Friday, July 15, 2011

Still Life with Robin: In My Estimation

by Peggy Robin

My daughter is good at estimating things. Twice during her elementary school years she had the closest guess of how many somethings were in a jar, in the first case winning enough popcorn to feed a movie-house full of viewers, and in the second case winning enough jelly beans to keep a dentist busy for weeks drilling the cavities such quantity could produce. (Remind me to write another column sometime on how to dispose of a mega-jar of unwanted junk food.)

I have no idea how she came by this odd skill, as it’s nothing she inherited from either parent. On the maternal side: If I ever tried to eyeball a jar of jellybeans I would be likely to off by a factor of ten. I’m even worse when it comes to estimates of time and distance. No matter how many times I travel to the same address, I still can’t manage to allot the right amount of time for the trip. Invariably, I wildly overestimate: I guess I’m always imagining some horrible delay and mentally working it into the schedule. I’d be much better off just figuring the normal time, and in the event of complete Metro breakdown or a bomb-scare that evacuates a large portion of downtown DC, simply call in to say I'll be late. But I never do that, and so I’m chronically early. That’s okay, I suppose, when things start on time. It’s not okay if, for example, I’m seeing a doctor who is chronically behind in his appointments. So here I am in the waiting room, fifteen to twenty minutes ahead of schedule, for a visit with a doctor who is perpetually half an hour to forty-five minutes late.

You’d think someone who sees patients day in and day out would have figured out how much time to allot for emergencies, walk-ins, and those patients whose visits tend to take longer than average. There are some doctors who manage to do this, I know. But the ability of a doctor to see patients on time, I have discovered, goes in inverse proportion to the number of minutes I am likely to arrive out of sync with that scheduled time. Which, in practical application, means that in the event that a doctor is actually ready to see me on the dot of my appointment, that is the one time in a thousand that I will be late.

Now as to the paternal side: My husband Bill has a pretty steady internal clock, generally speaking...except when it comes to the amount of time it will take to fix a computer problem. If I should ask him how much longer he’s going to stay up at night to troubleshoot some programming glitch, it’s always, “Just another fifteen minutes.” Fifteen minutes later, I ask again, and it’s as if time has stood still -- again, it's the same fifteen minutes. When the fifteen minute mark has been reached a third time, he may admit that it’s taking a little longer than he’d originally planned. But then a week later I listen to him telling someone over the phone how to solve the same computer problem: “Yes, you can network this thingy-dingy to that doohickey -- it’ll take about fifteen minutes.” (Note that I have replaced the specific names of the programs or devices involved with my preferred generic equivalents.)

There is one other area in which Bill's estimates tend to be off, and that is when it comes to figuring out the walking distance between point A and point B -- but only if those points are in New York City. Bill is a marvel of accuracy when assessing distances here in Washington -- or in Boston, or Portland, Maine, or Paris, for that matter. But send him back to the town where he grew up and he starts working from his own special mental map, which seems designed to prove that any point on the island of Manhattan is within walking distance of any other. Not just that, but a brief and easy stroll away.

Say, for example, that we’re going to the Dylan's Candy Bar, a chocolate lover's destination at 1101 Third Avenue (at 60th Street). And say that we start out East 76th and Second Avenue. "It’s just nine blocks," he’ll announce as we prepare to head out. By the time we're reach 67th, I may be thinking to myself, “Weren't we supposed to have been there by now?” and then I’ll remember that I need to run the Bill-Block-Function on the original estimate. First, you take the number of predicted blocks and increase it by 50%. To that number you add a block and a half on the starting end and a block and a half on the finishing end of the walk, or a total of three blocks. The formula for a nine block estimated walk works out thus: 9 + (50% of 9 or 4.5) + 1.5 + 1.5 = 16.5. That is, it's exactly sixteen and a half blocks from 76th and Second to Dylan's on 60th and Third. (The next time you're in New York, visit -- you won't be sorry, no matter how long the walk.)

Once you know how to apply the formula, you can travel with ease. What makes life frustrating is when you're in a situation in which someone else's concept of time or distance is in use, but you're not provided with any way to decode the schedule. You'll know what I mean if you've ever had any dealings with a telephone, cable, or utility company. You call the customer service number and you hear a recording that gives out an estimate of how long you will be on hold if you choose to wait for a representative. If the wait time is lengthy, you are encouraged to leave your phone number to receive a callback within a predicted number of minutes. It’s in the company’s interest to be accurate in this, so that by the time you are actually able to speak to a live human being, you are not angry about the delay, over and above whatever consumer complaint prompted your phone call in the first place. So you generally do receive the callback according to schedule.

The sense of time distortion comes when you are finally connected to a human being and you try to make an appointment for another human being to show up and fix whatever's broken. That's when you discover that the company's clock doesn't run like any ordinary clock you know how to read. It works only in four to six hour increments. You can choose 9:00 am to 1:00 pm or 2:00 pm to whatever time the repair service considers close of business. And when you are still sitting around waiting by the doorbell at 7:00 pm, and you call the company again to find out why no one's come, you can't get someone to say whether the repair people are done for the day and may need to reschedule for another day, or will show up at your door within the next ten minutes. (Just as you are finally sitting down to your overcooked dinner.)

If anyone has figured out some reliable way to calculate the time when a repair person shows up, just tell me the secret formula. I may not be any good at estimating, but once I learn an equation and how to apply it, I can do the math!

No comments:

Post a Comment