Archive for May, 2009

David Brooks, on why CEOs need O.R.

May 19, 2009

In today’s New York Times David Brooks wrote an op-ed on the characteristics of good CEOs (“In Praise of Dullness”).

“The traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours. … What mattered was emotional stability and, most of all, conscientiousness — which means being dependable, making plans and following through on them. …  The second thing the market seems to want from leaders is a relentless and somewhat mind-numbing commitment to incremental efficiency gains.”

I would have preferred it if Brooks had not use words like “dull” and “mind-numbing”.  But I appreciate his implicit support of Operations Research.   Perhaps our field should adopt a new slogan:   “We are Operations Researchers.  We have a relentless commitment to incremental efficiency gains.”

The phrase “and somewhat mind-numbing” is optional.


Small pond Republicans

May 13, 2009

“Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond.”  This is a question sometimes asked of job seekers who are deciding between a large firm or a small start-up.  Sometimes it is asked of a talented academic researcher who is deciding between a first tier research university (large pond) or a university where there are fewer high quality researchers (small pond).  It is rarely asked of political parties, who are always seeking to enlarge their power.  At least that is what I used to think.

Apparently conservative Republicans prefer to be large fish in a small pond.  The most recent evidence of this is their attitude of “good riddance” towards Arlen Specter, and their apparent desire to see Colin Powell to leave the party.

In today’s Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby supports Powell leaving the Republican party (after Jacoby mischaracterizes Powell’s views).  More importantly, there seems to be a chorus of those who would like Powell to leave, most notably Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney, both of whom are “small pond Republicans.”   Colin Powell is thoughtful, compassionate, honest, pragmatic, and strongly believes in the rule of law.  Perhaps this explains why Limbaugh and Cheney and would like him to leave the Republican Party.

When Powell joined the GOP, he believed it best represented his overall views on politics.  Since then, the Republican party has moved heavily to the right, has become far less tolerant, and is much smaller.  The conservative solution to this is to try to weed out those who want the party to move more to the center.   This is not the way to gain political influence, but perhaps conservatives have bigger fish to fry, or to kick out of their shrinking pond.

A combinatorial problem on coincidences

May 10, 2009

In response to a recent editorial by Dick Cavett on coincidences,  Jack (4th commenter) responded with the following story:

A relative was married and there was a sit-down dinner for all guests at the reception, including my father, mother, sister and me. I suppose there were 150 people. The hostess wanted totally arbitrary seating, so she placed 150 little cards in a basket, numbered 1 -150, and each guest was to reach in a pick a number as they entered the room. Then she randomly numbered the 150 seats at the tables. It made for some confusion, as each person had to search for his or her seat. In case you haven’t guessed, the four of us where seated in a row. I mean, what are the chances!

You can try solving it yourself before reading on.  Assume that there were 15 circular tables, each with 10 persons each.

Solution. The assignment of people to numbers can be ignored since the probabilities are exactly the same for every possible assignment of people to numbers.  The analysis assumes that the assignment of people to numbers has already been carried out.

There are 150! (that is, 150 factorial) ways of placing the 150 numbers at the tables.  There are 10 ways of selecting four consecutive seats at any specified table, and thus 150 different ways of selecting four consecutive seats at one of the 15 tables.  If the family sits together, this leaves 146 seats for everyone else, and these numbers can be assigned to seats in 146! ways.   Thus, the number of configurations in which the four family members are seated in a row are

146! (150)(4!),

where the 4! is the number of different ways the four family members can be arranged within the four seats.  Therefore, the probability of the four family members being together is

146!(150)(4!)/150! = 24/(149*148*147),

which is approximately 1 in 135,000.  Incidentally, the probability is independent of the number of tables or the size of tables, so long as there are at least 5 persons at each table.   For example, the probability is the same if there was a single circular table with 150 seats.

Haircuts and graduations

May 9, 2009

I have a rule of thumb for when I get a haircut.  I wait until I think I need a haircut.  Then I get one about four weeks later.  It’s actually not a plan on my part.  It’s more that I look in the mirror in the morning and at night and keep intending to get a haircut.  And then I don’t bother to do so.  Eventually, the desire becomes strong enough that I actually do it.

Waiting four weeks too long is not a good rule for maintaining a blog. I have been intending to write a post for a long time, and am finally doing it.  This may be the first post I’ve written that is of a personal nature.

The last few weeks have been eventful.  My youngest child is a senior in high school, and needed to make a decision on what college to attend next year.  We visited two colleges that admitted her.  She decided to go to the Binghamton University, and plans to major in Cinema Studies.  Binghamton University is a great undergraduate college, and the Cinema Studies department is a very good fit for her interests.

My son is about to graduate from Yale.  A major event for him this year was the Yale Show, a musical comedy about Yale, which is an annual tradition at Yale.  It’s written by students, directed by students, and acted by students.  My son was the head writer and assistant director.  My opinion of the show (and I am totally objective about this) is that the show this year was fantastic.  It was very funny, even to someone who didn’t get the references to life at Yale.

As for myself, I gave a plenary talk at the International Network Optimization Conference (INOC), which was held in Pisa two weeks ago. I had agreed to give a plenary talk more than one year ago. However, when I thought about what to talk about four months ago, I did not have any research topic that I thought would make a good plenary talk for this conference; so I volunteered to give a talk on personal reminiscences, especially those relevant to my research in network optimization. As far as I could tell, the talk was very well received.  Participants especially liked the photographs from the 1970s and 1980s.

Nearly half of the talk was about my graduate school days. I attended three Ph.D. programs: Caltech, the University of Waterloo, and Stanford University. I received masters from the first two programs (with the degrees being granted three months apart), and a Ph.D. from Stanford. It takes a while just to make sense of the different academic steps I took, as well as how it led me to my research field. The title of my talk was “Network Flows: my path”, a not-so-subtle reference to the book Network Flows which I co-authored.

In the next month, my son will graduate from college, and my youngest daughter will graduate from high school. It will be really interesting for me to follow their paths, and see where the road takes them.