Category Archives: INFORMS Public Information Committee

The First Sentence of the Great Analytics Novel

Thedarktower7 I’ve written many times before about the importance of promoting O.R. to the general public. One of the ideas that’s been suggested by several people is the possibility of writing a work of fiction whose main character (our hero) is an O.R./Analytics person. I still believe this is a great idea, if executed properly.

Today, my wife brought to my attention The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which, according to their web page, consists of the following:

Since 1982 the English Department at San Jose State University has sponsored the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, a whimsical literary competition that challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels. The contest (hereafter referred to as the BLFC) was the brainchild (or Rosemary’s baby) of Professor Scott Rice, whose graduate school excavations unearthed the source of the line “It was a dark and stormy night.” Sentenced to write a seminar paper on a minor Victorian novelist, he chose the man with the funny hyphenated name, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who was best known for perpetrating The Last Days of PompeiiEugene AramRienziThe CaxtonsThe Coming Race, and – not least – Paul Clifford, whose famous opener has been plagiarized repeatedly by the cartoon beagle Snoopy. No less impressively, Lytton coined phrases that have become common parlance in our language: “the pen is mightier than the sword,” “the great unwashed,” and “the almighty dollar” (the latter from The Coming Race, now available from Broadview Press).

Just like an awful first sentence can be a good indicator of a terrible book, the converse can also be true. Take, for example, the first sentence of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, which I happen to be reading (and loving) as we speak:

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

It’s such a strong, mysterious, and captivating sentence…

…which brings me to the point of this post. If it’s going to be difficult to write The Great Analytics Novel, what if we start by thinking about what would be the perfect, most compelling sentence to start such a novel? Yes, I propose a contest. Let’s use our artistic abilities and suggest starting sentences. Feel free to add them as comments to this post. Who knows? Maybe someone will get inspired and start writing the novel.

Here’s mine:

Upon using the word “mathematical” he knew he had lost the battle for, despite the dramatic cost savings, their logical reasoning was instantly halted, like a snowshoe hare frozen in fear of its chief predator: the Canada lynx.

I can’t wait to read your submissions!


Filed under Analytics, Books, Challenge, INFORMS Public Information Committee, Motivation, Promoting OR

A Conversation with Mr. X

This year I’ll be blogging during the INFORMS conference in Charlotte. My first post is already up, and it’s entitled A Conversation with Mr. X. Make sure to check it out!

I’m also looking forward to eating some delicious southern food (I hope they’ll have enough vegetarian options like they did in Austin). I’ll make sure to add barbecue sauce to my potato salad again; an act that drives my wife completely nuts :-)

See you in Charlotte!

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Filed under Conferences and Events, INFORMS, INFORMS Public Information Committee, Promoting OR

An O.R. Vocabulary Test for Non-Experts

I was talking to my wife the other day recalling how much fun she has while overhearing words from some of my research-related phone calls. We started to think about what comes to people’s minds when they hear an OR-related term whose definition is not obvious to them. I’m not talking about obscure and technical mathematical terms such as a “contrapolymatroid“, but terms at which a non-expert would actually be able to take an educated guess, such as “large-neighborhood search“. So I made a list of ten such terms and asked three friends (named A, B, and C) to define them to the best of their ability. The only rule was that they had to do it on the spot, off the top of their heads; no Googling allowed. Because none of them have training in OR, some of the answers turned out to be pretty interesting.

1. A global constraint.

A) All the stuff in the world that’s holding us back.

B) All the factors that prevent the open market from being truly open: laws, politics, foreign/domestic policy, national borders, etc.

C) Gravity.

2. Complementary slackness.

A) A dude who hangs out in a bar with no job, but complements the decor and vibe perfectly.

B) An equal and opposite reaction to whatever sectors are experiencing growth in the marketplace.

C) Time off from performing a task or responsibility granted by a superior or by oneself.

3. An odd cycle.

A) When you get your period unexpectedly; or that cycle on the washing machine that no one ever uses.

B) An economic cycle (quarter, fiscal year, etc.) which displays characteristics unlike the ones that preceded or succeeded it. In other words, in a sustained period of economic growth, it’s the one segment that shows recession.

C) A phenomenon with awkward tendencies and characteristics that is repeated every so often.

4. A spanning tree.

A) A tree that creeps from your neighbor’s yard to yours. Usually makes a huge mess in yours.

B) Has something to do with Ethernet networks.

C) A rather large plant with either a long branch span or time span on planet Earth.

5. A cutting plane.

A) A wood working tool that both cuts and planes.

B) No freaking clue.

C) A slice that intersects a 3D object in order to provide another viewpoint.

6. A shadow price.

A) The hidden cost of owning things. Like the extra cost of owning and maintaining a house or a luxury car.

B) The true representative value of goods and services, compared to the value dictated by the supply/demand of the marketplace.

C) A value for an item or service which can be obtained but that requires the buyer to perform an extensive search.

7. A comb inequality.

A) When you have a better comb than I do.

B) huh?

C) Inadequacies that persist despite efforts to eliminate them.

8. Duality gap.

A) The gap between personalities in someone with multiple personality disorder.

B) Again no idea.

C) A two-faced abyss. In other words, an alternative that may seem unfortunate but that possesses some advantages.

9. A feasible region.

A) The region where it is possible for you to live given your income, wants, and available houses.

B) Sounds like agriculture. Sorry, I got nothing.

C) An area or scope which could be a viable alternative for several purposes.

10. The first-fail principle.

A) When you get to repeat a class the first time you fail it, if approved by your high-school principal.

B) The idea that early adopters in a new sector of the market who fail will provide secondary adopters guidance through their failure. Not literal guidance, of course, but the secondary adopters will come into the marketplace and make decisions based upon others’ prior failures.

C) If you fail miserably the first time, don’t try again.

The first lesson I learned from this very non-scientific experiment is: if you’re at a party and somebody asks you what you do, you’re probably better off using an example. For instance: “Do you ever wonder how hurricane paths are estimated? That’s what I do.” You’d of course replace “hurricane paths” with your favorite problem. If the example comes before “scary” words, I believe the end result will be much better. If things go well, the ideal reaction by other person will be: “That’s so cool! What kind of training do you need to do that?” From that point on, you proceed to convince them that math is cool.

Secondly, the amusing nature of the answers above notwithstanding, this experiment got me thinking about how to make OR more visible and accessible to the general audience. That’s one of the goals of the INFORMS Public Information Committee (PIC), of which I’ve recently become a member. We already have some ideas and initiatives lined up, but I’m open to your comments and suggestions. Feel free to send me your thoughts by e-mail or via the comments section below. By the way, if you feel like doing this experiment with your own friends, feel free to send me their answers and I’ll add them to the bunch.


Filed under INFORMS Public Information Committee, People, Promoting OR