Queueing Theory in the News: NYT Asks "How do You Pick the Fastest Line?"

Posted by Alex Slotnick on Sep 12, 2016 5:11:24 PM

Just in time for the release of the newest edition of our popular, free ebook -- "The Essential Guide to Queueing Theory" -- the New York Times has published an article that delves straight into the heart of one of the most common daily-life instances of queueing-theory-in-action: titled "How to Pick the Fastest Line at the Supermarket," it investigates the grocery store line, that most common and well-known of quotidian queues. NY Times Queueing Theory Img.jpg

This NYT article serves as a quick and engaging introduction to queueing theory. Baron Schwartz's ebook helps make the theory digestible and applicable, towards ends such as database performance management.

The Times article is informative and instructive, and it does an excellent job turning queueing theory into a set of scientifically sound bits of advice, all the more interesting for the familiarity of their application -- and how surprising they are.

As Baron Schwartz writes in his own investigations of queueing theory, the rules of queues often go strongly against what one might naturally expect; Times writer Christopher Mele leads off with just such an example. "Get behind a shopper with a full cart," he advises. "That may seem counterintuitive, but data tell a different story, [according to] Dan Meyer, a former high school math teacher who is the chief academic officer at Desmos, where he explores the future of math, technology and learning."

What's the reasoning here? Despite any amount of goods purchased, every individual person -- every independent unit in the queue -- has a set amount of time required to go through certain necessary acts, such as salutations and payment transactions. Altogether, these average 41 seconds per person, regardless of how much stuff is in their cart. In other words, there are realities and rules within the system that are not initially apparent or even available to be ascertained. However, once understood, they shape the theory behind this system and guide us in making decisions in the name of efficiency.

Mele's investigation continues, touching upon various sociological (female cashiers seems to be faster, as problematic as such a statement might sound) and physiological (right-handed people tend to go to lines on their right) factors -- altogether these help draw a picture of the unique system of waiting in line to purchase goods.

Going Further with Queues

As an introduction to queueing theory Mele's article does a nice job, establishing how the rules of queues tend to be more complex and nuanced than they at first appear, even in a setting as familiar as the grocery store. But to really begin to understand the fundamental truths of queueing theory -- including its math, its more general truth, and its application toward goals like database management -- we recommend "The Essential Guide to Queueing Theory," which elucidates some of these unintutive yet ubiquitous realities.

Taking queueing theory further still -- and showing how it really does rule everything around us -- one of the additions to this edition of the ebook involves a discussion of another recent Time piece, an interactive experiment that served to help readers understand first-hand how impressive the runner Usain Bolt's starting time is off the block. In the ebook, Baron uses the feedback from this feature to help illustrate the typical shape of latencies.

Finally, if you have database monitoring needs and would like to see how VividCortex has applied Baron Schwartz's insights on queueing theory to powerful features such as adaptive fault detection, don't hesitate to request a free trial today. 

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