Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The King and the Vampire

Read this Wikipedia entry if possible to enjoy the format of this 'fun' post a bit more.

(pic source link: Wikipedia)

Every Indian child has grown up listening to the stories of King Vikram and the Vetaal (some kind of vampire spirit who  often clambers up a drumstick tree). It used to be particularly exciting to read these tales in the children's magazine Chandamama, where the first paragraph went something like this:

Dark was the night and weird the atmosphere. It rained from time to time. Eerie laughter of ghosts rose above the moaning of jackals. Flashes of lightning revealed fearful faces. But King Vikram did not swerve. He climbed the ancient tree once again and brought the corpse down. With the corpse lying astride on his shoulder, he began crossing the desolate cremation ground. "O King, it seems that you are firm about the decision you've taken. But it is better for you to know that there are situations where an O.R decision optimization project invariably results in complaints, which apparently requires another O.R project to fix! Let me cite an instance. Pay your attention to my narration. That might bring you some relief as you trudge along," said the vampire possessing the corpse. 

The OR vampire went on:
Years ago in a bankruptcy protected U.S airline in a windy city, a well-paid MBA consultant for the Onboard Services department (OS) approached our OR team to pitch a new R&D project to manage an inventory problem on a network. Apparently, OS was hit by a surge of complaints in recent times that contractually purchased hotel room inventory in several U.S cities served by the airline were left puzzlingly and 'dangerously underutilized' in the last few months, way off their usual levels. Could we help match supply and demand using our OR bag of tricks by moving things around in some optimal manner?

No, ..These complaints were not coming from Flight-Attendants (FAs), but from management folks in OS. If anything, the FAs were happier and chatty about the quality time they were spending with family and kids. FA's don't make the kind of money that pilots do but since there's roughly about 2-3 FAs for every pilot, he wondered if our team's OR-based crew scheduling system was giving away expensive 'happy hours' at company expense? .. yes, this problem started 3 months ago, How did we know? ....

It wasn't a guess. We deployed a shiny new optimization system for planning monthly crew schedules for OS just 4 months ago. Things were not looking good. Where did we screw up? We investigated the reasons for this and within a couple of days found the answer that had the entire team laughing and celebrating. We gave the consultant a brief answer that he was satisfied with. The 'network imbalance' project was shelved.

So tell me King Vikram, what do u think happened and why did my team laugh and celebrate? Answer me if you can. Should you keep mum though you may know the answers, your head would roll off your shoulders!"

Forthwith King Vikram replied: "Vetaal, this is one of your easier ones. The answer is in three parts.

1. A significant portion of the senior FA population were married women who were happy because they got to spend more weeknights at home. Their work-hours per week is upper-bounded by federal regulations and remains fairly constant if optimized well enough, which must mean that these FAs were spending a lesser proportion of time away from home than ever before while still making the same kind of money.

2. Since FAs don't get paid as much as pilots, a relatively expensive portion of their schedules is likely to be the hotel room and transportation costs associated with their overnight layovers. I suspect that the new algorithms in the scheduling system managed to uncover improved schedule patterns among those trillion trillion possibilities by identifying near-optimal daytime airport connections that yield a denser work-day in tandem with a shorter TSP sub-tour traveling pattern that brings them back home more frequently. Doing so must have also maintained or slightly improved the weekly productivity levels (otherwise management would not have bought into this model in the first place).

3. This result is a win-win for all stakeholders once the longer-term agreements with hotel chains are favorably renegotiated to sync with this newly realized reality. This is precisely what you must have told the consultant. Since all this was accomplished without additional capital investment using OR, 'The Science of Better', your team probably felt that their algorithm's practical effectiveness was validated by this 'complaint'.

No sooner had King Vikram concluded his answer than the vampire, along with the corpse, gave him the slip.

(pic source link: Chandamama.com)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Book review: Choke

This post reviews Sian Beilock's recent book:  
"Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To"  from an O.R. perspective, as well as from the p.o.v of Dharmic philosophy that has some deep connections to some of the mind-training techniques mentioned in the book.

Scholastic/Intellectual test situations
In addition to aspiring sport stars and business leaders who certainly want to avoid 'choking' at any cost, this book can be particularly useful to students who plan to take competitive scholastic tests. Beilock characterizes 'choking' as suboptimal performance, which implies the existence of a clearly superior level that becomes feasible via practical mind-training techniques. When it comes to tests like SAT and GRE, 'worry' can negatively affect the parts of the brain that are most involved ("working memory" in the prefrontal cortex) in the Q&A process and this can directly result in choking due to a suboptimal allocation of brain power. In fact when constrained by 'worry', lab experiments show that smarter students who routinely ace practice tests are likely to drop to a more seriously suboptimal level relative to 'average' students who face a similar worry. In particular, the book presents evidence that shows that the effect of negative gender stereotyping (e.g. "girls can't do math") has been devastating in the US, inducing a lot of female exam takers to 'choke' in such situations. Subsequently, many of these candidates reconsider their original choice of a STEM career. The author presents a systematic rebuttal of Larry Summers' controversial gender-related remarks in Harvard a few years ago that looks compelling.

An important technique that is proven to minimize the chances of choking during intense time-constrained testing situations is the ancient Indian method of Yoga and meditation that is freely available to anybody (Vipasana in particular, is recommended by the author. Even three months of adopting such methods are known to have beneficial effects). Now if one were to, over an extended period of time, move along this positive Yogic meditation gradient to maximize its benefits, one can practically experience higher states of consciousness and self-realization. This is a central truth-claim of the Dharmic thought system (DTS) of India. The 2011 book 'Being Different' by Rajiv Malhotra is a scholarly and well-researched book that expounds on DTS and is particularly useful for western minds that seek to understand what Yoga and Sanskrit (the language of Yoga) truly mean.

Finely honed motor-skills and fluid movements are critical to achieving optimal performance. Here, one can think of the task of winning a contest as constantly solving two nested decision optimization problems. The meta-problem is to manage tactics and overall strategy, while the inner problem is how best to 'operationalize' the chosen objectives in real-time. A conclusion in this book is that one must certainly think about the meta ("what") problem using working memory. On the other hand, it is better not to (like Yogi Berra said) intellectually analyze the "how" part where a player makes real-time play decisions and executes a sequence of precise movements since these have been optimized (objectified?) over years of careful practice and then 'outsourced' to the brain's 'procedural memory'. It's like trying to analyze your legs as you descend a staircase in a hurry.

When it comes to crunch free-throws in basketball, it appears that an important 'choke' statistic is the conditional probability that a player will make the shot given that his/her team is one point behind. Apparently, this conditional probability differs by about 7% on average from its unconditional counterpart. As far as crunch-time soccer penalty kicks, well-established European league stars are more likely to choke and have a success rate of 65%, which is much less than future stars, whose conversion rate was above 90%. In baseball, home teams that are a game away from winning a series, win that game only about 38% of the time. Clearly, heightened expectations from supporters increases the chances of choking.


A useful point to remember that will help minimize the chances of suboptimal performance in any situation is present in a Sanksrit Mantra that was uttered after what can be viewed as the world's first ever choke, when Arjuna, the hero of the Mahabharatha, on the eve of battle, is consumed by self-doubt and initially decides against fighting the good fight and plans on simply walking away, before Krishna who was selected by Arjuna to be his charioteer in this battle, reminds him of his Dharma (a Sanskrit untranslatable, roughly means 'fundamental duty') and says, among other things:  


Karmanyeva adhikaraste ma phaleshu kadachana
Ma karmaphalahetur bhurma te sangostvakarmani.

"Your attention must be directed toward the action alone, never with its fruits. Let not the fruits of action be your motive, neither should you be inclined toward inaction".

As we can see, even heroes can choke, but the truly great ones have a reliable 'corner man' like support system that helps them find a way to turn it around.


[update: fixed format]

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Working Multicultural Model: Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

Happy new-ish year. After five iterations, hopefully Analytics and OR folks are moving along a steep and positive gradient toward achieving their 2012 resolutions! If not, apply corrections to get back on track (taking into account the leap year factor).

A 2012 goal for this tab is to explore the human element in OR/Analytics practice. The OR and (applied) applied math workplace is an increasingly multicultural one. There is an increasing exchange of skilled people between countries due to globalization. Even today, many new immigrants and foreign workers continue to be flummoxed by the myriad of seemingly strange local customs, unwritten laws, etc. that confront them upon arriving at the host workplace. These differences result in a special kind of anxiety for the entrant, and to a certain extent, to his/her host, as the two parties seek a working equilibrium to get the job done on time.The challenge for people in such a workplace is to be conscious of and recognize the prevailing cultural differences (including those that we personally judge as 'unpleasant') in an impartial manner, while also embracing the mutually beneficial and useful commonality across cultures. Blindly resolving these differences in favor of either the host's belief system or the entrant's only increases this 'anxiety' and leads to increased stress in the workplace, which can then result in a drop in productivity and morale. Clearly, there has to be a better way to make this work for everybody (and not just a vocal majority).

What are some of the necessary and sufficient conditions that must be satisfied by a healthy, working multicultural model (MCM)? A key-phrase in the corporate and university workplace-playbook is 'zero-tolerance' for discrimination based on a variety of factors such as gender, race, etc. However, this only represents a bare minimum requirement. In the pan-math community, we find pure-math types who can barely tolerate applied math types, or the other way around. In the ORMS world, we will find a few academicians who tolerate what practitioners do, and vice-versa. In the tech work-place, we can spot some science PhDs tolerating engineers who in turn tolerate off-shore developers, and managers who are trying hard to tolerate these PhD scientists, and so on. Putting these people to work together on an high-profile project can be disastrous. 'Tolerance' is merely a necessary condition for a working MCM, but is nowhere close to being sufficient.

The ideas in this post are motivated by the writings of Rajiv Malhotra, a successful (now retired) Indian-American tech entrepreneur based in New Jersey, USA. A fundamental point raised by Rajiv (in the context of inter-faith dialog) is that mere tolerance is insufficient. A key component of the ‘sufficiency conditions’ is mutual respect. Let’s see how this works.

Mutual respect in the workplace already implies the necessary condition of zero-tolerance for discrimination. It then says something stronger: equality does not mean “being the same” or being “western” in thought, dress sense, and food habits. It is not a vector comparison. Two people can be equal and yet very different, like woman and man. If people behaved and responded in a homogenous fashion, there would be little need for revenue management or indeed, analytics. Anyone who believes that it is sufficient to tolerate a colleague who is 'different' should try saying it to that person and stick around for the reaction.

Mutual respect says: I don’t patronize you by tolerating you, I genuinely respect your right to your cultural and religious beliefs, some of which I clearly recognize as being very different from mine, and at the same time, I expect the same level of respect from you for my beliefs; you may well feel your way is “better for you”, and that’s cool with me as long as you don’t bug me to join your 'better' cause since I’m quite happy where I am. In OR lingo, a workplace characterized by mutual respect functions like a ‘KKT point’; expecting something more than mutual respect also creates conflict. Stress due to the invisible and unspoken 'peer pressure to conform' is sometimes an effect of working in an atmosphere (be it a high school classroom or office space) where mere tolerance prevails at the expense of mutual respect.

All this may seem obvious, but 'implementing mutual respect' is not always easy. In the original instance, Rajiv Malhotra tried to replace the much-venerated but ultimately trite phrase “religious tolerance” with "mutual respect for others religious beliefs" within the text of grand inter-faith declarations. The results were quite interesting. To merely tolerate our co-worker's religious beliefs, gender, race, and sexual orientation is to feed a hypocritical feeling of superiority that is likely to manifest itself in our professional relationship with that person at some point in time. A tolerance-based approach works well for finding practical solutions to numerical math problems, but for human relationships, mutual respect is vital. Nothing more, nothing less.

This first post of 2012 is humbly dedicated to Sri Rajiv Malhotra. Thanks, Rajiv ji.