Saturday, November 26, 2005

OR in the media and Virginia Postrel

Operations Research has a hard time getting into the press. Partially it is our fault: OR people as a whole are pretty modest and are great at seeing two sides to every issue (after all, it is this dynamic that makes for the best models: start small, and add to address issues with the resulting solutions). I am certainly guilty of this: I turned down more requests to talk about my work with Major League Baseball than I can count, due primarily to worries about client relations and being accurately portrayed.

Partially it is the fault of much of the media, who are unwilling to assume a very high "lowest common denominator" in their readership. OR continues to be a weird black box, and our core values of analytical thinking, using data, and working with models are rarely portrayed.

One person who does get it is Virginia Postrel, who wrote a very fine article for the Boston Globe last year (and I don't say that just because I am quoted!). Here is what she had to say about publishing about operations research (in the context of the rise in productivity, which OR certainly contributes to):

In today's Boston Globe Ideas section, I look at one piece of that very big story [the rapid rise in productivity]: the spreading use of operations research techniques once confined to theory. (What's operations research? The story explains that too, or tries to without using any math, graphs, or jargon about optimizing subject to constraints or finding interior solutions. For more on the field, see the INFORMS site.)

Of course, very few general-interest publications would let a writer spend nearly 2,000 words writing about operations research--or, for that matter, rising productivity.

I stumbled across her website and blog, and she has a number of interesting posts on productivity (generally her 2004 posts, like the one I quoted that mentions her OR article). Her recent work is on glamor and aesethics, which doesn't appeal to me as much but might to others. Lots of interesting things to read throughout her website.

Initial Plans for INFORMS 2006

Now that INFORMS 2005 New Orleans/San Francisco is over, it is the Pittsburgh crowd's turn to put together INFORMS 2006. We are well on the way planning, with a list of tutorials and invited sessions that I think will be very good.

The theme of the conference in OR Renaissance, and we hope to highlight some of the exciting new directions and applications for OR/MS. We'll have some new things in store for 2006 including

1) A new Tuesday reception, planned for PNC Park, the site of the 2006 MLB All-Star game.

2) "Renaissance Sessions", highlighting the best of where OR will be in 5 years.

3) Plans for a revamped awards ceremony.

The Monday General Reception will be at the wonderful Carnegie Museums: the Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History (they are connected).

The conference will be November 5-8, 2006. If you have some thoughts on how INFORMS conferences could be made better, I'd love to hear them. Comment here or mail to me.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Rothkopf's Rankings of University Contributions to the Practice Literature

Mike Rothkopf has just published his sixth ranking of universities in publishing in the practice of operations research in the journal Interfaces (subscription required to access full paper). The definition of "practice" is naturally a complicated thing: most OR people (myself included) claim relevance to practice on pretty slim connections. For this ranking, "practice" means publishing either in Interfaces or in the OR Practice area of Operations Research. My own school, Carnegie Mellon, came out on top with 10 such publications (1998-2004). The next part of the rankings are
2. University of Pennsylvania
3 (tie). Georgia Institute of Technology and Naval Postgraduate School
5. Cornell, Stanford, University of Texas at Austin, and University of Virginia

Non-US schools are ranked separately. Top is Erasmus University with 7 papers (same as Cornell, etc. on the US list).

Monday, November 21, 2005

John Muth

John Muth passed away in October. He was an early faculty member at the school I am at (the Tepper School at Carnegie Mellon) and a key researcher in the economic area of rational expections. What is the OR content? Check out his obituary and note the work in operations management and forecasting along with his work in economics and finance. Not many people about these days that would try to span those areas!

Monday, November 14, 2005


I just got back from the INFORMS Award ceremonies. Some of the highlights:

1) John von Neumann Theory Prize went to Robert Aumann, who also won the Nobel Prize in Economics this year. The committee picked Aumann before the Nobel Prize was announced. Pretty good year for Robert!

2) The Lanchester Prize (best publication in English) went to Garrett van Ryzin and Kalyan Talluri for their Revenue Management book.

3) Peter Bell of the University of Western Ontario won the INFORMS Prize for the Teaching of OR/MS Practice. Peter has worked a lot on cases in OR/MS.

There were a number of other prizes. I am sure the INFORMS Prize web page will have these shortly.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Luk Van Wassenhove and IFORS Distinguished Lecturer

Luk Van Wassenhove was the IFORS Distinguished Lecturer at this year's INFORMS conference. Here he is receiving congratulations from Tom Magnanti (right), President of IFORS.

Luk spoke on "Closed Loop Supply Chains: Past, Present, and Future". Closed-loop supply chains are those where the supply chain bringing goods from consumers back to suppliers is also important. Luk gave an interesting historical perspective on this rather young field. He suggested that the field has gone through 5 phases:

1) Technical remanufacturing. Research into how to best remanufacture/resuse returned items, with little regard to how they come back or where they go after remanufacturing.

2) Valuing reverse logistics. Research and interest in how items coming back to a supplier can create value for that supplier. These models are more market driven than just waste stream recovery, and address the front end acquisition of items.

3) Coordinating decisions, bringing the forward supply chain together with the reverse supply chain. Once the magnitude of the problem is realized, the reverse chain impacts the forward chain, and vice versa.

4) Closing the loop, with dynamic decisions over the lifecycle of products. One aspect of this is the need to spend money to make money. Consider a "recycled" computer: one that is only a few weeks old is much more valuable than one that is months old. In such a case, investments might need to be made to increase the speed of the reverse supply chain.

5) The final phase of research, which perhaps should have been the first one, is "Is there a market"? While this area has increased in academic stature, and there are visible, but isolated, examples in practice, how can these insights be embedded in real firms. This brings in issues of accounting (how should returns be valued) and marketing (how should cannibalism be handled between original and remanufactured products)?

This was an ideal plenary session: broad, understandable and interesting.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Heading off to San Francisco ...

for the INFORMS Conference (originally planned for New Orleans). US Airways cut back their direct flights from Pittsburgh, so it is through Minneapolis I go. I'll try to post some of the interesting things I see at the conference (if I can get out of the bar long enough: see my comments on social capital below).

Thoughts on fun things to do in San Francisco? I think blues is on the agenda for Saturday evening.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Community of Operations Research

For the past three or four years, I have given a talk at the INFORMS Doctoral Colloquium about the importance of social capital in a successful career. This talk is based on the book Bowling Alone by Putnam which argued that society (particularly US society) is becoming more detached, with fewer people engaged in the sort of interactions that lead to social capital. I think this issue is particularly important to OR people, since most of our best work comes by spanning boundaries, working with people in other fields in order to advance the other field while invigorating OR.

Some argue the web creates communities. I don't think that is really true. The number of true, ongoing communities seems pretty small. One group I know if is a mailing list on an author I adore: Patrick O'Brian (the movie Master and Commander was based on his work). This is an active mailing list that has been around for a decade. Even for this "community", the number of people who are active for more than a couple of years is astonishingly small, which suggests to me a lack of a true community. So is the technology too limiting or will face-to-face always matter?

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Web Resources, then and now

Wandering around the web, I came across a site that had copied my web page on pointers in Operations Research from 1994, presumably to avoid the then-slow cross-Atlantic downloads. It is stunning to remember what life was like pre-web. That page has about 50 pointers, about half of which were "ftp" or "gopher" (a http/html precursor). And I think that page was pretty complete! Compare that to the current INFORMS Resources page which has about 1500 pointers (100-200 of which are broken, but I'm getting to those) and is by no means complete.

I've been thinking about the value of these resource collections in the age of google. I spend a fair amount of time with the Resources page, but even I, when looking for something in OR, start at google. I think Resource pages are useful to get a handle on an area, and I am glad we have one for OR, but it certainly isn't the critical page it was pre-google.

Friday, November 04, 2005


It's been about a week that I have been keeping this blog, and so far I think it has gone well. It is nice to see the activity (I have opened up my sitemeter so you can check out the stats as well): there's about 20 visitors a day, and people are clicking around to explore, so many are staying for some time. Not many comments, though: I must attract shy visitors! Comments, of course, are welcome: feel free to comment on an individual post or on the blog in general. Easy enough to do: just click on the number of comments associated with an entry, and you get a chance to both read the comments and to add one of your own.

Warranties and Inventory

Jay Swaminathan from University of North Carolina was visiting us today. He gave an interesting talk about how to set inventory levels when warranty replacement is a significant issue. This paper really hit a chord since I am working on my 5th(!) iPod. It seems without fail that my iPod fails after 3 or 4 months, requiring a return shipment and then a new iPod. The only good aspect of this is that the warrantee is reset, so an iPod originally bought in July 2004 is now warrenteed until November 2006. Who needs extended warrantees!

In any case, the paper (Jay together with Wei Huang and Vidhyadhar Kulkarni) made a couple good points: first, for fairly realistic data (they are working with a real, unnamed company), ignoring the warrantee needs in setting inventory can lead to pretty high stock-out charges. The second, less obvious but perhaps more important point, involved some new technology the company was planning to invest in. The company was going to put in a system whereby they would get detailed information on when an item was sold (and which item), rather than the aggregate sales values it was getting. This would give the firm an accurate distribution of the actual ages of the items in the field, rather than just the total numbers. It turns out that there was very little value in the more detailed distribution: aggregate information worked out almost as well. A good example of the value of analysis before making significant investments.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

OR Exhibits

I just got back from Washington, where a friend of ours, a scientific illustrator, had an opening for his work at the AAAS. It is a very impressive show, with a mix of illustrations of insects, plants, dinosaurs, and extinct mammals. The attendees of the opening were a real mix. Some had a scientific background, but most were enthusiastic amateurs.

It is too bad that OR doesn't lend itself to this sort of amateur interest. Martin Gardner's Mathematical Games column (and some of his successors) did appeal to the nonprofessional, and often had a strong OR flavor (that's how I got my start). But having an exhibit, attracting a mix of people, seems unlikely.

The closest we come to this is some of the optimization art done by Robert Bosch of Oberlin (I am sure there are others, and I would like to hear about them). Bob works in dominoes, traveling salesman tours, and many other media to create art through optimization. See, in particular, his site for samples of what he does.

OK, that makes two things I want to do since I started this blog: solve world hunger through improved logistics and have an opening at a prestigious museum. Looks like this blog is going to cause more problems than it solves!