Getting ready for Charlotte, and first blog entry there

I am getting ready for the INFORMS Conference coming up next week in Charlotte.  As I generally do, I will be guest blogging at the conference (along with more than a dozen others: great lineup this year!), so my blog entries will appear there (often with a copy showing up here).  I have put together my first entry, entitled “Hoisted on Operations Research’s Petard” (a petard is a small bomb;  if a military engineer had his bomb explode prematurely, he would be hoisted into the air):

For ’tis the sport to have the enginer
Hoist with his own petard, an’t shall go hard

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4

I am greatly looking foward to this year’s INFORMS Annual Conference in Charlotte.  There is nothing like getting together with 4000 of my closest friends, raising many a coffee (and other liquids) in toasting the successes of our field.

I could see the successes of operations research over the last couple of days as I tried to change my flights and hotel in reaction to some family issues.  I had booked everything months ago, paying a pittance for the flight and getting the conference rate for the hotel.  Of course, trying to rebook things three days in advance was a different story:  $150 change fees, along with quadrupling of airfare was the opening bid, with the opportunity to pay about six times the airfare if I wanted to fly at a time when humans are normally awake.   And I’m not sure why this happened, but the hotel took the chance to increase my daily rate by $10, even though I just knocked a day off my reservation.  The conference suddenly became a lot more expensive, just because my wife pointed out that if I don’t rake the leaves on Saturday, when will it ever get done!

I know who to blame for all this:  operations research, of course.  The subfield of “Revenue Management” makes change fees and differential pricing a science.  And that field is one of the great success stories of operations research, as shown by such things as the string of Edelman finalists that focus on revenue management.  So, while I rue the extra expense that operations research has caused me, I can take solace in knowing that I will eventually gain far more due to the overall success of our field.

See you in Charlotte!


Grizzlies, Pandas, and Optimal Ecological Structures

Last year, a group of students in one of my classes did a project on designing a grizzly bear habitat, inspired by the work at Cornell’s wonderful Institute for Computational Sustainability. In that project, the goal was to pick out a collection of geographic areas that formed a contiguous zone that the grizzly’s could move freely through. As the ICS description says:

Land development often results in a reduction and fragmentation of natural habitat, which makes wildlife populations more vulnerable to local extinction. One method for alleviating the negative impact of land fragmentation is the creation of conservation corridors, which are continuous areas of protected land that link zones of biological significance.

My colleague, Willem van Hoeve, had worked on variants of this problem and had some nice data for the students to work with. The models were interesting in their own right, with the “contiguity” constraints causing the most challenge to the students. The results of the project were corridors that were much cheaper (by a factor of 10) than the estimates of the cost necessary to support the wildlife. The students did a great job (as Tepper MBA students generally do!) using AIMMS to model and find solutions (are there other MBA students who come out knowing AIMMS? Not many I would bet!). But I was left with a big worry. The goal here was to find corridors linking “safe” regions for the grizzlies. But what keeps the grizzlies in the corridors? If you check out the diagram (not from the student project but from a research paper by van Hoeve and his coauthors), you will see the safe areas in green, connected by thin brown lines representing the corridors.    It does seem that any self-respecting grizzly would say:  “Hmmm…. I could walk 300 miles along this trail they have made for me, or go cross country and save a few miles.”  The fact that the cross country trip goes straight through, say, Bozeman Montana, would be unfortunate for the grizzly (and perhaps the Bozemanians).  But perhaps the corridors could be made appealing enough for the grizzlies to keep them off the interstates.

I thought of this problem as I was planning a trip to China (which I am taking at the end of November).  After seeing a picture of a ridiculously cute panda cub (not this one, but similarly cute), my seven-year-old declared that we had to see the pandas.  And, while there are pandas in the Beijing zoo, it was necessary to see the pandas in the picture, who turned out to be from Chengdu.  So my son was set on going to Chengdu.  OK, fine with me:  Shanghai is pretty expensive so taking a few days elsewhere works for me.

As I explored the panda site, I found some of the research projects they are exploring.  And one was perfect for me!

Construction and Optimization of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding Ecological System

I was made for this project!  First, I have the experience of watching my students work on grizzly ecosystems (hey, I am a professor:  seeing a student do something is practically as good as doing it myself).  Second, and more importantly, I have extensive experience in bamboo, which is, of course, the main food of the panda.  My wife and I planted a “non-creeping” bamboo plant three years ago, and I have spent two years trying to exterminate it from our backyard without resorting to napalm.  I was deep into negotiations to import a panda into Pittsburgh to eat the cursed plant before I finally seemed to gain the upper hand on the bamboo.  But I fully expect the plant to reappear every time we go away for a weekend.

Between my operations research knowledge and my battle-scars in the Great Bamboo Battle, I can’t think of anyone better to design Panda Ecological Systems.  So, watch out “Chengdu Research Base on Giant Panda Breeding”:  I am headed your way and I am ready to optimize your environment.  And if I sneak away with a panda, rest assured that I can feed it well in Pittsburgh.

This is part of the INFORMS September Blog Challenge on operations research and the environment.

Social Networks and Operations Research

Until recently, I pretty well had a handle on my use of social networks.   Rather than try to use a single social networking system in multiple ways, I have used different systems in different ways and for different networks.

  • I have a blog, of course, and I use that to pontificate on various aspects of operations research.  While the communication is primarily one-way, I see this as a network since 1) I have enough regular commentators that I feel there is some two-way conversation, and 2) there is a network of OR bloggers (the “blogORsphere”) and our various posts often riff off each other, particularly now that INFORMS provides a monthly topic for us to use in common (this post is part of the July challenge on OR and social networks).    You can get a feed of all the OR blogs either in the sidebar at my page or through a Google Reader site. If you have an operations research blog and are not included, please let me know!Feedburner and my log files suggest that each post is read about 3000 times in the first week of posting (after that, each post gets a regular trickle of readers through search).
  • I have a twitter account (@miketrick) where 90% of my tweets have some operations research content (denoted by an “#orms” hash tag).  About 10% of the time, I am griping about some failure in customer service or something similar on non-operations research aspects.   When I post on my blog, a tweet automatically goes out through my twitter account. I follow 183 other twitter users and am followed by just over 700 others, most presumably for the #orms content.
  • I have a facebook account (michael.trick).  Again, a post on my blog generates a facebook entry, but I primarily use facebook for my real-life friends and family, and rarely post on operations research (except the blog entries).

And that seemed enough!  But recently, there have been more social networks that I have had to integrate in to my life, and the existing ones have changed.

  • LinkedIn remains a mystery to me.  I certainly have done a fair amount of linking, with 365 direct connections.  Many of these are former students who want to stay connected to me, and I am happy to be connected.  It has even been useful when getting a request like “Do you know anyone at X who can help me with Y”.  And somehow I am getting emails on conversations that are going on at LinkedIn that actually look pretty good.  But when I go to the site, I can never find where those conversations are coming from, and I am just generally overwhelmed with minutia about who has changed their picture and commented on what.  My blog and twitter feed gets mirrored at LinkedIn, but otherwise this is just not something I have been active in.
  • OR-Exchange is  a Question and Answer site that focuses on operations research and analytics.  In many ways, this was a response to the death (or near death: there are some diehards holding on) of the Usenet group sci.op-research.  That group died under the weight of “solution key sellers”, ersatz conference announcements, mean-spirited responses from curmudgeonly long-timers, and general lack of interest.  So I registered the site at a Q&A site, and started things off.  Since then, the system has taken a life of its own.  INFORMS now hosts it, and there are a dozen or so very active participants along with a larger number of regulars.  I am not sure the system has really reached critical mass, but I am very hopeful for it.
  • Facebook is moving in a direction that might make it more relevant for my professional life.  Bjarni Kristjansson has put together a group “I like operations research” that is getting some traction.  I put together a page that provides the feed to all of the operations research blogs that I can find (this is the same group of entries that is in the sidebar of my blog).
  • is a very popular way to point out links, and “cavedave” has done a great job in putting together a “sysor” subreddit.  With a couple thousand readers, a post there gets a noticeable bump in readership.
  • Google Plus simply baffles me at the moment.  I have an account, but I don’t know how to treat it.  It seems silly to just recreate a twitter feed in plus, but there doesn’t seem to be a hole in my personal social networking activities  that requires plus.  I had already done the “circles” thing by my different uses of facebook, twitter, and my blog, so it is not a great addition.  But I hate to think I am missing out on something big.  On the other hand, I did spend a couple of days on Google Wave, so I am a little hesitant to simply leap on this bandwagon.

As I look through all of this, I can’t help but reflect on how fragmented this all is.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a real community site where all of us in operations research can get together to share thoughts, papers, links, and more?  Bjarni is working hard at pushing INFORMS in the direction of providing such a community site.  But the sad thing is that we had such a site more than ten years ago, when social networking was in its infancy.  ILOG, through people like Irv Lustig, created a site  It lasted a couple of years, but could not survive the pressures of the dot-com crash.  INFORMS keeps a snapshot of the site (with limited functionality), and it is still impressive long after it shuttered its doors.

And, as I look closer to all of the activity, I am amazed that there is not more.  Why are there not hundreds of operations research blogs, instead of the couple of dozen that I list?  Why doesn’t every doctoral student in operations research have a twitter account?  Is there a social networking world I am missing?  If not, where is everybody?

Of course, if you are reading this, then you are in my social network, and I am very grateful that you are.


Explaining Operations Research to, and being, a Muggle

In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, “Muggles” are people who have no magical ability, and, indeed, no knowledge of the magical world.  The term “Muggle” is not exactly a compliment, and veers towards a pejorative.  From the first book:

Hagrid: “I’d like ter see a great Muggle like you stop him,”
Harry: “A what?”
Hagrid: “A Muggle. It’s what we call non-magic folk like them. An’ it’s your bad luck you grew up in a family o’ the biggest Muggles I ever laid eyes on.”

It is a little hard to see anything positive about Muggle in this exchange!  Muggles are often willfully blind to the magic that goes on around them (though sometimes an Obliviator or two can help muggles forget something a little too spectacular), and are generally far less interesting than the magical folk.

But Ms Rowling is pretty even handed in its treatment of the magical world/non-magical world divide.  Just like non-magical folk have no understanding of Quidditch, dementors, Patronus charms and the rest, the magical world is equally confused about the non-magical world:

Arthur Weasley: What exactly is a rubber duckie for?

The definition of a Muggle depends on where you stand!

Now what does this have to do with operations research (other than being the theme of this month’s INFORMS Blog Challenge, of which this article forms my entry)?  A wonderful aspect of working in operations research, particularly on the practical side of the field, is that you both work with Muggles and get to be a Muggle.

Working with Muggles is pretty obvious.  We in operations research have these magical powers to do incredible feats.  Have a problem with millions of decisions to make?  Easy!  Well, easy as long as we can assume linear objective and constraints, and that the data is known and fixed, and …. (magic even in Harry Potter’s world has limitations).  But for the Muggles to believe our results, we do have to spend time explaining what we do and the assumptions we work with.  So we trot out some simple examples, like the traveling salesman problem (“Consider a traveling salesman who has to visit the cities on this napkin”:  don’t laugh!  That is the first real conversation I had with the woman who eventually decide to marry me!).  And we explain why the problem is hard (“Consider how many tours there are”).  And sometimes we convince the whole world of the difficulty so well that they don’t listen to the next part:  “Despite the difficulty, we can really solve these models”.  There are whole swathes of the world, including, it seems, much of computer science, that believes that 30 city traveling salesman instances are a true challenge, requiring an immediate application of approximation algorithms or heuristic methods.   But then we solve interesting problems, and the Muggles begin to believe.  And that is very satisfying.

But it gets even better when we in operations research get to be the Muggles.  And this happens a lot on the practical side of operations research because we get to work with a lot of very smart and very interesting people outside of our field.  A few years ago, I worked with the United States Postal Service to redesign its processing and distribution network.  I know a lot about optimization and models and algorithms.  About all I knew about postal delivery is that a very friendly guy comes by practically every day around 11, and he prefers if I park my car back about two feet so he can cut through the driveway easier.  Turns out there is a heck of a lot more to the Postal Service than Postman Pete and his walk through our neighborhood.  So I got to be the Muggle and to learn about the issues in getting mail from one side of the country to the other in a reasonably timely fashion.  There is “First Class Mail” and “Third Class Mail”, but no “Second Class Mail”.  Why?  Well, that’s quite a story, let me tell you!  And after a few months, I felt that I had passed my first class in the Magic of Mail, but was nowhere near losing my Muggle designation.  But I knew enough to create a few models, and I could explain them to the Wizards of the Mail, and they could correct my Muggle understanding of mail processing (“No, no, no:  a flat could never be handled in that way:  that is only for Third Class, silly!”).  And eventually we arrived at models that did a pretty good job of representing the mail system.  I was a bit less of a Muggle about mail, and they were a bit less Mugggley about operations research.

Over the years, I have started as a Muggle about cell-phone production, sports scheduling, voting systems, and a number of other areas.  And I got to read about these areas, and talk to smart people about issues, and, eventually, become, if not a Wizard, then at least a competent student of these areas.

Some fields are, by their nature, inward looking.  The best operations research is not, and that is a true pleasure of the field.

Are you an Undergraduate who has done Great OR?

If you are an undergraduate student who has done great operations research, or know someone like that, note that INFORMS has a prize for great undergraduate work.   The work can be in OR theory or practice, but the judging is based on a paper.  You can find out more information at the INFORMS website.  Better hurry, though:  the due date for submissions is July 1.

Business Analytics and Operations Research: Tomato, To-mah-toe, Tractor!

There are few things in life more tedious than assigning boundaries to fundamentally ill-defined concepts.  Either terms are used to divide things that cannot be divided (“No, no, that is reddish-purple and clearly not purplish-red!”) or are used to combine groups while ignoring any differences (Republicans?  Democrats?  just “Washington insiders”).  Arguing over the terms is fundamentally unsatisfying:  it rarely affects the underlying phenomena.

So when INFORMS (Institute of Operations Research and the Management Sciences), an organization of which I am proud to have been President and equally proud to be Fellow, embarks on its periodic nomenclature debate, ennui overwhelms.  Not again!  The initial debate between Operations Research and Management Science resulted in two societies (ORSA and TIMS) for forty years before they combined to form INFORMS in 1995.  Decision Engineering, Management Engineering, Operations Engineering, Management Decision Making, Information Engineering, and countless other terms have been proposed at times, and some have even made toeholds in the form of academic department names or other usages.  None of this has fundamentally changed our field, except perhaps in confusing possible collaborators and scaring off prospective members (“Wow, if they don’t even know who they are then maybe I should check out a more with-it field!”). I decided long ago to just stick with “operations research” and make faces of disgust whenever anyone wanted to engage the issue of the name of the field.

Then, three years ago (only! check the google trends graph) the phrase “business analytics” came along, and it was a miracle!  Here was the phrase that really described what we were doing:  using past data to predict the future and make better business decisions based on those predictions.  That’s us!  And, due to books such as “Competing on Analytics”, the wider world actually were interested in us!  There were even popular books like “The Numerati” about us.  We were finally popular!

Except it wasn’t really about “us” in operations research.  We are part of the business analytics story, but we are not the whole story, and I don’t think we are a particularly big part of the story.  A tremendous amount of what goes by the name “business analytics” are things like dashboards, business rules, text mining, predictive analytics,OLAP, and lots of other things that many “operations research” people don’t see as part of the field.  IBM’s Watson is a great analytics story, but it is not fundamentally an operations research story.  People in these areas of business analytics don’t see themselves as doing operations research.  Many of them don’t even identify with business analytics but rather with data mining, business intelligence, or other labels.   All of this involves “using past data to help predict the future to make better decisions” but “operations research” doesn’t own that aspect of the world.  There are lots of people out there who see this as their mandate but haven’t even heard of operations research, and really don’t care about that field.

This is not surprising for those with an INFORMS-centric point of view.  INFORMS does not (and near as I can tell, ever has) represent even all of “operations research”.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 65,000 people with the job “operations research analyst”.  INFORMS membership of a bit more than 10,000  is a small fraction of all those involved in operations research.  INFORMS is not all of operations research:  it certainly is a small amount of business analytics.  How can INFORMS “own” business analytics when it doesn’t even own operations research?

Recognizing this divide does not mean erecting a wall between the areas (see the first paragraph on the mendacity of labels).  I think the “business analytics” world has a tremendous amount to learn from the “operations research” world and vice versa.  Here are few things the two groups should know (and are clearly known by some on both sides, though not to an ideal extent);  I welcome your additions to these lists:

What Business Analytics People should Learn from Operations Research

  1. Getting data and “understanding” it is not enough.
  2. Predicting the future does not imply making better decisions.
  3. Lots of decisions are interlinked in complicated ways.  Simple rules are often not enough to reconcile those linkages.
  4. Handling risk is more than knowing about the risk or even modeling the risk.  See “stochastic optimization”.
  5. Organizations have been competing on and changed by analytics for a long, long time now.   See the Edelman competition to start.
  6. Operations research is not exactly an obscure field.  Check the google trends of “operations research” versus “business analytics” (with OR in blue and BA in red).

What Operations Research People should Learn from Business Analytics

  1. It is not just the volume of data that is important:  it is the velocity.  There is new data every day/hour/minute/second, making the traditional OR approach of “get data, model, implement” hopelessly old-fashioned.  Adapting in a sophisticated way to changing data is part of the implementation.
  2. Not everything is complicated.  Sometimes just getting great data and doing predictions followed by a simple decision model is enough to make better decisions.  Not everything requires an integer program, let alone a stochastic mixed integer nonlinear optimization.
  3. Models of data can involve more than means and variances, and even more than regression.
  4. One project that really changes a company is worth a dozen papers (or perhaps 100) in the professional literature.
  5. It is worthwhile for people to write about what is done in a way that real people can read it.

I believe strongly in both operations research and business analytics.  I have spent my career advancing “operations research” and have never shied from that name.  And I just led an effort to start an MBA-level track in business analytics track at the Tepper School.  This track includes operations research courses, but includes much more, including courses in data mining, probabilistic marketing models, information systems, and much more.

The lines between operations research and business analytics are undoubtedly blurred and further blurring is an admirable goal.  The more the two worlds understand each other, the more we can learn from each other.  INFORMS plays a tremendously important role in helping to blur the boundaries both by sharing the successes of the “operations research world” with the “business analytics” world, and by providing a conduit for information going the other way.  And this, more than “owning” business analytics, is what INFORMS and its members should be doing.

Ironically, this is part of the INFORMS Blog Challenge.



Recently on OR-Exchange…

OR-Exchange is a question and answer site on operations research (and analytics).   The concept couldn’t be simpler.  People ask questions about operations research;  people answer questions about operations research.  Kinda like the usenet group sci.op-research without the spam.

I put together the site a couple of years ago when stack-exchange made it easy to put such sites on their server.  The idea was to mimic the popular mathoverflow site, but to specialize on operations research issues.  I had no idea of how well this would work, but it started off pretty active and continued to grow.

About a year ago, stackexchange decided on a different path, and they no longer wanted to host or support other groups.  Instead, groups of people could go through a process to become a true stackexchange site.  A number of groups have done that, and have done well with that path.  Unfortunately, our site was a little small for that direction.  Even now, with 381 “official users”, it would be the smallest of any stackexchange site (the current smallest is Jewish Life and Learning with 401 users).  The requirements to be a stackexchange site seemed insurmountable, so we needed another solution.

At this point, INFORMS stepped in and offered to sponsor the site.  After receiving confirmation that “sponsorship” did not mean “ownership” and that we could continue acting the way we were, we (i.e. me, along with a few of the very active participants) decided to move the site to INFORMS.  A big question was the software to use, since stackexchange software was no longer available.  Fortunately, there was an open source replacement from, so it was just a matter of installing that….   Famous last words!  Installing the software and getting the current questions and answers from stackexchange was no easy feat.  Fortunately, David and Herman from INFORMS were up to the task, and were able to do the herculean task of getting things up and running smoothly.  The conversion happened on April 8, while I was sitting in a faculty meeting, doing the few minor things I needed to do, like pointing from stackexchange to INFORMS (Here is some advice:when sitting in a faculty meeting, do not try to guess URLs;  godaddy and bigdaddy lead to radically different sorts of sites).  And things have worked great since then!

As I said, there are 381 registered users for the site, with about 40 being reasonably active.  But you don’t have to register to read the questions and answers, and there are about 300 unique visitors per day who do so, often due to hits at google.  This 300 is more than the background hits on this blog (when I post, hits spike up, but I run about 275 hits per day between posts).  There have been 316 questions asked, generating 1152 answers, along with at least that many comments.  At this point, there are eight moderators, though the moderation touch is extremely light.

Recently people have asked about

and much more!  It is a friendly group (except when it comes to answering homework problems!) so if you have a question in the area of operations research, broadly defined, don’t hesitate to check it out!  And thanks to INFORMS, and particularly Terry, David, and Herman, for the sponsorship and the outstanding technical support.

IBM, Ralph Gomory and Business Analytics

Had a post at the INFORMS Conference site on Ralph Gomory:

For those of us taking a break from the INFORMS conference, the Master’s golf tournament holds special attention. Not for the golf (though the golf is wonderful), but for the commercials. Practically every commercial break has an IBM commercial featuring some of its luminaries from the past. Prominent among them is Ralph Gomory. Everyone in operations research knows of Ralph. For the optimization-oriented types, he is the Gomory of Gomory cuts, a fundamental structure in integer programming. For the application-oriented types, he was the long-time head of research for IBM. For the funding and policy-oriented types, he was the long-time head of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation supporting analysis on globalization, technology, and education. Great career, when you can be highly influential three different ways (so far)!

During his time at IBM, Ralph stressed the need for research and development to work together. This view that research should be grounded in real business needs is one that I think has greatly strengthened areas such as operations research and business analytics. While there is no dearth of theoretical underpinnings in these areas, the fundamental research is better by being guided by practical need. This has led to the insights that give us fast optimization codes, stronger approaches to risk and uncertainty, and the ability to handle huge amounts of data.

There is a full version of the IBM video that lasts about 30 minutes (currently on the front of their Smarter Planet page). Ralph shows up in the introduction, then around 24:43 in an extended discussion of the relationship between research and business need, and again near the end (30:08).

This conference would have been a lot different (and less interesting) without the career of Ralph as a researcher, executive and foundation leader. We are lucky he began in operations research.

INFORMS Sponsorship of OR-Exchange

OR-Exchange has been a question and answer site on operations research in existence for about two years. Over that time, there have been 290 questions, generating more than 1000 answers. You have a question? Chances are there is someone there to answer!

Coinciding with the newly revamped INFORMS Conference on Business Analytics and Operations Research is the INFORMS sponsorship of OR-Exchange. Conversion to new software and the INFORMS computing system has gone smoothly over the past few days (thanks David!), and we are excited about the new opportunities that come with INFORMS support.

In keeping with the renaming of the conference, we’ve also changed the tagline for OR-Exchange. We are now “Your place for questions and answers in operations research and analytics”.

Getting ready for INFORMS Business Analytics and OR conference

I’m getting ready for next week’s INFORMS Conference on Business Analytics and Operations Research. Looks like the renaming (from the INFORMS Practice Conference) has had an effect: the conference has gotten record registration (more than 600).

Getting ready for a conference is not just tossing some clothes in a suitcase. Keeping up my social networking responsibilities is a lot of work! I’ve changed my blog page to highlight the feed from the INFORMS Conference blog (where I will guest blog for a few days). We’ve started a discussion on the appropriate twitter-tag (I like #baor11). I’ve contacted some friends for suggestions of a brewpub to visit (Goose Island on Clybourn seems to be a good choice). Above all that, I have to read (thoroughly!) the papers associated with the Edelman competition, where I am a judge.

I have done my first post for the INFORMS Blog. Here is what I wrote:

I fly out to the Analytics conference in a few days. By some weird happenstance, I have never flown with Southwest before, but I am doing so on Saturday. In view of the issues Southwest is having, I need to do a bit of risk analysis. I really wish I could attend the risk analysis track before I get on the plane, instead of after I arrive.

Fortunately, Arnie Barnett (operations research go-to guy for aviation risk analysis) has provided insight into the risks. I think I’ll be OK with Southwest.