Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Race condition at the post office

Although only the fourth or fifth largest in Switzerland, the city of Lausanne currently possesses the biggest post office in the country. This post office is located at Place St-Francois at the center of the city. When you enter the post office, you are greeted by two ticketing machines, one at each entry of the office. After pressing a button, the machine spits out a ticket with a number printed on it. You wait until your number is displayed on one of the large and clearly visible digital panels hung at opposite ends of the office. When it's your turn, the panel chimes and then displays your number next to a letter, 'A' through 'R', symbolizing one of the 18 counters, each manned by a clerk.

My ticket read 811, with an estimated waiting time of 5 minutes. During those five minutes I got distracted and nearly missed the call for my number by counter 'N'. Actually, after several unanswered calls to my number, the clerk at counter 'N' gave up on 811 and called the next customer, in this case customer number 815. During the 20 or 30 seconds in which I failed to respond other counters summoned numbers 812, 813 and 814. Fortunately for me, I arrived a second before customer 815, and the clerk had already started serving my requests. Thus, ticket number 815 was consumed, with its owner stuck behind counter 'N' until I was done. There was no way for the clerk, who became aware of the problem, to resuscitate ticket 815 so that its owner could be more quickly served by one of the 17 other counters.

How would you design a ticketing service which would be simple to use for the clerks and still avoid race conditions?

After thinking more about this problem, I am beginning to think that contrary to the consequences of race conditions occurring in entirely automated systems, humans cope extremely well with inferequent race conditions -- or at least in this case we did. It was spontaneously obvious for all participants that customer 815 needed to wait patiently until the disrupting client (yours truly) was served. Thus, I tend to think that in presence of unintentional mistakes the current system is just fine as it is.

However, a malevolent customer could reproduce the aforementioned race condition at will. In an easier and totally devastating attack, the customer, or should I say foe, could ask the ticketing machine for n tickets instead of a single ticket.

It is infinitely harder to design systems capable of thwarting malevolent participants than systems dealing with distracted but otherwise benign users.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the resolution must occur under the counter:
when such a situation arises, the neighbouring clerks are aware of it and when they have finished their transaction they discreetely handles client 815.

The fairest solution would be to have a counter dedicated to distracted customers like you. The risk is that this counter becomes crowded and the distracted people (who are probably busy) feel they are being unduly punished.

3:00 PM  

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