NEAL CONAN, HOST:
The holidays might summon images of the traditional family dinner or wool-clad carolers, but we might want to forget equally likely moments: that frustrating wait for the bus, the anxiety next to an immobile luggage carousel. So what do you do to keep calm and content while waiting out life's inevitable delays? Besides your smartphone, what do you use to fill waiting time? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich joins us now from member station WNYC. He's also co-host of WNYC's RADIOLAB, and posted a story on this very subject, how curious, to his blog Krulwich Wonders. Robert, hello.
ROBERT KRULWICH, BYLINE: Hi.
CONAN: So this bus stop in Milan.
KRULWICH: Yes. So there's this fellow, he's an artist named Fra.Biancoshock. I don't really think this is his real name, and it's Fra period. So maybe - I don't know. I thought maybe he was like a monk or something and it was Fra. Biancoshock, but it's Fra-period-Bianoshock. Any case, he's a conceptual artist. And what he did not too long ago is he wandered to the more painful bus stations in Milan - I gather there are many of them - where you go and you sit in a normal sort of outdoor bus shelter and you wait for the bus. And you keep waiting for the bus.
And what he did was he put three little hooks on the bus shelter itself and attached to the first hook was a three-inch square bit of bubble wrap. Underneath, a five-inch square bit of bubble wrap, and beneath that a 10-inch square of bubble wrap, the kind where you take your finger and that very pleasant, wonderful pop thing happens.
CONAN: That thing?
KRULWICH: Yeah, that thing. And then he just wrote at the top - this is actually an Italian word - he wrote - I can't even remember what the Italian word is - but it was something called like, this is a way to sort of get free of your jitters. Just take - estimate the length of the bus that you're waiting for and then take the appropriate bubble wrap. So people all over Milan...
KRULWICH: ...just sat there choosing the bubble wrap of their - of appropriate size and then, yeah, doing exactly - yes, that. That very thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUBBLE WRAP BEING POPPED)
CONAN: So they...
KRULWICH: Now we're going to lose Neal for the rest of the show because...
CONAN: Very satisfying to do, yes.
KRULWICH: It's one of those things. Yes.
CONAN: And so they...
KRULWICH: Actually, I wondered really - because you can do this online, curiously. There's something called virtual-bubblewrap.com and there's another one called snapbubbles.com, and they allow you an endless supply of bubble wrap. So whenever you finish popping every bubble on the wrap, it will refresh instantly. And they enhance the sound. And I was thinking to myself, is it - what is it, the thing about bubble wrap, is it that when you put your finger on it and the tactile sense of it...
CONAN: I think it's that little squeeze of pressure and the release. But the sound is pretty good too.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUBBLE WRAP BEING POPPED)
KRULWICH: Yeah. Well, so you can actually test any theory you have about its - of the essence of its enjoyment by going online to one of these places because there all you'll touch, of course, is just the glass of your computer screen or the mouse or whatever, but the sound. Ohhhh. So you can - see, so - I can hear that you're totally uninterested in the radio part now.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUBBLE WRAP BEING POPPED)
CONAN: As usual.
KRULWICH: So I will just talk about something else...
CONAN: Well, this is, I gather, a principle, according to your blog, called occupied time.
KRULWICH: Yes. And it's a principle everybody sort of understands. Although there's some wonderful stories about it, but basically it says people hate waiting, A) - people hate waiting when they don't know how long they're going to wait for, B) - people hate waiting when they don't know how long they're going to wait for and someone else is getting ahead of them - ooh, that's maybe the worst.
CONAN: That's worst.
KRULWICH: Yeah. So the answer to that problem, curiously, is to occupy the person's time any which way. Bubble wrap, curiously, will solve the question for bus waiter-ers(ph), but there's a story out of Houston Airport, which I found kind of fascinating. There, people would get out of planes and then walk straight to the luggage carrel. And somehow in Houston, you had about one-minute walk from your plane to the luggage, very quick. However, you then had to wait seven minutes to get the luggage and people got furious and complained.
So they - the airport, trying to make life easier on the passengers, decided to triple the number of baggage handlers, and they were able to bring down the waiting time by about a minute and a half or so. And the complaints didn't budge. They were just as loud and nasty as ever.
And then someone brilliant, who understood this occupied time idea, got an idea. He said, why don't we move - when people get off the plane, let's put their luggage at the furthest, farthest possible place in the airport and at the most distant carrel - so the baggage carrel.
KRULWICH: So they - we will sextuplize(ph), we will increase by six times the length of the walk, so when they get there, there the luggage will be. Now, will they complain about the walk or will they complain - will we change anything? It had turned out that that was exactly the right thing to do. If you just keep the passengers walking, they don't know. They're not waiting, and they're not idle. And that solved it.
CONAN: So even though the amount of time is greater from the time they get off the airplane to the time they actually pick up the luggage, no complaints.
KRULWICH: Six times greater and no complaints because they didn't have to wait. And this is a very well-known principle, which you can see in lots - for example, why are mirrors alongside elevators? Somebody, you know, people in an apartment building, in a hotel or an office place, you know, don't like waiting on the 35th floor for the thing to get up there. But you put a mirror there and then you can check yourself out, check out your clothing, check out the person standing beside you. It's just the smallest little thing that'll do it, and it seems to work every single time. It's just occupy your attention.
CONAN: And this is something that occupies the attention of people who - whose business is having people wait on line, for example, at amusement parks. If you want to get on the popular ride, well, there's all kinds of signs there saying, 45 minutes from here and, you know, maybe there's a video.
KRULWICH: Well, that's because there's - the people have learned that one of the other terrible things about waiting is not knowing how long you're going to wait for. So if you just say, as Disney does, there will be a 30-minute wait and then you purposely overestimate so that when they get there it's actually 20 minutes. So they've beaten the clock, then you get - you turn pain into pleasure.
The people at Disney are extremely clever about this. And, in fact, so clever that they're maybe too clever by half because if you go to the movie "Shrek," which was an anti-Disney movie - remember the first "Shrek," when you ever wanted to go to the palace, there was this crazy weave that you had to go to?
KRULWICH: That's because Jeffrey Katzenberg hated Disney and wanted to just do something to make Disney mad. So he made every entrance a Disney entrance and then - for no reason at all. But there is a reason. And that is because research at Disney told them that what people hate most of all is a long line, just - period. So if the long line is moving fast, doesn't matter. The long line is a horror. So they disguised the long line by turning into that wrinkly, back-and-forthy(ph) sort of mosaic...
CONAN: That snake, yeah.
KRULWICH: ...sometimes make it disappear out of your sight lines so you can't see. But the point is don't let the waiter-er(ph), the waiting person, see the length of the line. Just disguise it. In fact, I don't even know - this has nothing to do with what we're talking about, but maybe the cleverest thing I ever saw them do was in - Disney on a - because I used to work with the Imagineers for a little bit.
When they wanted to give you the illusion that you are speeding downhill in any of their sort of rollercoaster rides, they would put fences along either side of the vehicle that you would travel in. And the fences had little stems that will be separated, say, by two feet. And so you'd climb the hill, and there'd be a little bit of a fence, then a pause, then two feet more, then more and a little bit more. And then when you begin going down, they quietly narrow the distance between the fences.
CONAN: I see. So...
KRULWICH: So it's blurred as they went by. And you thought, ooh, now I'm really going fast because I can't see the fence. And it's just a trick.
CONAN: Yeah, they're (unintelligible). Just a trick.
CONAN: I can imagine. The TSA should maybe consult with some Imagineers. They could use some help in some of those lines. We want to..
KRULWICH: That's right.
CONAN: ...hear from our listeners about how you fill waiting time. We've got a couple of tweets from Kit Class(ph): What do I use to while away an interminable wait? Crochet: productive, small and a portable way to keep busy. You see a lot of people doing that. And a tweet...
KRULWICH: Oh, yeah.
CONAN: We got a tweet from Frank in Birmingham: Everyone should know at least one origami form. Anywhere you can find a piece of paper, you can kill time.
KRULWICH: I think that's right. I mean, the practical solution to this problem is to bring something with you; a book or a radio or an iPod or something, to just disappear into your head or disappear into the task. But there are a lot of people who are sometimes suddenly upon a long line and you didn't prepare, and that's where the pain begins. So that's what we're dealing with here. It's the, oh, I didn't remember to bring the - mmm - and so now here I am. Now, what do I do?
CONAN: Let's get a caller in on the conversation. This is Trey. Trey with us from Charleston.
TREY: Well, you guys actually just made my point there. I always remember, I guess that Boy Scout training, to either have a yo-yo or a mouth harp in my pocket. A mouth harp...
TREY: ...sometimes bothers other people who are waiting with me. But the yo-yo doesn't seem any - no one seems to mind.
CONAN: You can think of...
KRULWICH: Well, yo-yos by a crowded elevator, I think, might be a little dangerous.
KRULWICH: You have to probably sign a liability waiver before you took, this just my yoyo, you say. If you can sign here...
TREY: Oh, we don't have elevators in South Carolina.
KRULWICH: Oh, of course not.
CONAN: Of course not. But you might pick up a few tips, you know, put your hat out there and do yo-yo tricks.
CONAN: Thanks, Trey.
KRULWICH: Really, a yo-yo? That's cool.
CONAN: There's an email. This is from Lou in - where is this - California somewhere: Read. Carry a library book if I have planned down-time. Have an iPad at work, an iPhone if unexpected waiting. Nothing better than time to read. Or - we've excluded the iPhone because that's too easy. As a non-driver, though, I, Robert, go everywhere with a book.
KRULWICH: I mean - I think those things are at least portable and you use them. I think the problem that I got on the blog when we talked about the bubble wrap is, of course, you'll throw the bubble wrap away once you finish popping all the pops.
CONAN: Oh, I see. Yes. So then it's...
KRULWICH: So a lot of people said, you know, it's the NPR crowd, so they would - litter is just as horrible as waiting for them. So there was an, you know, the anti-litter people, said, well, what do you mean? I mean, how can you possibly - what will you do with the bubble wrap, you know, and I had no secondary use for broken bubble wrap. So they're - so in some way, the Milan experiment made certain people quite angry.
But the Milaneses(ph) - if you look at the pictures, this guy Fra.Bian-- whatever his name is, he sent me pictures of people who were doing it, and it's just kind of amazing. They would take the bubble wrap, put it in their lap and just get totally - just like Neal was doing.
KRULWICH: They just totally forgot what they were doing, and it was just poppity, poppity, poppity, pop all the way home.
CONAN: And they are, excuse me, rapt.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUBBLE WRAP BEING POPPED)
CONAN: We're talking with Robert...
KRULWICH: Have you ever wondered why it is - like for you, is it - you just think you like the sound and you like the tactile (unintelligible)
CONAN: Oh, I like the squeezing, yeah, yeah. And the popping, the popping is good too. And have you been...
KRULWICH: If you get a bigger one, a fatter one, do you get happier, like if you get a large, jumbo one?
CONAN: No, no. There's an optimal size. But if you're walking on the beach, those particular seaweed that have those capsules that...
KRULWICH: Yes, there is.
CONAN: Oh, aren't they great?
KRULWICH: Yes, they are very good. You know, there's probably something wrong with us, though...
KRULWICH: ...to like it so much.
CONAN: Robert Krulwich, NPR science correspondent and blogger, co-host of "Radiolab" from WNYC. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Email from Jackiel(ph) in Cottonwood, Arizona - or Jackie, excuse me: As a high school student, I got into the habit of carrying a deck of playing cards in my purse to kill time during rehearsals for school plays. The habit stuck with me ever since. Often, I have a deck of UNO cards in my bag of tricks. People mock me for it, until we're stuck somewhere with nothing to do for a long car ride.
This is Trish: We're driving from Wisconsin to Kentucky to celebrate my dad's 80th birthday. He was born on Christmas day. I decided two days ago to write 80 haikus about him to commemorate the occasion. So I will spend much of the 10-hour car ride coming up with the remaining 60 poems. Wish me luck. There's a good exercise.
KRULWICH: Yes, that is - yes, good luck to you, lady.
CONAN: And this is Tom in Sacramento: The idea of walking as not being waiting is well-known. As a driver in Los Angeles, I will happily drive a much longer distance provided I'm actually in motion as opposed to sitting on the 405 mired in traffic. Being in motion provides a sense of progress and occupies the mind in a way that sitting still does not. This is actually a principle of diplomacy.
It is the illusion of progress. The shuttle diplomacy, if you remember Henry Kissinger flying back and forth from Cairo and Jerusalem at various points. He didn't have a new prospect. But he was flying back and forth. It looked like there was progress.
KRULWICH: He's in motion so he must be making - that's very cool, yeah.
CONAN: Yeah. But I was wondering, Robert, a lot of people have done, I'm sure, research on the difference between those. You said the line that drives you crazy is the one where somebody seems to be getting ahead of you.
KRULWICH: That's right.
CONAN: That's why people switch lanes in traffic all the time. But it...
KRULWICH: It's actually kind of subtle because if you are - there are - let's suppose you're in a line and the line to your right is moving faster than you and the line to your left is moving slower than you. So looking to your right, you could be disappointed, self-loathing and think, this always happens to me. I'm always a victim. Looking to your left, you can be triumphal and feel like Napoleon, that you're, you know, Napoleon early in his military career.
KRULWICH: You're just winning one victory after another. It turns out that human nature is such, unfortunately, that you will dwell on the - on your victim status more than you will dwell on your victory status.
CONAN: So you remember Waterloo better than Austerlitz.
KRULWICH: Exactly. Exactly. Which was Napoleon's problem, too, I am sure.
CONAN: I am sure. (unintelligible)...
KRULWICH: Although bubble wrap, of course wouldn't help...
CONAN: ...a long time (unintelligible)...
KRULWICH: It's too bad that Napoleon didn't have bubble wrap when you think about it. It's too bad. But Wellington, I guess, won as a result, so...
CONAN: Let's get a caller in on this. Tom in Traverse City, Michigan.
TOM: Hi. How are you doing?
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
TOM: Yeah, I'm - I spend all my time - in fact, while I was waiting for you guys to put me on the air, I'm playing my ukulele. So...
KRULWICH: And that's not fair. I mean, you're now making a sophisticated waiting instrument. Ukulele, that's complicated. Yo-yos was at the verge.
TOM: I travel - I do my traveling. I take it wherever I go, and I'm always sitting in airports or in hotels or whatever. And I always find somebody to listen to me, and we all have a good time, have a good conversation. I meet a lot of people that way.
CONAN: Now, are you a Tiny Tim kind of ukulele player or more modern?
TOM: No, I'm right-handed. Tiny Tim was left-handed.
CONAN: Oh, well...
KRULWICH: That's a distinction that would not have immediately occurred to me.
KRULWICH: But you're obviously not shy. That's the thing. I mean, see, a shy person couldn't do what you're...
TOM: Well, you gotta be a little bit extroverted when you're playing a ukulele. That's for sure. That helps.
KRULWICH: Yeah, yeah.
CONAN: Well, Tom...
KRULWICH: I can't think of any situation where you'd be playing a ukulele and be able to be shy at the same time.
CONAN: Good luck, Tom. Thanks very much for your phone call.
TOM: Thanks. All right. Bye.
CONAN: And, is the - all the psychological research, Robert, is this why we've gone from the one, you know, a line behind every teller at a bank to one snake and you just go to the next teller.
KRULWICH: Yes. That's where it all started, I think. I remember - yes, it was the decision to begin sort of curling the lines and creating multiple lines. You know, before the automatic teller, you know, I mean, I assume if you're a prisoner or if you're in the Army, Navy or, really, any armed forces, or if you're in the movie business as an actor, extra, whatever, there's just an enormous amount of nothing-to-do time.
And in civilian life as in, you know - it was really going to the bank. That was the time, in those days, where you were really always stuck. And in those days, they would have one long, unbroken line. And so it was the banking industry, which first set their - before Disney, there was, I don't know, Mr. Rockefeller and Mr. Chase and Mister...
CONAN: Mr. Mellon, yeah.
KRULWICH: ...Citibank, yeah, Mr. Mellon, yes.
CONAN: Robert, as always, we thank you very much for your time and...
CONAN: ...have a wonderful holiday.
KRULWICH: Thank you.
CONAN: NPR's Robert Krulwich, a science correspondent and blogger, co-host of "Radiolab" from WNYC. His recent blog post on Krulwich Wonders, "What To Do When The Bus Doesn't Come And You Want To Scream: An Experiment." He joined us today from member station WNYC in New York. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with what the ancient Maya contributed to the fields of science and math besides paranoia. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.