Thursday, 12 May 2016

Queuing for Beginners - a book by Joe Moran

I found a copy of the book "Queuing for Beginners" by Joe Moran in a charity shop.  It has the subtitle: "The story of daily life from breakfast to bedtime", and is a study of aspects of everyday life in Britain, and in particular, in the cities and towns.  It is a book about sociology and social history - and the mathematics of queue theory is only mentioned in passing.

The book's chapters are arranged by hours of the day from what people eat - and used to eat - at breakfast through commuting to shopping and taking smoking breaks, through to television watching in the evening,  Some of the evidence comes from Mass Observation reports in the 20th century, other data from more recent studies and commercial reports.

For the O.R. reader, there are several interesting notes in the chapter on queues - "Cashier number one, please" (for non-U.K. readers, this is the recorded announcement one hears in many banks and businesses, telling the person who is waiting which server is now available).  In the layout of the book, this queue is timed at noon, because so much queueing happens at lunchtime, when office workers are free, and cashiers are scheduled to have their lunch. 

Moran's coverage of queues starts with 19th century references to waiting for service, then continues into the wartime queues for rationed food.  " ... the myth of the British as patient queuers developed during the Second World War.  In this time of rationing and shortages, there was nothing trivial or decorous about queueing etiquette.  Waiting in line was a fraught, politically charged activity ..."  After the war, queues became politically charged, leading to a famous poster in 1978-79.
Moran writes briefly about queue management systems, and the snaking queue system which is found at airports and in amusement parks.  Disney discovered the psychology of these, that they give the impression of movement when the queue is hardly moving at all.

Finally, he distinguishes between the camaraderie of some queues - for tickets to Wimbledon, or to buy a new mobile phone - with the everyday frustrations which "do not have the same warm glow of togetherness".

All in all, an interesting, sideways look at queues, as one important aspect of everyday life (and in O.R. we know how important they are!)

Monday, 9 May 2016

Discrete optimisation for fun

I have mentioned Bob Bosch and his mathematical art before; recently the (US) National Museum of Mathematics released a video on Youtube of Bob giving a lecture there on some of his work ("Math Encounters - Life is Beautiful: The Startling Consequences of Three Simple Rules")  It is a lecture on creating artworks that use patterns from John Conway's "Game of Life" as the building blocks and using discrete optimisation software to lay out those patterns in a picture.  
I thoroughly recommend it!  There is a plug for O.R. during the lecture and the first person in the audience to join in the questions (at 1:13:14) expresses delight in that publicity.  
As an undergraduate maths student, John Conway taught me Number Theory.