Friday, November 25, 2005

 

Snowfell


For the first time post-summer this year, snow fell here in North Alsace last night. Enough fell (and it was cold enough) for my street to look like this this morning.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

 

Catwatching

Among the questions and topics Desmond Morris treats in his classic book, "Catwatching", I don't recall finding these:

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What Comes After Gamma?

Awesome: the twenty-fourth named storm of the season, crushing the twenty-one storm record that had held since 1933! What would they call the twenty-fifth? Delta.

There are six lists of twenty-one names for Atlantic storms, used in rotation, with occasional replacement of names. The unused letters are: Q, U, X, Y, and Z. If future seasons are like 2005, we'll be getting Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta every year; it would make sense to add some names, or use a different naming scheme. For other oceans, this is already done.

The "Eastern North Pacific" list includes "X" (Xina and Xavier), "Y" (Yolanda and York) and "Z" (Zelda and Zeke), but does not have full sets of six names for these letters.

The system for the Western North Pacific is interesting, and seems to me the most robust. The names were contributed by the various "concerned" countries and, although presented as five lists of twenty-eight names, is a single cycle of one hundred forty names. If the last storm of the season bears the twenty-fourth name in the first column ("Cimaron"), the first storm of the next season will be given the twenty-fifth name ("Chebi").




There is more talk of the Gulf Stream shutting down; what would the consequences of that be for tropical storm generation? In "The Big Thaw", the Independent notes that "when it failed before, 12,700 years ago, Britain was covered in permafrost for 1300 years." I think I read that in Erik Orsenna's "Portrait du Gulf Stream--Eloge des Courants", too, but I can't find the passage. Apparently the mega-glaciers in Greenland are racing to the sea (over 100 feet per year, instead of the normal 1 foot) and the arctic thaw is adding a lot of disruptive fresh (non-salt) water.

There may be no cause for concern, however. This prior Gulf Stream "shut down" in the distant past, it seems, may appear to have occurred prior to Creation, in which case it must be a figment of oceanographers' imagination.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

 

Feeling More and More Hetero

A while ago, a stack of books in a Strasbourg bookstore caught my eye: a collection of essays dissenting from mainstream economics. I read it with interest, although I found the quality of the arguments very uneven. I dislike the banner "Post-Autistic Economics" which the movement bears, after its origins as "Autisme-Economie"; I much prefer "Heterodox Economics".

As an operations researcher, in a field which has specialized in techniques originating in mathematical economics, I am well aware of the many limitations and inadequacies of "optimization technologies". These include tractability of formal models, but many, many others: one solves a model (if one can) but a model is an incomplete and selective representation of a reality; there may be multiple criteria of success which are incommensurate (or worse, as Arrow proved, no consensus on preference ranking trade-offs); they may be subject to incomplete and noisy data.

Different stakeholders may, and usually do, have different perceptions of what the situation is, what the options are, what the future should be. This is not new, nor solved, in economics. What is the "right" view/decision/outcome is relative (wasn't it W.V. Quine who pointed out that "anything can be held true if we are willing to make sufficient adjustments elsewhere in the system"?). Pareto wrote about "ophelimity", a word he coined to extend the notion of "utility" to other desires than the purely useful, to which Fisher (Is "Utility" the Most Suitable Term for the Concept It is Used to Denote?, 1918) preferred "wantability". Price indexing and measures for cross-country comparisons of quality of life remain problematic, to say the least.

Operations research was divided by these issues, in the 1970s if not earlier. Cooke demonstrated that some problems might never be tractable ("NP hard"), and Karp and others soon added many problems of equivalent hardness to the list. "Optimization" is now reserved for cases where money (cost, profit) is the only criterion of performance. Constraint satisfaction, data enveloppement, and multi-objective (Pareto) methods facility discovery of the options in cases which cannot be reduced to a single quantitative criterion. Alternative approaches for considering organizational performance include Balanced ScoreCard, Team Syntegrity, Reengineering, Soft Systems Methodology, although not all of these would be considered descendants of O.R. by practitioners. The schools that grant degrees in O.R. now specialise in combinatoric optimization, with probabilistic extensions for the more sophisticated of them (Financial Engineering at Princeton, e.g.). Much as a mathocratic approach dominates in economics, operations research has specialized in computing of models, and abandoned the epistemological challenges I (and others?) believe essential to its effectiveness.

Now, there has been an uprising in economics, particularly of economics grad students, who insist that economics reduced to standard mathematical models discards a lot of knowledge that economists should have. I wish the same were true in O.R., but the field is so much smaller, newer, and ill-defined, that I fear it has already passed the tipping point. Inasmuch as O.R. as it was taught to me was mainly economic and in the service of production, anyway, I hereby proclaim myself an economist, and a heterodox one at that!

Could all this (above) be recast in a medical analogy? Diagnosis, prognosis, treatment are all part of medical praxis; heck, I read somewhere that in some cultures one pays the doctor while one is healthy, not ill--a healthcare system rather than the sickness care system predominent today. Be that as it may, if there were only, say, surgeons or pharmacists, we might have the "best of" treatment for many ailments. But we would surely be missing the benefit of the diagnoses and prognoses of general practitioners and specialists. I fear that this is what has in fact happened in economics (and its offshoot, O.R.)-- the pharmacists have taken over. The obsession is with the choice of treatment and consideration of possible side effects; the pursuit may be reactive (take your medecine) or "proactive" (take your vitamins), but rarely or never projective and wholistic [should provide phrases for these last two, too, but they are not coming to mind].

Feeling more and more hetero(dox economist), until I'm ready to found hetero(dox) scheming research, would I fit neatly into one of the specialties? Do I even understand what they comprise? According to the heterodox economics portal...

The heterodoxy includes (but is not limited to)
  • Austrian economics,
  • Behavioural economics,
  • Black political economy,
  • Ecological economics,
  • Evolutionary economics,
  • Feminist economics,
  • Georgist economics,
  • Historical economics,
  • Institutionalism,
  • Marxism,
  • Post Keynesian economics,
  • Postmodern economics,
  • Postcolonial economics,
  • Rhetorical economics,
  • Social economics and
  • Sraffian economics.

Researching my affinities with each of these should keep me busy for a while!

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

 

ROADEF Celebrates EURO30

Tomorrow, in Paris, the French operational research society will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of EURO, the Association of European OR Societies. This year was also the thirtieth anniversary of my degree in "Administrative Science, Mathematics, and Statistics" at Yale. So, I'd like to pull together some thoughts on the subject that I've accumulated over the years on what OR is, was, and might be.

My initiation to this field came at Yale, so let's start with what Yale has to say:

The discipline of operations research is concerned with the organization and management of productive activities. Operations research includes mathematical analysis of techniques of optimization, efficient organization of production, calculation of operating characteristics of complex systems, and application of these and other techniques to operating problems throughout business and government. The subject, also known as management sciences, is closely related to computer science, economics, statistics, engineering, and pure and applied mathematics.

Operations research developed out of an awareness that effective decision making in organizations requires more than intuition. To practice operations research, one must identify the objectives of the operation under study, describe alternative actions, define measures of effectiveness for them, create a model of the system under study, and select the action that best meets the stated objectives.

Operations research has four major subfields. Mathematical programming concerns the optimal operation of systems with many variables that are linked by simple relationships. Stochastic processes describes the evolution over time of systems whose "laws of motion" are affected by chance. Game theory describes models of cooperation and competition between members of an organization or participants in a market. Production and inventory control is a family of models that applies to manufacturing and service systems. Operations research can prepare the mathematically inclined student for a career in the management of technology or in administration, for graduate study in the mathematical sciences, or for graduate study in management. Yale College offers no major in this subject.


A bit long and ponderous for a subject hardly taught any more. I'm not sure I totally agree with the productive activities, either: bombing u-boats (one of the first, defining O.R. projects) was productive in what sense?

No major in this subject. Sniff. How sad. An article in the Yale Daily News chronicles what happened. Once the SOM (School of Organization and Management) got going and decided to start selling MBA instead of MPPM degrees(am I right about the timing of events?) and drop "Organization and" from their name, they kicked OR out to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in 1989. By 1992 they stopped accepting PhD applications, and attached OR to Applied Mathematics until all the majors graduated. The Only OR prof for the past thirteen years has been Eric Denardo (my faculty advisor in 1975, incidentally.)

I can easily list some top OR people who have taught at Yale. About a quarter of the recipients of the Lanchester award for O.R. publication have taught at Yale (although not necessarily when producing their award-winning writing). Why, even on Yale's MBA research page today, they show "This model formulated by Professor Edward Kaplan, winner of the two top honors in the operations research field, helps policy makers better allocate resources in the fight against the spread of HIV infections." Ward Whitt, Harvey Wagner, George Fishman, Martin Shubik, Edward Kaplan. Even one of the inventors of linear programming, T.J. Koopmans, was Alfred Cowles Professor of Economics at Yale from 1955 to 1980 (his linear programming began in the 40's, as did those of Kantorovich and Dantzig).

Oh well. What does Cal (Berkeley), where I earned an M.S. in Operations Research, have to say about OR today?
Operations research emphasizes the basic understanding of the functioning of complex systems of technology and management through mathematical models for the purpose of predicting system behavior or optimizing system performance under economic and technological constraints.

That is shorter and to the point, although "emphasizes" is not quite the same as "is". It hasn't changed much in thirty years: same emphasis on mathematical models, although in my day we didn't touch a computer. One of the definers of operations research, West Churchman, taught across the street in the business school, but he had no contact with our department. OR at Cal was (and is) about mathematics, not about figuring out how to do better (or best).

Next stop, the professional society (12,000 members), INFORMS, which says succinctly : "Operations Research (OR) and the Management Sciences (MS) are the professional disciplines that deal with the application of information technology for informed decision-making." (emphasis mine). Their slogan: "The science of better." Maybe. How exclusive a claim to this territory can they defend? Isn't accounting information technology for informed decision-making? Nutritional content labelling of foods?

From my point of view, to capture both the generality and the specificity, and to acknowledge the heritage from economics, it should have been called "performance research": the investigation of how to control the performance of systems, and particularly how to improve human judgement and choice of action.



In "Game Theory and Operations Research: Some Musings 50 Years Later", Martin Shubik included some helpful annecdotes. One was
...George Feeney’s experience at Stanford Research involved explaining what operations research was to one of their vice-presidents who reacted immediately. “I see”, he said, “operations research involves utilizing big minds to work on small problems.”


Jay Forrester made a similar assessment in his talk on the "Beginnings of System Dynamics" :
As I looked at the field of operations research [in 1956!], it seemed interesting; it no doubt was useful; but it was not working with issues that made the difference between corporate success and failure. Operations research did not have that practical importance that I had always worked toward.


Ackoff acknowedged that corporate O.R. was vanishing in his classic "The Future of Operational Research is Past", (1979).

More Shubik : "The great power of the military operations research at that time (as is shown in Morse and Kimball, 1970, Kirby, 2000, Blackett 1962 and others) was that the operations researchers were closely concerned with formulating the problems and evaluating how important they were. Similar observations combined with questions concerning the obtaining of data within an organization have been raised in the discussion of the CONDOR report (Committee on the Next Decade in Operations Research)."

Indeed: if they can keep you from asking the right question, they don't have to worry about the answers. Figuring out what the right performance measures are.

Perhaps this is because, as Shubik notes, during institutionalisation in America O.R. was appropriated by some excellent mathematicians:
At Princeton there was some direct talk about operations research per se and only a few of us were aware of the newly formed Operations Research Society. But in a few years around Fine Hall (and elsewhere) much of the mathematics relevant to its development was being developed. Among the visitors, students and faculty with whom I interacted were Bellman, Feller, Gomory, Karlin, Kemeny, Kuhn, McCarthy, Mills, Minsky, Nash, Scarf, Shapley, Morgenstern, Tucker and Tukey and von Neumann who was at the institute. Dynamic programming, linear programming, convex programming, integer programming, inventory theory, game theory, artificial intelligence and applied probability were all being developed.


He continues a bit farther on:

As my main purpose is to cover the evolution of the relationship between game theory and operations research rather than to review all of operations research I limit my broader comments on operations research with a few Panglossian remarks. It is my belief that operations research has been so successful that it may have put itself out of business, at least in it’s easy to recognize sense. It has succeeded to the extent that it is taught in a more or less routine and watered down manner in every business school. Linear programming, queuing studies and elementary competitive models go with the turf.

Consulting firms flourish. A variety of military operations research firms make a good living off weapons analysis; specialist firms such as Fair Isaac have found a niche in credit evaluation; McKinsey dispenses generalized operations research and management science under a variety of names. RAND, Stanford Research Institute, Los Alamos and many others may not be in their heyday as they were when operations research was young and 100% improvement in performance almost anywhere was to be expected; but they still produce. Small groups of academic consultants provide consulting services in the design of auctions or in the structuring of games to study market structure.


I believe to this day that eventually a good planning department of any major corporation should utilize a simulation of the corporation and its market as a device to organize perceptions and data, to help formulate questions and to facilitate communication among practitioners.

To be continued...I didn't make it to the celebration, BTW, my train was late and missed the connection. Furthermore, the SNCF only refunded the unused portion of my ticket, in effect charging me for riding in their train which did not take me where I wanted to go but wasted my time.

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Saturday, November 12, 2005

 

States of Mind

Wandering around the web recently, I came across an interview and profile of Charles Tart. It seems Tart, a psychologist, began researching altered states of consciousness, hypnosis in particular, and was led to consider
How can anybody distinguish, then, between dream, hypnotic trance, and reality? Dehypnotization, the procedure of breaking out of the normal human state of awareness, according to both mystics and hypnotists, is a matter of direct mental experience. The method can be learned, and that's the nutshell description of the esoteric wisdom of the ages.

The result is the concept of "consensus consciousness" or "consensus trance". His work includes research into how to "wake up" from this "normal" state.

A scene toward the end of "Phantom of the Paradise" comes to mind: Biff, the beefcake star has been attacked by the Phantom in his dressing room. The manager, trying to calm him down, suggests that Biff had had a hallucination, to which Biff replies, "I know drug real from real real, I take the stuff, you just dish it out!"

A very common altered state, one I enter at least daily (nightly) is "sleep". I've read a few books on the subject, beginning with "Sleep Positions", and articles in Scientific American. I've been fascinated (and envious) of people, like Joel, who seem to need only four hours sleep, or short naps around the clock amounting to less than the standard "eight hours". What I have thus far found disappointing in what research on sleep I've read is that it is all "analytical" in the retrograde sense. Some measures brain waves, pulse, blood pressure, hormone levels--observing the parts moving in the machine. Other measures the impact of sleep deprivation, trying to deduce the role of sleep from the consequences of removing it.

I would have liked (and still would like) to find measures of restedness, rather than of fatigue. There are so many signs of not-enough-sleep: red eyes, bags under eyes, maybe even bad hair days. Most of us have had days "I wish I'd stayed in bed", and not just to avoid the day's events. There may be mornings one turns off the alarm, rolls over, and goes back to sleep (and later can't even recall hearing the alarm--it must not have gone off!). Waking in the middle of the night, thoughts abuzz, unable to go back to sleep (insomnia) feels more symptomatic of stress, worry, guilt, or digesting cabbage, than "time to get up, I'm not tired anymore." About the only sign resembling "enough sleep" is waking up before one's alarm clock rings, and even that may well be self-conditioned response to avoid the pain of being awakened by the alarm.

I was pleased to read in an IHT article (yesterday? from the New York Times) entitled " Why sleep? Science asks the iguana that research on sleep continues, with a possibly more interesting question than some addressed in the past. The researchers, at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, are studying sleep across the animal kingdom, to better understand what sleep is for by developing a sort of "unified sleep theory" that would explain the observed behavior from an evolutionary and survival perspective.

The researchers quoted include:

Particularly intriguing to me is the half-brain sleeping. "...some species of whales and seals sometimes swim with one eye closed while the corresponding hemisphere of the brain produces slow waves. Scientists are still debating whether they are asleep in this state." They had some fun watching ducks sleep, too:
"The ducks on the interior slept more with both eyes closed, and the ducks on the edge slept with one eye open. And they used the eye that was facing away from the other birds."


To give each side of the brain enough rest, the ducks at the ends of the row would stand up from time to time, turn around and sit down again. This allowed them to switch eyes and let the waking half of the brain go to sleep.



I think I'll go back and re-read (and finish, this time, as I might not have done twenty-five years ago) "The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind," by Julian Jaynes. The thesis, as I recall, is that consciousness, and self-awareness in particular, arises from the "conversation" between the two hemispheres. A "mistrust" between them might help explain why we can't sleep one side at a time, mightn't it, if neither side wanted to relinquish its control unilaterally. Readers' reviews at Amazon (no, I did not read all 113 of them) remind me that earlier proto-humans "heard voices" (gods?), and one points to julianjaynes.org.

I've also tried to learn about hypnosis and meditation, but have not had much success. For some reason, although many consider me gullible, I don't seem to be easy to hypnotize. When I've tried meditating, I think I've fallen asleep, at least that is what it feels like. Is that all it is?

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Friday, November 11, 2005

 

Free Software from Sony

Lucky Windows(tm) users receive free software on Sony audio CDs! But sorry, it does not run on Mac or *nix. As if Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, Quicktime were not enough, Sony provides a player which limits the number of copies one can make. It also hides itself using "rootkit" technology, does not have an uninstall procedure, and may cause problems such as CD/DVD drives "disappearing", locking up, blue screen of death, and "false" positive alerts from

Mark Russinovich's Sysinternals Blog has the most complete reporting on what the software does, what Sony and their supplier, First 4 Internet, say about the software, and the problems it poses. He also notes that legal action has been initiated in California and Italy.

F-Secure includes the XCD DRM software in "Rootkit Information", concluding

...
Although the software isn't itself malicious, the hiding techniques used are exactly the same that malicious software known as rootkits use to hide themselves. The DRM software will cause many similar false alarms with all AV software that detect rootkits.
...


Symantec classifies First4DRM a "medium" risk, and provides a removal tool. They note

Manual Removal
WARNING: Removing this security risk manually may damage the compromised computer's operating system and may violate the manufacturer's end-user license agreement.

McAfee says
With the latest DATs, McAfee detects, removes, and prevents reinstallation of XCP. Please note that removal will not impair the copyright protection mechanisms installed from the CD. There have been reports of system crashes possibly resulting from uninstalling XCP (http://www.sysinternals.com/blog/2005/11/sonys-rootkit-first-4-internet.html ). System crashes may also occur during repair using McAfee products due to issues in the First4Internet code itself.


Computer Associates classifies this DRM as a Trojan, with behavior they characterize as not very legal:
XCP.Sony.Rootkit.Patch updates XCP.Sony.Rootkit to XCP.Sony.SP2. This change removes rootkit functionality and addresses the vulnerability associated with the XCP.Sony.Rootkit rootkit. It also reduces hard drive scans on the part of the falsely named "Plug and Play Device Manager" service. Despite these benefits, XCP.Sony.Rootkit.Patch displayes no notice of what it will do, offers no opt-out once invoked, and removes the rootkit in a manner which can cause system crashes. The aries.sys driver file installed by XCP.Sony.Rootkit is called when one of several hooked functions are called by any program. If a program has just initiated such a call when it is removed by this patch, what used to be a pointer to aries.sys is now a pointer to unallocated memory, which can cause a blue screen of death.


"reduces hard drive scans on the part of the falsely named "Plug and Play Device Manager" service? Does the EULA notify the computer owner that her disk will be searched, presumably for digital media files that were not yet "managed"? And the patch only "reduces" them? Never mind that it displays no notice of what it will do, or the dangers involved.

  • Installs without user permission.
  • Updates programs on the system without user permission or notice at time of update.
  • Interferes with the regular operation of the operating system without user permission.
  • Cannot be uninstalled by Windows Add/Remove Programs and no uninstaller is provided with application.

  • A few drawbacks, but hey, it is free!

Maybe only on CDs sold in the USA.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

 

Rioting Cypriot Ostrich

Not content to be locked up, with little opportunity to become other than meat, an austrich escaped and attacked a car today. Unable to put together a Molotov cocktail or other fire bomb, it jumped up and down on the hood and fenders of a Mercedes, severely damaging the car. After three hours, the police managed to capture the bird.

Source : Reuters via Liberation

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