Archive for March, 2009

Large prison populations: because Americans really enjoy cutting off their noses

March 30, 2009

“You shouldn’t cut off your nose to spite your face.”  — folk saying.

There are nearly 2 million prisoners in America.  No other country comes close to this level of incarceration. China has half the number of prisoners, but only 1/6th of the US rate per capita.  In Western Europe, the United Kingdom comes closest to our incarceration rate, and they have around 80,000 prisoners.

We do not have this incarceration rate because we have the worst criminal class in the world.  We have this incarceration rate because we are really dumb in the way we deal with crime, especially drug related crime.

We should first admit (perhaps as part of a 12 step program) that our country “is addicted to imprisonment” and it is making our country less manageable.   Prison takes people who have made serious mistakes and nearly guarantees that the remainder of their lives will be ruined as well, while providing no relief to the victims.   On the other hand, we do get to spend lots of tax dollars in order to maintain the criminal justice system and to keep prisoners in jail.  (Just kidding.  It’s the same hand.)

Jim Webb is passionate about sensibly addressing this issue through legislation.  (See story in Salon.) The legislation is worth supporting, assuming that you really don’t like cutting off your nose.

Although this is not primarily an OR post, I know that Operations Research has contributed to this debate, with attention devoted to our criminal justice system.    I am confident that there is much more that OR can contribute, especially if Americans choose to be sensible on this issue.  (Don’t laugh.  It could happen.)  We are well positioned to help assess impacts of incarceration, and to figure out how to improve our policies.


Einstein 1, Geithner 0.

March 29, 2009

“You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.”
Albert Einstein

Secretary Geithner admits that two of the major reasons for our financial failures are excessive leveraging and excessive risk taking, especially risk taking that caused tax payers to take the risks.  He now proposes to create a market for very risky “toxic assets.”  His solution:  permit buyers to heavily leverage themselves.  Buyers put up only 15% of the purchase price (possibly with some of the 15%  being borrowed from the private sector) and borrow the rest from the government.   In order to prevent buyers from losing more than 100% of what they put up, the tax payers would take 100% of all losses beyond the first 15%.

I think of this policy as “Einstein 1, Geithner 0.” To paraphrase another Nobel Prize winner, the subtitle could be “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Geithner.”

The beginning of the end for non-interactive, in-class lectures.

March 26, 2009

YouTube has just launched This is a site where educational videos are stored, including lots of videos of lectures.   I see this as the beginning of the end for university lecturing.  Others more prescient than I saw this coming years ago.

By lecturing, I am referring to the mostly one-way communication where a learned faculty member presents a selected topic to a group of students.   The lecture is clearly of value.  But how valuable is it for the faculty member to do it live?  I predict that within a few years, we will learn that it is not very valuable.  It certainly isn’t valuable enough to be the faculty member’s most time-intensive contribution to a subject each semester.

Fortunately, this is potentially a huge win for both faculty and students.  If faculty free up enormous amounts of time by not having to modify old lectures and repeat them in class, then faculty can devote the time in other ways to enhance a subject.

Terrorism for Dummies, and a Remark on Republican Leaders

March 26, 2009

Al Qaida is still a fearsome organization, dedicated to causing us harm.  But that does not mean that they are attracting the best and the brightest of America-haters.  Recently, Slate has reported on a manual for recruitment appearing on their websites entitled ”A Course in the Art of Recruitment”, which includes such sage advice (paraphrased by Slate) as:

  • Nobody likes a pushy terrorist
  • Brush up on your Quran
  • Be nice

Moreover, in complete contradiction to our usual common wisdom, Al Qaida’s favorite group to recruit is the non-religious.

I borrowed the phrase “terrorism for dummies” from Rachel Maddow, who used it on 3/25/09 on her show.  She opined that the document sounds more like a “dating manual” than a terrorist handbook.

And now a remark about the Republican Party.  (I  need to work on my segues.)   The Republican Party may need a book entitled “Opposition politics for dummies.”  Two days ago, Bobby Jindal channeled Rush Limbaugh in publicly stating a desire to see President Obama  fail.  (He then  whined that others were inhibiting Republican free speech.)  Has it occurred to Republicans that this desire sounds un-American to most of the rest of us?  Moreover,  Republican leaders can avoid this difficlty by changing their wording to “We don’t want Obama’s budget or agenda to pass Congress.”  When Republicans leaders can’t get this single point straight, it’s a sad day for the two-party system.

Stretch Goals for INFORMS

March 20, 2009

I encourage the INFORMS leadership to come up with a list of stretch goals.  Each goal should be plausibly achievable, and each goal should be worthy of achievement.  Here is my list.


  • Increase the membership of INFORMS to 15,000.
  • Increase the attendance at the annual practice meeting to 2,500.
  • Actively engage at least 80% of student chapters in activities that benefit the profession as a whole.
  • Ensure that at least 90% of all students enrolled in graduate programs of OR are members of INFORMS.
  • Do what it takes so that the retention rate of members in INFORMS is at least 90% every year.
  • Develop a successful series of well-utilized on-line (and free) tutorials for continuing education for our professionals.
  • Facilitate the creation of executive education programs that are heavily OR-based, especially in-house programs that can more heavily influence the activities of companies.
  • Help develop very wide awareness for OR as a profession that knows how to assess metrics that are difficult to measure and that knows how to solve problems in complex and uncertain environments.
  • Help ensure that at least 80% of American CEOs should know something about OR.
  • At least 80% of all MBA programs should have a very popular subject on “quantitative modeling for qualitative insights” (to paraphrase Steve Powell). INFORMS should facilitate the course creation.
  • All (or almost all) students leaving an MBA program should understand the potential benefits of operations research.

What OR Professionals can do

March 20, 2009

I looked again at the “Science of better” site for INFORMS.  I really don’t like the style, but feel that it is possibly the basis for a much better site.  It’s written in the style of a software company who is trying to get you to buy their software.  It’s not a style that I want for our professional society.  Put another way, The Science of Better site needs to be improved.

Here is a quote from the site.
O.R. is unique. It’s best of breed, employing highly developed methods practiced by specially trained professionals. It’s powerful, using advanced tools and technologies to provide analytical power that no ordinary software or spreadsheet can deliver out of the box. And it’s tailored to you, because an O.R. professional offers you the ability to define your specific challenge in ways that make the most of your data and uncover your most beneficial options.

Here is an alternative that I just wrote.  Admittedly, it is much longer, which makes it difficult to compare the two.   But I hope that it opens a discussion about what is the right tone.  (I am not at all wed to the specifics of the alternative, which undoubtedly could be improved.)

The goal of Operations Research professionals in business is to provide improved decision making in an uncertain and complex environment.   OR professionals draw from a large body of well-developed analytic tools including statistics, simulation, spreadsheet analysis, behavioral decision theory, and optimization.  The OR Professional can benefit your company in a variety of  ways.

  • They can help provide your company a common language (and understanding) for discussing uncertainty and complexity;
  • They can provide analyses of current planning options while helping management to develop new options;
  • They can develop techniques (often simple and inexpensive) for assessing important metrics such as costs, risks, customer satisfaction, and employee morale.
  • They can assess the value of obtaining new information for strategic decisions.  This permits management to seek out new information and data analyses that will have the largest positive impact on their decision making.
  • They have analytic tools for addressing business issues that have a very high level of complexity, uncertainty, and risk.

Let me know if you prefer this type of style, or whether you prefer the style that is currently on the Science of Better site.  And if you have an alternative option, please let me know that.

Continuing Education in Operations Research

March 20, 2009

I just Googled “Continuing Education” AND “Operations Research”.  The top hit was a post on a blog of IE/OR tools that referred back to an earlier post on my blog.  My post was listed 7th on Google.

I’ll admit that I like my posts to be listed high by Google.  But I would much prefer it if it were listed lower because there were lots of other sites about continuing education in O.R.  Continuing education is of vital importance to our profession.  We need to take it seriously.

To be fair, there is a new INFORMS committee that is focused on strategic issues for our profession, including issues relating to continuing education.   I am in contact with the chair of the committee, Cynthia Barnhart.

Is it time to retrain business reporters?

March 16, 2009

As of the time I am writing this, the most e-mailed article from the New York Times is entitled “Is it time to retrain B-Schools“. Kelley Holland began the article by writing “John Thain has one. So do Richard Fuld, Stanley O’Neal and Vikram Pandit. For that matter, so does John Paulson, the hedge fund kingpin.  Yes, all five have fat bank accounts, even now, and all have made their share of headlines. But these current and former giants of finance also are all card-carrying M.B.A.’s.”

Obviously, we now know what caused the financial meltdown.   For your information, their MBAs were all between 29 and 36 years ago.

  1. John Thain, Harvard, 1979.
  2. Richard Fuld, Stern, 1973
  3. Stanley O’Neal, Harvard , 1978
  4. Vikram Pandit, Columbia, 1976
  5. John Paulson, Harvard, 1980.

If only these titans of industry had taken that course in business ethics around 30 years ago, we may have averted this crisis.

In reality, the article has nothing to do with these five infamous MBA graduates except for the initial paragraph quoted above and a quote from the dean of the Thunderbird School of Global Management; rather the article deals with educational issues that have been around for years that business schools are still debating. In fact, the first paragraph was a journalistic version of “bait and switch” so that the reporter could write about general concerns about MBA education.

So, my questions are: Where do New York Times business reporters learn their journalistic ethics? And it is time to retrain them?

Rush Limbaugh vs. Jim Jones

March 13, 2009

Hi Dick,

It’s great to hear an OR colleague respond to one of my political posts (comment to my post “It’s not a conspiracy …” ).  Given that you have kind things to say about Rush Limbaugh, it is not surprising that you disagree with me.  We may not be able to convince each other, but we can enjoy the process of trying.

I do want to follow up.  First, I fully disagree on Obama.  I think he is doing amazingly well, considering that he has a job that is absurdly complex, and he has taken over in very difficult times.  I don’t know how he can deal with the 1000s of responsibilities that come his way while dealing with a failing economy, two wars, a government that was seriously undermined by his predecessor, and an opposition that does not give him an inch.  But Obama has a first-class mind and a first-class temperament, and he has surrounded himself by talented people.  I believe he will do well.  (I have trouble enough finding time to write on my blog.  I have no clue how he manages what he does.)

It’s ironic that you mentioned “drinking Jonestown Koolaid” in your comment.  For weeks, I have been thinking that Rush Limbaugh is similar to Jim Jones (of Jonestown fame), and that he is try to lead the Republican party to a bad fate.  Rush is charismatic (at least to his followers); he appears to have NPD (narcissistic personality disorder); and despite what he says, his only true loyalty is to himself.  He is willing to sell out true conservatism and the Republican party because he is entirely focused on himself.

I also think that there has been a tipping point for the relationships between Republican leaders and Rush.  In the past, Republicans kowtowed to Rush because that was far better for them politically than creating a little distance from Rush.  But thanks to Rush’s desire to see the country fail (to validate and support his world view) and because Michael Steele became the poster child for a weak spine, the media is going to shine a much brighter light on the relationship between Republicans and Rush.  Unless Republicans want to become the party of irrelevance, they will need to distance themselves from Rush’s self-centered and mean spirited universe.  And I think that this will be very good for the long term health of the party.  While I do not like the current Republican leadership, I fully support a strong two party system, and feel it is needed for the health of our country.

How does one teach the art of modeling?

March 9, 2009

It’s really hard for an OR analyst to do good OR modeling to solve real problems. First, the analyst needs to know a lot. He or she needs to know about the situation on the ground (the facts underlying the model and the data that will be available to support the model), the organizational background (who will use the model, and how much support their will be), and also needs to know a lot about OR models in general. Then the analyst needs to make careful choices in modeling, knowing full well that the mathematical model will not be “true” or “complete”. At best, the model will be useful. And this is just the start… So, how can we teach this difficult skill?

I think it is impossible to fully convey the art of modeling during lectures. Fortunately, we can teach classes that will be useful.

A commonly used method is to help students develop a repertoire of different models. One gives scenarios that are sophisticated word problems. “What is the best plan for manufacturing widgets over time at ABC widget factory, given the data in the spreadsheet?” This approach gives students a good sense for the types of models that they can develop and solve. Moreover, instructors use sensitivity analysis to give students a sense for how one can manipulate models to learn about the situation at hand.

Another approach is case-based. It is very similar to the first approach, except that the scenario is more subtle and complex.

But neither approach gives students a strong sense for structuring an unstructured problem. And it does not give a sense for the importance of making plausible assumptions that one may want to revisit later on.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about a different modeling approach that may be useful in class. It can be called “Back-of-the-envelope spreadsheet modeling.” (Please forgive the mixed metaphor.) The goal is to take a large open-ended problem, and then guide the students to come up with useful analysis. It would be best if the question asked was inherently interesting. “Should AIDS testing be required of all married couples?” “Should clean needles be provided to addicts?” The discussion in class is the key aspect, and so it would not be acceptable for someone to look up a paper on the web and just repeat its conclusions.

I’d be very interested in knowing whether it has been used in OR classes, and how to make it work. Please let me know.  I’ll try to come up with some workable examples in future posts, either ones that I find or are sent to me or ones that I develop.