Roller derby names inspired by operations research

I’ve been reading the graphic novel Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson with my nine year old daughter. It’s great! My daughter reads while I listen and fantasize about optimization inspired roller derby names. Here is what I came up with so far.

Optimization Roller derby names I’m considering:

Convex Hell
Facility Laceration
Benders Deconstruction
Carnage Generation
Linear Aggression (or Logistic Aggression!)
Branch & Bomb
… or maybe Branch & Kill  or  Branch & Punish
Quadratic Assault Problem
Sublinear Rage of Convergence
Cutting Plane (this is probably OK as is)

I don’t roller derby, but I’d like to. What would you add?


evaluating systems according to their inputs vs. outputs

I am an avid runner and I am often asked how many miles I run in my shoes before getting a new pair. I don’t keep track of this because (a) it takes too much time and effort to keep a running total of mileage and (b) I prefer to evaluate the outputs by examining the wear on the shoe soles.

Rules of thumb suggest replacing running shoes every 500 miles or less. These rules of thumb make assumptions about the relationship between the inputs (mileage) and outputs (shoe wear). Running style effects how quickly a shoe wears out, so your mileage may vary. I am a hard-core heel striker with high arches, so I accumulate wear more quickly than the average runner. A back of the envelope calculation suggests that I run about 400-500 miles on each pair of running shoes before replacing them. Perhaps I wait too long to replace my shoes.

I prefer to assess shoe wear directly instead of approximating it with my mileage. Ultimately, runners should replace their shoes when they no longer give proper support, regardless of the mileage. Using mileage as a proxy for wear can work when evaluating inputs is easier than evaluating outputs. Some runners find that is easy to calculate their mileage if they closely follow training plans or record their mileage using an app.

Alternative rules of thumb based on outputs are often less quantitative than the rules of thumb based on inputs. For example, Runners World recommends to “go by feel” and replace shoes when it does not feel like they are supporting and cushioning enough. I also check out the wear to the soles and the tears in the fabric as signs that the shoes have had enough. Going by mileage is more clear cut and involves less interpretation, which many seem to prefer.

Replacing running shoes is not the only time I prefer evaluating outputs to inputs. I breastfed all three of my children. Women who formula fed their children would often ask me how I knew if the babies had enough milk because they had measured the formula they gave to the babies (the inputs). I could not directly measure how much milk my babies were drinking, but the outputs helped me confirm that the babies were feeding enough. The outputs in this case were diaper changes, and they were easy to measure. I started keeping an eye on the outputs during my hospital stays after the deliveries. I continued to evaluate the outputs until I returned to work and started to pump, when I could directly measure how much milk I pumped and the babies fed.

For more reading on inputs and outputs, I recommend John D. Cook’s blog post about evaluating people in hierarchical organizations by their inputs or outputs.

When do you evaluate a system according to its inputs or its outputs? How do you decide when to replace your running shoes?

I should have replaced these shoes a bit earlier

My keynote at the 4th International Workshop on Planning of Emergency Services in Delft

I gave the opening keynote at the 4th International Workshop on Planning of Emergency Services on June 19-20 in the Netherlands at TU Delft. The workshop was organized by Karen Aardal, Theresia van Essen, Pieter van den Berg, and Rob van der Mei. The workshop was a nice way for researchers and practitioners from several countries in Europe to discuss ideas in emergency service planning. Talks were about emergency medical services, defibrillators, and disaster response. The slides from my keynote are posted below. I enjoyed the other keynote given by Jo Røislien, who talked about optimizing air ambulance base locations in Norway and the politics of addressing the policy issues in Norway.

My hosts ensured I enjoyed my time in Delft. Delft is a wonderful place to visit. I took a few pictures from my trip and posted them below.

I'm at the workshop on #emergency services in #Delft at #tudelft #punkrockOR

A post shared by Laura Albert (@punkrockanalytics) on

#Delft #Netherlands

A post shared by Laura Albert (@punkrockanalytics) on

The #Netherlands knows how to make a Big Salad #salad #bigsalad #cheese #nederland

A post shared by Laura Albert (@punkrockanalytics) on

A savory #cheese dish in #Delft #nederland

A post shared by Laura Albert (@punkrockanalytics) on

Dessert #cheese in the #netherlands #yum

A post shared by Laura Albert (@punkrockanalytics) on

What healthcare can learn from aviation security

For decades, every commercial air traveler was asked two standard questions:

  1. “Has your luggage been in your possession at all times?”
  2. “Has anyone given you anything or asked you to carry on or check any items for them?”

Eventually, this stopped after billions of passengers kept saying no. I remember the airlines and/or the Transportation Security Administration stopped asking these questions because they required resources (employee time) without adding to security. I couldn’t find much documentation about this process, so if you find some, please leave a comment.

I wish my doctor’s office would adopt this strategy. I recently had to verify my insurance information and identity three times for a simple doctor’s appointment:

  1. when making my appointment,
  2. upon check-in for my appointment,
  3. with the nurse who took my vitals during my visit,

I realize that my identity needs to be verified at each appointment to insure that my healthcare provider is treating the right person. However, most of the effort seems to be redundant checks to ensure that my insurance information is correct to facilitate billing.

The National Academies released a report entitled The Healthcare Imperative: Lowering Costs and Improving Outcomes: Workshop Series Summary. The chapter entitled “Excess Administrative Costs” starts as follows.

Administrative costs in the United States consumed an estimated $156 billion in 2007, with projections to reach $315 billion by 2018 (Collins et al., 2009). With the time, costs, and personnel necessary to process billing and insurance-related (BIR) activities from contracting to payment validation on the provider side and the needs of payers to process claims and credential providers, significant redundancy and inefficiency arises from healthcare administration.


The recommendations don’t specifically mention that my service provider should not ask me if my insurance has changed three times or more for each visit, but it’s definitely consistent with the part about “significant redundancy.”

I don’t have the solution. I am just pointing out that the healthcare industry seems to be slower in fixing its inefficiencies than other industries. If you have the solution, let me know.

What are other opportunities for improvement in healthcare operations?


advanced #analytics for supporting public policy, bracketology, and beyond!

On Monday I gave a keynote talk at the tech conference WiscNet Connections (formerly known as the Future Technologies Conference) in Madison, Wisconsin.

The title of my talk was “Advanced analytics for supporting public policy, bracketology, and beyond!” I talked about advanced analytics as well as my research in aviation security, emergency response, and bracketology. My slides are below.

A digital device policy in the classroom

Every semester, it gets harder and harder for me to police student distraction in my classes. I set policies, they become hard to enforce, and then things spiral out of control. Lather, rinse, repeat. It seems to get harder each semester as we become even more connected to our digital devices.

This semester I am teaching two courses that are both lecture style. I often do in-class active learning activities that require a laptop or calculator. Students can work with one of their peers if they forget their laptop. I ask students to keep their laptops and cell phones away during class when we are not doing an activity that requires their use, but over time, the laptops come out.

Sometimes when class starts I remind students to put their laptops away until we need to use them. The laptop lids close, but half a dozen laptops reopen within 15 minutes of the announcement. I am losing the battle.

Laptops and cell phones are a distraction to everyone, not just the students who are using the laptops, and they interfere with everyone’s learning. I can handle some disrespect in the classroom but I become less tolerant when students are disrespecting their peers who want to learn.

I am experimenting with new ways to set and enforce policies. I firmly believe in focusing on student learning and treating students like adults. I think it’s better for me to set policies that trains students to deal with expectations they will encounter in other parts of their lives rather than stick with an unnuanced ban.

Below is a message I posted to my course discussion board. The statement (aside from the opening paragraph) will now be added to my course syllabus. I plan to introduce the cell phone use rubric periodically throughout the semester when things spiral out of control. Feedback is welcome.


I want to clarify the laptop policy in class. My ultimate goal is student learning, and the time we have in class is a great opportunity for us to learn. I know everyone is attached to their digital devices and it’s hard to put them down. (Confession: it’s hard for me, too). Here are some guidelines for device use in class.

Laptop and cellphone policy. Laptops and tablets should be put away and closed if we are not using them for an in-class example. Research* shows that laptop use in class leads to lower grades for those with the laptops and even lower grades for those who are sitting by the laptop users due to the distractions they provide. I ask that you respect your peers’ desire to learn and not engage in distracting behavior in class.

* Sana, F., Weston, T. and Cepeda, N.J., 2013. Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education, 62, pp.24-31.

Here is an article about the research:

This is a guide for cell phone usage in class:


I’ve made a few memes that I use in class but they no longer work and my undergrads are no longer familiar with Star Wars episodes IV-VI! But I like them 🙂



Happy 10th birthday, Punk Rock Operations Research!

It’s been 10 years since my first blog post. Since then I’ve written 667 more posts that have received 1501 comments. Ten-percent of those comments were made by Paul Rubin. I am still blogging. I really love it otherwise I wouldn’t still be here. It’s hard for me to characterize why I love blogging so much, but hopefully my passion for it comes across in my blog.

Some of my most read posts include the following:

fitting three car seats in a Honda Civic: an exercise in decision-making under uncertainty
why my cookies turned green: a post on chemistry
snowblowing is NP-complete
what is the conditional probability of being struck by lightning?
ode to lab notebooks
How can ice cream trucks be profitable when gas costs $4 per gallon?
plantains and coupon collecting
werewolves and star wars: two exam questions
on vampires and stochastic processes
so you’re thinking about graduate school in operations research
how to win at Russian Roulette
what is the (conditional) probability of exploding when filling your car up with gas?

While not one of my most popular posts, chocolate chip cookies are Poisson distributed is one of my recent favorites that many people have mentioned to me.  I also like happiness is assuming the world is linear,” what I do for diversity and inclusion in the classroom,”  and about a dozen other posts I cannot remember. I also like my posts about teaching with technology, sports, and March Madness.

Since starting Punk Rock OR, I started a podcast that I should revive, an “In the News” section, and another (Badger Bracketology).

If you are at the Analytics conference, wish my blog a happy birthday!

What is your favorite Punk Rock OR post?