the 8-5 mark, an amazing feat in and of itself when you think about it, let alone what creating what happens in that time period. (I’m getting there, I swear!)