Monthly Archives: November 2008

OR is out of this world!

Army Lt. Col. Shane Kimbrough (MS in OR from Georgia Tech) is an astronaut in the International Space Station.

Kimbrough … completed a space walk of six hours and 45 minutes Thursday afternoon. [His] tasks included the relocation of two crew and equipment translation aid carts, the lubrication of the Canadarm2 end effector, along with cleaning and lubrication of the starboard solar alpha rotary joint.

I always wanted to be an astronaut, so I am totally envious. Maybe OR can go for a moonwalk next.


My first podcast

I am starting a podcast (appropriately called the Punk Rock Operations Research Podcast). I will periodically create a podcast and post it on my blog.

My first podcast is an interview with my colleague Paul Brooks (also in Statistical Sciences & Operations Research here at VCU). His research is in the area of data mining, discrete optimization, and systems biology. His poster entitled “MetModel GUI: Software for Building Optimization-Based Models of Cellular Metabolism” (with William P. Burns, Stephen S. Fong, Seth B. Roberts) won the Monday Interactive Session at the 2008 INFORMS Annual Meeting. He sat down with me to talk about this research project.

Listen to the podcast [12:29]:

Download the Podcast [6MB]

sports nerd of the year

You can win the title of “Sports Nerd of the Year” if you successfully apply OR to sports. I enjoyed, this article on CBS Sports about their Sports Nerd honor. It is oddly reminiscent of an award I won back in high school.  My award was called the “Scholar Athlete Award” — a euphemism for sports nerd.  But I digress.

Ben Heller writes about Nate Silver, who is this year’s Sports Nerd:

Every sports fan loves a good rivalry… My favorite rivalry in recent years isn’t one that has taken place on the field — rather, it has gone down anywhere but. It’s the classic showdown of nerd vs. jock. Doesn’t matter if it’s superstar athletes getting angry with mudslinging bloggers, or Hall of Fame announcers making fun of Fantasy geeks, I simply can’t get enough of the enjoyable dichotomy between these two divergent sports types…

One of my favorite new school stat geeks is Nate Silver, a writer for Baseball Prospectus and creator of a statistical projection tool called PECOTA. An acronym for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm, PECOTA gives frighteningly accurate predictions for how baseball teams, and individual players, will fare during the upcoming season.

There are many OR sports nerds that produce interesting research.  Maybe one of our own will be next year’s Sports Nerd.   I’m not sure I buy into the “classic showdown of nerd vs. jock.”  There must be a few nerdy jocks out there.  Mike Trick once wrote about a MLB player (Russ Ohlendorf of the Yankees) with an OR degree.

PBS Video: Driven to Despair

Jim Moore from USC is featured in this NOW episode on PBS that you can watch online.

With gas prices spiking and home values crumbling, the American dream of commuting to work from the fringes of suburbia has become an American nightmare. Many are facing a hard choice: Paying for gas or paying the mortgage. How did it come to this? It’s not just about America’s financial crisis; it’s also about big problems with our national infrastructure. Overstressed highways and too few public transportation options are wreaking havoc on people’s lives and hitting the brakes on our already-stretched economy.

This week, NOW on PBS takes a close-up look at our inadequate transportation network and visits some people paying a high price—in both dollars and quality of life—just to get to work. Do we have the means to modernize both our infrastructure and our lifestyles?

This is the first installment in “Blueprint America,” a year-long, PBS-wide series focusing on the nation’s infrastructure. “Blueprint America” is an initiative of Thirteen/WNET.

Welcome back!

Thank you for visiting my new location. Please update your bookmarks and rss feed.

You can also check out Punk Rock Operations Research on Facebook. I’m new to Facebook, but perhaps some of you can help me carve out a place on it for OR.

climate change needs operations research

“To understand climate change in all its full complexity, you need to think about it at the level of a complex system. Who would have thought that energy policy would have implications for nutritional status in Mexico. But it did. Because as we shifted to corn-based ethanol, corn prices rose, and that had implications for the availability of food for people who were nutritionally insecure in Mexico. Without thinking about the system at that complex a level, it’s impossible to understand it fully or to get the best solutions” –Howard Frumkin

This is a great sales pitch for operations research, but too bad operations research isn’t mentioned by name.

This is from a five minute podcast with Howard Frumkin, director of the National Center for Environmental Health in Atlanta, who wrote “Climate Change and the Health of the Public” (with Anthony J. McMichael and Jeremy J. Hess) in the November 2008 volume of American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The full list of podcasts can be found here.

Operations research is needed for solving a spectrum of environmental problems. Check out GreenOR, a blog by Ian Frommer, for more.

my first silent movie

I recently saw my first silent movie: The Passion of Joan of Arc. Much to my surprise, I loved it. I can’t wait to see another (I’ve got my eye on Nosferatu). I loved just about everything about the Passion of Joan of Arc and I didn’t miss the lack of dialogue. The movie translated just a few of the lines that were “spoken” during the movie. Much of the dialogue was left for the viewer to “hear” by reading lips and body language. The acting and camera work conveyed the emotion of Joan of Arc’s short life and trial, and it packed an incredible punch (Roger Ebert explains why this movie is a masterpiece much better than I can).

After seeing the film, I reflected on movies and technology. Movies are not just a product of technology but are also shaped by technology. Each time that movie technology changes, the movie experience fundamentally changes. Because special effects and dialogue are so easy to put in movies these days, there is too much CGI and talking to have an emotionally moving moviegoing experience most of the time. Most movies fail to convey what they really should be conveying, and as a result are flat and uninspiring (There are plenty of exceptions, and a quick glance at my Netflix history includes Tully, Gone Baby Gone, Lars and the Real Girl, Bella, and Juno).

The same can be said about operations research. We work in a technology-driven field, where we rely on software to do much of our work for us. Sometimes we rely on software too much and on good modeling too little. A IIE blog entry writes about blindly using software as a quick fix. When computing power wasn’t very powerful, making a tight, efficient formulation was necessary for finding optimal solutions. I hope we haven’t lost some of the art of OR.

This past week, I have been working on a research problem that is formulated as an integer program. I was curious to see what the optimal solutions look like, so I popped it into CPLEX. After letting CPLEX churn away on it for more than 72 hours, I felt a little guilty that I didn’t spend more time to make an elegant and efficient IP formulation. There may be a great theoretical research problem to work on, but alas, I know that it was just laziness. Just because computing is cheap and easy doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t pay attention to theoretical aspects. Although to be fair, I thought there was a good chance that CPLEX would very quickly find an optimal solution, which offered little incentive to consider various formulations. We don’t want to lose sight of important theoretical contributions just because it is easier to focus on computational challenges in OR. With journals like Mathematics of Operations Research that publish theoretical contributions to OR and journals like INFORMS Journal on Computing that publish truly innovative computing research, I am not worried for our field. But I will sit down and try to make my a masterpiece rather than let CPLEX churn on endlessly (Eventually, mbuilding had a power outage, so I never found the optimal solution with CPLEX. I wrote some code that takes just a couple of hours to run. It’s not the most elegant algorithm, but an improvement).