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September 1, 2014
Cookies and Pi
Who Invited the Engineer to the Ward Party?
by Sydney Bone

There are two types of engineers: those who chose engineering because it is a good career, and those who choose it because there is no other career suitable for people who think the way they do.  

My husband, Jarret, fits into the second category.   My first opinion of him was that he was hard-working, intelligent... and more than a little quirky. Dating him was a unique experience.  I don’t know anyone else who can say they first held hands with their future spouse at a lecture on technical failures of the Apollo 13 mission, or calculated the thermal properties of ice cream on a date.

About six months into our marriage, I realized that while I mostly save my engineering brain for class, Jarret is incapable of turning his off. He’ll interrupt a perfectly normal conversation with an exclamation like, “Wow, look at the bending moment on that traffic light.”

Once, he built a fourteen-foot boat in our living room. His latest obsession is steam engines, and he spends all of his free time learning everything he can about them.

Although his ideas may not always make the best dinner conversations, they are often very useful. For example, at ward parties, when we’re standing in line waiting to get our food, he analyzes ways to make the line run faster.

Some ward parties are organized better than others. At the good ones, he praises the efficiency, and at the bad ones, he stands in line and calculates the average number of people getting their food per minute.  Since he hasn’t yet been able to put his observations to use, I have compiled a list of his best ideas for your reading pleasure. I call it the Bone Theorem of Ward Party Line Efficiency.

This theorem operates under a number of assumptions:

Now, on to the good stuff.

Part 1: Parallelize

Say there are 160 people at a party. Generally the line moves at a rate of around four people per minute (and yes, Jarret has counted.) If there is a single line for everyone, it will be forty minutes before everyone gets their food.

The young men will race each other to the front of the line. After about twenty minutes of wolfing down their food, they will join the line again and take all the good desserts. The kids will die of starvation by the time they get to the food. Adults are more patient, but we’d still rather be eating than waiting in line while we talk.

The solution is quite simple: always let people go on both sides of the table. This cuts the wait time in half. If there are tons of people (or a slower-than-average line, like a baked potato bar), it is generally a good idea to have more than one table with the same stuff on each table.

(With potluck desserts and sides, each table will be different, of course. That’s ok because it most people don’t eat everything on the table anyway.) In the original example, if there were two tables, with lines on either side, all 160 people would have their food in 10 minutes.

Part 2: Eliminate bottlenecks. In other words; fix the slowest parts of the line.

Picture this: a dad has just filled three plates of food — one for himself and two for his kids going through the line with him. Now they get to the drinks. Jonny wants lemonade and Mary wants water. “Jonny, can you carry your own lemonade?” he asks as he tries to balance his own plastic cup, Mary’s, and the three plates full of jello, pasta salad and brownies.

They get to their table and his wife asks him for some more lemonade. As he’s standing around, waiting for Sister Johnson to finish getting her kids’ lemonade out of the massive orange water cooler, he sees Mary spill her water all over the table.

He watches his wife struggling to mop it all up with the baby’s burp cloth. Jonny runs to get napkins, bumping into three people on the way to the front of the food line. “’Scuse me,” Jonny says, grabbing a handful of napkins and running back to the table to help his mom clean up Mary’s mess.

While the Bone Theorum would prevent our hero from getting enough juggling practice to join the circus, it would forestall a few mishaps and save him from some stress.

Having the drinks on the end of the table holds everything up.  It is better to put them on a separate table entirely.  This table should be set away from the main table, thus encouraging people to put their food down and then go get a drink.  Not only does this prevent spills, but it will make the food line run faster.

In some situations, it might be good to do this for condiments, too. And if there is only one drink option, just set cups and pitchers on the table. Similarly, if everyone will be using butter, salt and pepper, just set them at the tables.

Another big hold-up is utensils and napkins.  People often forget about them.  Then they go back and sneak into the line to grab a napkin, and invariably end up bumping into someone else in the process.  Not cool.

The solution: Set up utensils and napkins at several places — at the beginning and end of the food line, as well as at the drinks table. If there is time, put extra napkins at the tables where people will be eating. If you do napkins right, everyone with a child under the age of five will love you forever.

Last but not least, a few minor things: Make sure there are serving spoons in everything before people start. Several small bottles of ketchup (or mustard or what have you) are better than one giant bottle, as long as they are all open and people know they can use two at once, rather than waiting for one.

Oh, and make sure all the bags of chips are open and the plastic wrap is taken off the jello salads before the blessing on the food is said.

Well, that’s it. The Bone Theorem of Ward Party Line Efficiency, or BToWPLE for short. Some parties are already set up using these principles. I hope more will follow. Then maybe, just maybe, my husband will have something to talk about at ward events besides how long it takes to get the food.


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