Wait time: How you cut it matters



Q. On a busy day out, would you rather be faced with a one-minute walk followed by a seven-minute wait, or a six-minute walk and then a two-minute wait? And yes, it mattersa lot. Just ask management at Houston International Airport. –G. Bush

 A. The psychology of the wait is important in determining queuing structures for businesses, says Bart Holland in What Are the Chances? Unexplained or unanticipated waits obviously seem longer, as do boring waits, the reason TV screens are common at checkouts and why the Manhattan Savings Bank once provided live entertainment.

But one of the strangest time-speeders was at baggage-checkout at the Houston airport, where customer criticism had become prevalent and strident. Managers stepped up the number of handlers, but to no avail. The average elapsed time of eight minutes from leaving the plane to having baggage in hand was within industry standards, so why the barrage of complaints?

The solution, it turned out, lay in a Disney -world trick of long "crocodile lines" weaving in and out to keep everyone happily moving. Now busy-time flights were brought into gates far from the baggage-claim area, forcing a six-minute walk with only a two-minute wait at the carousel: Both 1 + 7 and 6 + 2 equal 8, but the second sequencing made all the difference! "Customer dissatisfaction disappeared."

Q. Why is it a waste of time for a baseball player to "cork" his bat, drilling an axial hole and stuffing it with cork, rubber balls, etc? –B. Ruth

A. The supposed trampoline effect of a corked bat won't help because the bat-ball collision lasts a bare .0006 second (.6 of a millisecond), not enough time for the extra elastic energy to reach the bat surface, which may take up to three milliseconds, says Yale physicist Robert Adair in The Physics of Baseball. In fact, the filler will just add weight at the bat's end, slowing the swing. Better to just hollow out the wood as lightener, though this too is an "illegal" modification.

This same advantage can be achieved by choking up an inch on the bat, or legally shortening it by about 3/4 inch, or lathing it to be .1 inch thinner in the barrel. "All of these produce a bat with almost exactly the same swinging weight and swinging length of the illegally drilled bat."

Q. If a huge scale were built into the surface of a road, would your car weigh more a) when speeding along? b) when parked? c) do you take us for fools– it's the same either way. P. Newman

A. No folly here– the answer is b). Certainly a plane weighs less as it nears takeoff, which would be evident if the same huge scale were built into the runway surface. Something similar happens to cars as the airflow over the aerodynamically contoured car-top is faster than across the bottom, causing lower pressure above, says Barry Parker in The Isaac Newton School of Driving. This results in a lifting force– as if the car were an airplane wing– not great at passenger car speeds, but significant for racing cars.

Lift coefficients depend on the shape and angle of the nose of the car and on the overall styling. The lift also varies with the square of the speed (velocity times velocity), so if racers didn't incorporate spoilers or negative lift devices such as inverted wings, the several hundred pounds of generated lift per vehicle would sacrifice traction and maneuverability and have cars flying off the track everywhichway.

Q. For guys, being tall certainly helps in romance and politics. How about in business? Can a price be put on those extra inches of height for males in the workplace? –M. Hingeley

A. It's not fair, it's not logical, but height prejudice so permeates society that you won't find many short male executives. By one study, 90 percent of male business executives top the 5-foot-9 average for all men. (It's more complex for tall women, who may trigger "I-feel-threatened" reactions among bosses and co-workers.)

In dollar terms, report the University of Pittsburgh's Irene Hanson Frieze and Josephine Olson, surveys show male graduates with an MBA earn an annual height bonus of roughly $1,000 per inch over 5'6"! That's an additional $12,000 for a guy 6'6"– not bad for just taking along an extra foot of body through the workday paces.

Q. Dieters, a common pitfall is to lose a few pounds, then feel like you hit a wall. What'd you really hit? –J. Craig

A. In many cases, you just ran smack into physics: Which would you rather have to push for 500 feet– a Yugo or a Buick? Your overweight body is a big Buick and moving it burns more fuel (calories). As you slim down, you ease yourself into a small car's driver's seat: Now you're burning fewer calories so you have to cut back more on your intake to keep losing your half a pound a week.

Remember, you don't have to overdo it. Just keep on doing it.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com.