Archive for September, 2009

The advantage of making papers harder to understand

September 27, 2009

When I was a college student, a professor of logic once asked us to write a brief paper on a specified topic, which I no longer remember.  I do remember that I didn’t understand the question that we were supposed to address and had no clue what to write.  So I carried out an experiment.  I wrote something such that each sentence appeared to make sense, but so that the paper did not make any sense when taken as a whole.  (Think “Sarah Palin’s speeches” but with crisper logic.)  My experiment was successful as far as I was concerned.  I got a “B.”  My conjecture is that it would have taken the professor too much time to see through my lack of logic, and it was easier to give it a reasonable grade.  (Warning to current students:  do not try this approach with me.)

In today’s Boston Globe, there is a brief article entitled  “You’d sound smarter if you wrote less clearly.” It’s about David Hakes, an economics professor, who simplified a complex argument in mathematical economics.  Hakes explained, ”We managed to reduce the equations in the paper to six. At this stage the paper was perfectly clear and was written at a level so that it could reach a broad audience.”   When the paper was rejected for being “self evident”, Hakes and his co-author decided to make his work less readable and much more complex mathematically, with no added value.  Hakes later wrote ”I personally could no longer understand the paper.”  It was now acceptable to the referees and published.

Hakes’ point extends to Operations Research and other fields that rely on mathematics.    Referees often do not like simplicity because it may make a paper sound “obvious”, and no referee wants to accept a paper that is obvious.  Mathematical complexity usually seems unobvious, and makes the paper more palatable.

As a referee, I have sometimes asked for a substantive revision of a complex paper if I came up with a much simpler version.  For example, I once asked  an 80 page paper to be shortened to around 15 pages, with no loss of content.   But simplifying a paper is, in general, very difficult and is not the task of a referee.  The unfortunate truth is that authors really can increase their odds of publication by making their papers unnecessarily complex.

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Congressman Joe Wilson is a liar

September 15, 2009

Joe Wilson managed to go from obscurity to fame by violating the decorum of the Congress.  He was also able to raise a $1 million for his bad behavior.  (So did his opponent in the upcoming primary.)  He is also a liar.

The lie was not his calling Barack Obama a liar.  Wilson apparently believed that Obama was lying when Obama said that his plan would not cover illegal immigrants.  Rather, Wilson was just being stupid and ignorant given that Obama’s statement was largely true, as reported by factcheck.org.  (One can quibble with Obama’s statement, but that hardly makes Obama a liar.)

Wilson’s lie was when he claimed “[I] let my emotions get the best of me on the critical issue of health care.”  To be honest, I can’t prove that Wilson was lying.  I just believe it to be true.  Conceivably, Joe Wilson has the impulse-control of a 4 year old, and shouted out his insult to the President in one of the most inappropriate venues imaginable just because he could not control himself. I doubt that this is the case.  More likely, Wilson planned to shout out that Obama was a liar, and was just waiting for a moment to do so.  What Wilson did not know was (1) his behavior was uncivil, boorish, and totally unacceptable, and (2) his behavior would be rewarded anyway.   It’s a very sad commentary on our politics that so many are quick to defend such bad behavior.

Japan’s prominent O.R. Ph.D.

September 4, 2009

As reported in the INFORMS news, the current prime minister of Japan, Yukio Hatoyama,  completed his Ph.D. in Operations Research at Stanford in 1976.   He worked under the supervision of Gerald Lieberman on markov repair models.   His 1977 paper

“Markov maintenance models with control of queue”, Journal of Operations Research Society in Japan 20, 164-181

is available online.

He also co-authored a 1984 book entitled “Stochastic models in reliability theory”.

We all hope that the prime minister is successful in repairing the Japanese economy in a reliable manner.

By the way, I started my Ph.D. at Stanford in the semester after Dr. Hatoyama left the department.  So, I never met him, but wish that I had.

Using Operations Research to improve hospital efficiencies

September 1, 2009

There is a great article that promotes the use of Operations Research in hospitals that was printed in the Boston Globe this week.  (Actually, it promotes Operations Management rather than O.R.)  Eugene Litvak of Boston University  has worked with Cincinnati Children’s hospital to improve “patient flow” resulting in a far better utilization of their resources.  Litvak’s improvement was comparable to an increase in 100 hospital beds, which in turn was comparable to a savings of $100 million per year.  The hospital was initially resistant to change, as are most hospitals.  But they are very pleased with the results.

Anyone who has experienced a hospital knows that there are often long waits both by patients and staff.   It is an environment that could use lots of O.R. help.  Dr. Michael Long, one of Litvak’s collaborators, put it well.

In some respects, Eugene [a Russian immigrant] was right at home [in dealing with U.S. hospitals].  It reminded him of the way things are done in Russia.