Experience vs Theory: Lake Tahoe Edition

Daniel Olshansky
7 min readOct 17, 2021

I remember thinking I had the foundation to tackle any problem that came my way around the time that I was graduating from College. Having studied a lot of theory in school, I believed that anything could be done by applying the concepts I had learned.

With every year that goes by in the workforce, the number of things I find to learn and get better at far outpaces those I actually get to. This makes me both excited and scared of how I’ll feel in another 10 years.

With that said, I still find myself investing in theory and often over-preparing for unforeseeable events, over-packing when travelling, and over-provisioning when deploying backend services. I’m aware I need to get better at this, but I also keep thinking back to a scene from The Spacewalk when the USSR was preparing for every possible event as they were about to send the first man in history on a spacewalk.

Earlier in 2020

A few months after shelter-in-placer started with my car sitting idle, the battery died and I needed to call Geico road assistance to come and jump-start it. It’s been 4 years since I first bought the car, and the mechanic who came suggested that I switch it out. So I took their advice, hoping that I wouldn’t have to be worried about it for a long time to come.

Later in 2020, my car battery was discharged again because I forgot to turn off one of the lights. Luckily, my roommate was home with jumper cables and helped me get the car going. I realized that there’s a chance this might happen again when I’m stranded somewhere far from civilization and decided to invest in a set of jumper cables and a jump start battery.

I did not have a need to use either of them until earlier this month…

Lake Tahoe

I recently stayed at a beautiful cottage with a group of friends near Lake Tahoe for an extended weekend. We went hiking, hung out, played games, cooked food together and spent more hours than necessary in the hot tub. It was a blast!

On the last day, as we finished packing up and carrying everything into the car, the incident occurred.

Series of Events

Event: Try to open the car with the key fob.
Result: Red light flashes on key fob and nothing happens.
Thought: “It’s alright, there must be a way to open this with a manual key.”
Action: Google how to get the physical key from a 2016 Mazda3 key fob.
Outcome: This was pretty straightforward to figure out!

I got into the car and double-checked that none of the lights were on. I had gone through this once before and (thought) I knew what to look out for. But, indeed, none of the lights were turned on.

Event: Try the push to start button.
Output: Nothing happens.
Thought: “Maybe the red light on the key fob means the battery needs to be replaced.”
Action: Google what the red light means and how to turn on the car when the key fob battery is dead.

Outcome: We confirmed that a red light often indicates a dead battery in the key fob, and there were numerous articles showing that we can press the key fob against the push to start button, but none of them worked…
Thought: “There must be a way to turn on the car with a manual key.”
Action: Google how to turn on a Mazda3 with a physical key.
Outcome: Apparently, this is not possible…

Thought: “There must be a CVS nearby where we can get a replacement battery.”
Action: My friend drove me to the nearest CVS and I bought the first Duracell battery I found.
Outcome: I tried to replace the battery on the spot, hoping to see a green light, but it still flashed red. I bought a pack of two just in case! Unfortunately, the second one had the same outcome…
Event: Return to the car and hope it turns on.
Output: False hope.

Thought: “I’m not sure why, but maybe the car’s battery is dead.”
Follow-up thought: “Alas, I have thought this through and have come fully prepared!”
Action: Try to open the trunk. I tried to use my key fob, press the button near the driver’s seat as well as the button on the trunk itself.
Outcome: Nothing worked…

Thought: “I can open the hood and the gas tank with a mechanical button, so there must be a way to open the trunk in a similar fashion!”
Action: Google how to open a Mazda3 trunk with a physical key.
Outcome: This is not possible…

Thought: “There must be a way to lower the seats in the back to enter the trunk!”
Action: Google how to lower the seats in the back of the car.
Outcome: The only way is by pulling a lever located inside of the trunk…

The jumper cables and jump-start battery were right there. Both were literally less than a foot away from my hand, separated by a thin sheet of metal, with no way to get them… My friend’s rental car did not have jumper cables, so we asked some of the neighbours.

One of the neighbours had a jump start battery that they bought but never used and were excited to try it themselves.

Event: Connect the jump start battery to the car and try to turn it on.
Output: The car came alive for a split second before going silent again.
Thought: Maybe the jump start battery needs to be charged?”
Action: Use one of our external battery packs to charge the jump start battery. It felt ironic that the battery pack I use for my phone was now being used to charge a battery that would be used to jump-start my car.
Outcome: The jump start battery turned on and showed that it was fully charged.

We tried a second time only to experience the same outcome. Our guess to this date is that the current drawn by the car’s battery exceeded what the jump start battery was able to supply.

Eventually, the neighbours managed to find their jump-start cables and my friend used his rental car to jump-start my own. We were finally on our way home!



Since all the lights were off, I still don’t know what caused the battery to discharge. My best guess is that one of the doors was left unlocked, triggering some module in the car to run all night.

After doing some research, it seems that most new cars are moving away from having mechanical modes of interaction. I can completely understand that eliminating secondary input methods can simplify the overall design and maintenance, but there needs to be a backup plan… In theory, I understand that this solves 99% of user cases, but there could be unrecoverable errors in practice. What if I was stuck in the middle out of the desert without reception?


Most of the people had already left when this happened, and only 7 remained. The whole ordeal took about 2 hours to figure out, along with a $7 cost for the key fob batteries. Not that bad but also avoidable.


Aside from having secondary mechanical modes of operation, an idea I had is that car manufacturers could install a small secondary backup battery (similar to the jump start battery I bought) under the vehicle’s hood. The battery would be off by default to avoid parasitic discharge if you accidentally left your light on and could be turned on by toggling a physical switch. I later learnt that most batteries operate in the 550mA-650mA range and only need 50mA-100mA to start the car. So if the secondary backup battery could provide this much current, the vehicle would be able to charge itself!

Actions I’ve taken

Some of the actions I’ve taken as a result of this event are:

  1. Keep an extra key fob battery inside the car.
  2. Keep the jumper cables and jump-start battery under one of the seats inside the car.
  3. Thinking about what my next car should be.

A few other things I keep in my car for any potential future events are:

  • First aid kit
  • Toothbrush & toothpaste
  • Water & snacks
  • Pepper spray
  • Tissue and toilet paper
  • A rope

Bring it on, world. I’m ready! I think.


In theory, I thought I was prepared. But, in practice, without the experience of having gone through this or hearing it from someone else, I don’t think I could have prepared for this unfortunate series of events.

In the worse case, we could have called Geico roadside assistance, but it would have taken longer and been a bit of a hassle. All-in-all, we lost a couple of hours, but I learnt something and now have a memorable experience with my friends.

This whole situation resonates well with how I feel at work. Reading, building, studying and preparing are fun and necessary, but some things can only be learnt through experience, which can sometime be stressful but also what gets me excited every single day.

This is a cross-post of my Substack publication. I will likely consolidate the two in a personal blog sometime soon.