Archive for January, 2009

An overoptimistic stimulus plan: Jeff Jacoby’s Column of 1/28/09

January 28, 2009

Background.  Jeff Jacoby quotes a CBO report that not enough of it will be spent by the end of 2010.  He also argues “Real-world evidence of the inefficacy of pump-priming abounds.”


Dear Jeff,

Perhaps you haven’t heard, but the Congressional Budget Office report that you quote so authoritatively was withdrawn because it was totally inaccurate.  Obama’s Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told the press that the report looked at “only a portion of the legislation and looked at that portion of the legislation before it began the committee process.” Gibbs added that it reflected “a snapshot in time that’s long past.” 

As for your claim that pump priming will not work.  Let me be blunt.  You do not know.  Rather, you have beliefs, and you cherry pick evidence to support them.   I think Warren Buffett put it best.  “The answer is nobody knows. The economists don’t know. All you know is you throw everything at it … What we do know is to stand by and do nothing is a terrible mistake.” 

You also write “ As far as I know, no prominent market-oriented economist has come out in favor of a trillion-dollar increase in government spending as a way to improve the economy.”   Perhaps this is because “market-oriented economists” is not a term used by economists or just about anyone else.   Google lists 592 hits for this term, and the first two references were both to your editorial.   It lists 90 million hits for the word economist.

Perhaps the stimulus plan will not work well.  But, I would rather have Obama’s economic team trying to deal with our ailing economy that anyone you would choose.  I’m not sure that the stimulus will work, but it’s far better than gambling our future on doing nothing.

Regards, Jim

A personal gripe concerning Apple’s supply chain

January 27, 2009

On January 21, I ordered iLife from Apple so that my daughter could do some movie editing that she needs to complete by the end of the month.  I ordered it with 2-day delivery.  The Apple representative forgot to let me know that iLife was not going to be mailed until January 30th and then it will arrive two days after that.  My clear urgency for getting the softwaree apparently did not tip off the Apple representative that they should tell me that the software wasn’t available yet.     I called Apple today (January 26) to find out why my software had not yet arrived.  And so, I learned that I would not get it till February.   In principle, I should have learned the delay when Apple sent me an e-mail acknowledgment, but they sent this to a now now-defunct address and didn’t verify with me the e-mail address.

But the purpose of this note is to gripe about Apple’s supply chain (or at least a part of it) and not their customer service.  So, I’ll do it next.

I canceled the order today.  Even though Apple will not mail me the software for another four days, they cannot cancel the order.   They claim that it is too late to cancel it.  Instead, they will mail the package to me in four days, and I must mail it back to them, and they will treat it as a return.   Huh?  How can this make any sense as a way for Apple to run their supply chain? 

Perhaps one of my friends from the O.M. community will explain to me why it makes perfect sense.    I will graciously listen to him or her.   (OK, maybe I won’t be so gracious).  But afterwards, I will still believe that it is a stupid way for Apple to run their business.  

Bye to Bush; hello to Obama: Jeff Jacoby’s column of 1/21/09

January 21, 2009

Background.  Jacoby’s goal is to write a gracious goodbye to Bush and a hello to Obama.   He laments the partisan bickering and lack of civility, and claims that those on the left never gave Bush a chance.  He agrees with Bush that Bush’s Presidency may be viewed more positively by history.  He also claims that the war in Iraq was a victory for the U.S.   This latter claim is the basis for my response.


Dear Jeff,

I am one of those who believes that Bush is the worst President in my lifetime, much worse than Nixon, albeit more likable.  I will leave it up to historians to determine whether Bush is the worst U.S. President ever, or whether Buchanan or Harding win this distinction.   

However, my major disagreement with your column today was not your judgment of Bush but your assessment that the war in Iraq “appears to be ending in a clear victory for the United States … an infinite improvement over the dangerous hellhole he inherited in 2001.” 

I agree that the situation today is much better than I (and most others) feared it would be two years ago, and I am grateful for the improvements.  But, at best, the outcome in Iraq can be called a Pyrrhic victory, one in which the costs greatly exceeded the gains.  More accurately, it should be viewed as the largest and more costly foreign policy mistake that the U.S. has made since the Vietnam war.  Let me remind you of some of the costs.

  1. More than 4,000 U.S. military have been killed.
  2. Approximately 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed according to many estimates, with some estimates running much higher.
  3. The total cost to the U.S. is at least $1 trillion, and serious economists (notably, Joseph Steiglitz) estimate the total cost at $3 trillion.
  4. Over two million Iraqis fled Iraq because of the war.  More than a million others were displaced within Iraq because of sectarian violence.  Iraq has largely lost its middle class.
  5. The remaining Iraqis do not (in general) view their country better off now than it was under Saddam Hussein, despite the fact that Saddam Hussein was one of the most ruthless dictators of our time and one who was reviled within Iraq.
  6. The war and other Bush policies caused America to be hated passionately within the Muslim world and led many America-haters to join terrorist groups.  It has also made many of our own allies dislike and fear us.  
  7. In his war against terror, Bush undermined some parts of the international order including the Geneva Conventions. 
  8. The war made it much more difficult for the U.S. to put its full efforts into destroying Al Qaeda.
  9. Our efforts in Iraq have made it much more difficult for us to put efforts into Afghanistan, and the Taliban has made a resurgence. 
  10. It is likely that Iraq’s government will be more friendly to Iran than to the U.S.   

Jeff, when you say that the situation today is “an infinite improvement” over the situation in 2001, you are dead wrong.   You are ignoring (or seriously undervaluing) all the bad effects of the war. In making this claim, you undermine your own credibility.

Regards, Jim

Questions for John Holdren, Obama’s Science Advisor

January 18, 2009

Background.  Jeff Jacoby in his column of 1/18/09 (“Questions for Obama’s Science Guy”) asks questions of Dr. John Holdren, Obama’s choice for the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (a.k.a., the President’s Science Advisor). Most of Jacoby’s questions are really literary devices, used to criticize Holdren.  Here I mix my interests in politics and Operations Research to ask Holder a  different set of questions.


Dear Dr. Holdren,

I wish you and Obama success, and I look forward to greatly improved science policy and greatly improved communication of scientific issues.   I also have some questions for you at this time.

  1. Most politicians (and most most everyone else) are notoriously uncomfortable with making decisions if they are uncertain.  Yet climate change is an issue filled with uncertainties.   Can the U.S. have the political will to pass national policies that will (in expectation) reduce global warming, but where the actual reduction is highly uncertain?
  2. How much do you know about Operations Research?  Are you aware that it is a field that is especially well suited for analyzing complex systems, and for making complex resource decisions under uncertainty?
  3.  The NIH budget is devoted almost entirely to studying scientific issues in medical research.  Accordingly, NIH does a poor job of addressing the critically important issue of how to make healthcare delivery more efficient and more effective.   Will you commit a certain percentage of the NIH budget (perhaps around 10%) to research on how to improve healthcare delivery?  (Did I mention that Operations Research has a lot to offer on this issue?) 
  4. Obama is a very strong believer in moving to digital storage of information so that access to information is quicker, more widely available, and more reliable.  Once the information is stored, there is potential for substantial additional value by the development of decision support systems that guides users in making more informed and intelligent decisions.  Will your administration advocate and support the development of decision support systems? (Did I mention that Operations Researchers have great expertise in the development of these systems?)
  5. Many of the most serious science and technology issues facing our country cross many academic discipline boundaries.  Operations Research looks at issues from a systems viewpoint, and its practitioners can often add large value when working on interdisciplinary teams.  Will you consider Operations Research (and its professional society INFORMS) when you appoint panels to study important scientific and technical policy issues?

I thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely, James Orlin  
Professor of Operations Research.

Forgive and Forget? : Paul Krugman’s column of 1/16/09

January 16, 2009

Paul Krugman argues that the Obama administration should investigate possible crimes by the Bush administration and prosecute.  Although I think that Krugman is overstating the case (and the amount of prosecutions he wants), I fully agree with the principle.

Obama said “I don’t believe that anybody is above the law, but we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”  I hope that Obama will look forward.  That is why his Attorney General should appoint special prosecutors who are fully independent, and who do not cause Obama to be involved.

The AG will will need to carefully choose whom to investigate.  There are not enough resources in the Justice Department to investigate all members of the Bush administration involved in serious abuses and illegal activities.  One obvious choice is that the AG should investigate and prosecute Bradley Schlozman, who illegally packed the Justice Department with conservatives, and then lied under oath.   

More importantly, the AG should investigate those who permitted torture and violations of habeas corpus, including President Bush.  Personally, I would have preferred if Bush were not directly involved in permitting torture, but he has already admitted it.  (Because I do not want to show my darker side, I will not admit that a prosecution of Cheney would be enjoyable to watch.)   And for those Republicans who think it is vindictive to persecute top officials for torture; let me remind you that Clinton was impeached by Republicans for committing perjury about having sex, admittedly a serious issue.     Here we are talking about a President and other officials and advisors who violated  the Geneva Convention as well as the Constitution of the United States, undermining the moral authority of the US government, and increasing the risk that our soldiers will be tortured in the future.   This is an issue of the utmost seriousness.  The whole world will be watching to see what we do.

Bush argues that he thought he was not violating the Constitution or the Geneva Convention.  Bush and his advisors should have known better. It was US prosecutors who convicted Japanese of war crimes after World War II for their use of water boarding.   Bush’s argument is tantamount to saying that he was too stupid to understand the law.  While his argument is plausible, it is not a legitimate legal defense.  

On talking to and listening to strangers.

January 14, 2009

Background.    Sometimes one can make a difference in a person’s life just by listening attentively, and responding in a caring and honest manner, even if the person is a stranger whom you will probably never see again.  Four years ago, I had a conversation with a young woman who sat next to me on a plane ride to Boston.  The following is a note I received yesterday from the woman.   (I thanked her very much for the kind note.  She gave me permission to post it.)


Dr. Orlin,

I sat next to you on a flight to Boston in January 2005.  During our flight we discussed my confusion about my career path and life path in general.  I expressed my discontent as a psychology major and you told me I needed to stop blowing off important life decisions and really figure out what would make me happy. You suggested I look into nursing despite my huge fear and dislike of science.  I did just that and sent you an email a month later to thank you for your guidance and willingness to listen to a stranger.  So much has happened since that follow up email and none of it would have happened, if it weren’t for that flight.

After deciding to face my fear of science, I took your suggestion and looked into nursing school.  Each program I found had so many science prerequisites that it would take a few semesters to catch up.  I almost gave up until a friend told me about post-baccalaureate premedical programs for medical school.  Perhaps I could find one for nursing, she said.  I looked and looked and could find nothing specifically for nursing.  But, through this research, I saw that many of the nursing school prerequisites were the same as medical school. Medical school?  That is something I had certainly never thought about.  Nursing was barely an option but medical school?  No way. However, the more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself that I could really do anything I wanted.  If I could be a nurse, I could surely be a doctor.  So after I graduated in 2007, I enrolled in a post-baccalaureate premedical program and began a torturous program of all eight science prereqs, each with a 3 hour lab, in one year.  This would have been unfathomable just a couple years earlier.  However, I pulled through it (even organic chemistry) and came out with a science GPA of 3.88.

So that brings me to the present.  Tomorrow is my interview for my number one medical school.  Tomorrow is the culmination of four years of self discovery and hard work.  I know that you had no small part in this, as my application essay started with a vignette about that fateful plane ride and how a stranger helped me find my way.  Thank you for that.

Football Analytics

January 12, 2009

My son suggested a post on football analytics, despite my lack of knowledge.  But it’s such an interesting topic; perhaps others can share their knowledge.  I’ll provide two references plus some questions.

In 2003, David Romer used dynamic programming to address the question: when should one go for it on fourth down.  The surprising answer was that one should go for it far more often than any team would ever consider it including:  fourth and 1 yard to go on one’s  own 20 yard line;  fourth and 5 yards to go on the other team’s 40 yard line.  A copy of his paper is available at

The New England Patriots have a reputation for using analytics for determining what to do on fourth downs, when to go for a 2-point conversion following a touchdown, and what players to choose in the draft.  Technology review published an article on their use of analytics.   

Here are some questions to which I don’t know the answer, and feel that analytics would help.  I also encourage OR Faculty to supervise theses on this topic.  (Then I could impress my son and others with the relevance of O.R. as a field.  I say this only partly tongue in cheek.)

  1. What is the value of “time of possession?”  It is widely believed that extended times of offensive possession tire out the defense, which is an added benefit.  Can this be quantified?
  2. What is the right mix of plays for 2nd and short yardage?  My conjecture is that a mid range pass (10 to 20 yards) is far more valuable on average than a long bomb, and should be used frequently (say around 1/3 to 1/2 of the time).  Long bombs seem mostly like a waste of a play, but seem to be used frequently.
  3. How valuable would it be if a punter could consistently kick the ball 40 yards and then out of bounds (possibly with a kick that is closer to a line drive)?  Is this something that punters could achieve with lots of practice?  Why don’t punters use this strategy?
  4. What is the probability of a kicking team recovering an on-sides kick if the receiving team is not expecting one?  Is there a way of doing an on-sides kick well so as to surprise the receiving team? 

If you know of research that quantifies the answer to any of these questions, you can add a response on my blog, or you can e-mail me directly.  

Membership and conference pricing for INFORMS: A new approach

January 10, 2009

My recent post on recruiting to INFORMS caused lots of interest (and some agreement) on the INFORMS Board of Directors.  I learned that many INFORMS members drop out in years that they don’t attend a conference.  This makes economic sense since members receive steep discounts at meetings, and thus the incremental cost of membership is close to 0 for those who attend conferences.  A related difficulty is that many students drop out of INFORMS after graduating because of the steep increase in membership costs.

Here I propose a new pricing scheme in which costs of membership are decreased, costs of meeting are increased, and the meeting discount for members depends on how long the participant has been a continuing member of INFORMS.  I illustrate with a scenario as to why this pricing scheme may be of value to INFORMS (and possibly other professional societies as well).     In this scenario, the cost of annual membership is reduced to $60 per year (a decrease of $84 from its current $144);  the base price of the conference increases by $100;  and, attendees of the national conference are given the following benefits and price reductions.

  1. Non-members are given a free 12 month membership if they register early, and a free 6 month membership if they register late.
  2. Those who have been continuing members of INFORMS for one year or less (prior to registering) would be given a $60 discount. 
  3. Those who have been continuing members of INFORMS for more than one year would be given a $120 discount.

The reason for the changes is to give incentives for continued membership.  Those annually renewing members who attend a national conference once save the full price of membership. And those annually renewing  members who attend a national conference every three years, have only a $20 per year incremental cost of membership.  So, there is far more incentive for  members of INFORMS to maintain an active membership.  Also, student members would not see a large increase in membership fees.

The net revenue under this scenario is approximately the same as under the current pricing scheme if the following assumptions hold.

  1. INFORMS reduces its real costs of serving each member around $25, possibly by not including a free hard copy of a journal with membership. 
  2. The membership level increases from 10,000 to 13,000.
  3. The attendance levels of the national conference are not affected.
  4. The incremental cost to INFORMS for a periodically renewing member is comparable in cost to an annually renewing member.

While the net revenue is about the same, the vitality of INFORMS and its potential influence would go up.  This is not a final answer, but perhaps it points in a useful direction.

On Recruiting Members for INFORMS

January 8, 2009

Today, I received a mass mailing from INFORMS.  It says that I will be entered into a lottery if I bring in a new member.  In general, I support aligning objectives with proper incentives.  But my primary reaction is that the reward seems a bit cheesy to me.   It sounds a little too much like a gimmick that I expect of my lawn service, but not my primary professional society.

But the e-mail also got me thinking.  What is the “value proposition” of INFORMS, and what people would sufficiently benefit from joining?  To determine the answer, I use a classic approach.  I try to imagine what it would be like to be a professional who has some interest in O.R. but is not a member of INFORMS.  (I didn’t say it was a very good approach, but it’s a whole lot easier than collecting data.)

So, I looked at the INFORMS member_benefits_guide.    It’s 24 pages long, which is pretty long as far as I am concerned; but it does have lots of interesting pictures to make it an easier read.  As I (imagining myself to be a non-member) read it, I am far too skeptical to find the benefits compelling enough to make me want to join.    The guide talks about discounts on publications and reduced rates for meetings, but this would only be of interest if I clearly wanted the journals or if I knew I wanted to attend meetings.  I already network a lot, know how to get information off the web, and have enough opportunities for providing service.  And I am skeptical if INFORMS is the best way of getting insurance or other financial benefits.   Moreover, the guide looks like lots of other slick guides I’ve seen trying to sell me something.

As you will note, my imaginary self is a very tough-sell.  So, is there anything that might get me to join?  It turns out that it’s easier to convince me to go to a professional meeting than it is to pay the $144 membership.  There are three reasons in this imaginary scenario.  First, I suspect that learning more O.R. can help me in my job, and I’ll be able to check this out at the conference.  Second, a colleague of mine asked me to give a talk at the conference, and I had trouble saying no.  Third, my business offered to pay for it, and so it will be free for me.

I now imagine that I decided to attend an INFORMS conference and that my business is paying for it.  Now I’m quite willing to join INFORMS for a small incremental fee, say $19.   Even if I am totally skeptical about membership, I have trouble resisting that type of bargain.

My thought experiment is over, and here are recommendations.  A good way to get a new member is to have a current member invite him or her to an INFORMS Conference, assuming that the person’s business may pay for the expense.  Second, charge non-members exactly $125 more per conference as members pay.  Third, offer non-members membership for $19 provided that they paid the full amount to attend a national meeting.  For student or retirees who attendee, the cost for non-members should be $25 higher, leaving a cost of $11 for becoming a member.


Additional thoughts. 

INFORMS should find out who is attending an INFORMS conference for the first time, and do their absolute best to ensure that the experience is a positive one.

I (that is, the imaginary version of me who just joined INFORMS) will quit in one year unless I feel that there is a lot of added benefit for staying.   After all, next year will cost me $144 rather than $19.  So, INFORMS will need to give me a lot of benefit (and attention) over the next year.

INFORMS should consider giving interesting on-line offerings that are restricted to members only.  I suggest putting on line for members only the following:  tutorials, videos of plenary talks, and videos of Edelman Prize talks.  Some interesting and popular samples of all of these can be offered freely to non-members. 

If INFORMS wants to reward those who recruit members, they should have at least one option that is a charitable one.  Here is one possibility.  Money would be given to educational institutions who want institutional subscriptions to Pubs-on-line, but who cannot afford the price.  Institutions seeking help can list themselves on the INFORMS website.

Yes, it’s anti-Semitism: Jeff Jacoby’s column of 1/7/08.

January 7, 2009

Background.  Jeff Jacoby recognizes that criticizing Israel does not make you anti-Semitic.  But he argues that those who do not believe in Israel’s right to exist are anti-Semitic.  (link to his column)

Dear Jeff,

There is little doubt that the anti-Israel people quoted in your column are anti-Semitic. In principle, I could argue that there are some people who are anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic. (Actually, the only such person who comes to mind is Noam Chomsky.)  But instead, I will raise a different question.  Why does it matter?  I raise this question knowing full well that it matters deeply.

I think it has to do in large part with our casual acceptance of many kinds of prejudices, whereas some prejudices are considered unacceptable.  As an example of a casual acceptance of prejudice, many otherwise civilized Bostonians think it acceptable to say “Yankees suck” and refer to the Yankees as “the evil empire.”  In fact, Bostonians view it as a type of civic pride.

But other prejudices are not acceptable.  So, many people label their political opponents with labels that have a strongly negative connotation.

1.    Those who are against Israel’s right to exist are labeled as anti-Semitic. Those who are against Hamas’s right to rule Gaza are labeled as anti-Democratic.  (Actually, they are often labeled as Zionist pigs, thus supporting Jacoby’s original point).

2.    Those against gay marriage are labeled as homophobic.  Those in favor of gay marriage are labeled as anti-family.

3.    Those against a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion are labeled as sexist.  Those in favor of a woman’s right to choose are labeled as murderers. (The pro-life advocates won in the “label war” even if I disagree with their premise and their conclusions.)

4.    Those against affirmative action are labeled as racist and sexist.  Those in favor of affirmative action are often accused of supporting reverse-racism.

5.    Republicans labeled Obama as a socialist for wanting to reduce taxes on the middle class and raise taxes by a modest amount on those making over $200,000.  (This label didn’t even make any sense.)

6.    Those who opposed Bush’s going to war in Iraq in 2003 were often labeled as anti-American. The same people today are labeled as prescient.  (Truth in advertising:  I was against the war in 2003).

I prefer debate to be civil, and that we use labels very judiciously so as to keep the terms more meaningful.  Perhaps some will disagree with me.  They may argue that politics is a “contact sport” and as such the use of labels is appropriate and effective.  In that case, they should feel free to label me as a “wishful dreamer.”