You plan to grill steaks for yourself, spouse, and kid. Each steak takes 15
minutes per side. Your grill has space for two steaks at a time. How long until
the three of you can sit down to dinner together?
The obvious answer is an hour. First, you grill two of the steaks. At 15
minutes per side, that takes half an hour. Then you grill the third steak.
Another 30 minutes. In all, an hour.
Can you do better?
Sure you can.
Start as you did before, by grilling two steaks simultaneously. But this time, after 15 minutes, do something different: flip one steak (let's call it steak #1), set the other steak aside on a plate, and put steak #3 on the grill. After another 15 minutes, steak #1 is done, plate it. Flip steak #3 and grill that along with steak #2 (uncooked side down). In 15 minutes, all three steaks are done. Total turnaround time? 45 minutes. A 25% improvement over the obvious solution.
Now, there are no tricks involved. The first procedure, which takes an hour, has the following steps:
Steak1.side1 and Steak2.side1 ...cook 15 minutes... Steak1.side2 and Steak3.side1 ...cook 15 minutes... Steak2.side2 and Steak3.side2
...cook 15 minutes...
The second procedure is faster because it involves only three stages instead of four. Now, let's ask: Can you do better than 45 minutes?
You cannot and here's why: The meat needs a total of 90 minutes on the fire (3 steaks times 2 sides each times 15 minutes per side). At most, two steaks can be cooked simultaneously. So the best possible turnaround time is 45 minutes (90 minutes divided into 2).
The two-step described above -- finding a better way and showing that it is the best possible -- lies at the core of a discipline called Operations Research, or OR.
The OR expert straddles business, information technology (IT), and the mathematics sciences. The business world is rich in process environments whose efficiency may be profitably improved. The OR expert transforms the "problem" into models and algorithms that can be programmed on computers to yield usable results. (In our example, we went from the world of backyard grilling to into the abstraction of sequencing "operations".) This process, as much art as science, often needs a judicious synthesis of tools from mathematics, computer science, and statistics.
Our lives are improved by OR every day. To highlight a few examples, using OR,
Utilities generate electricity inexpensively and deliver it reliably to your home,
The postal service and express shippers optimize deliveries and pick-ups on the fly, and
Retailers decide how much of each item to stock, how to price it, and where to display it.
Admiral Mike McMullen, America's current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has often mentioned the importance of his OR background. (Here Adm. McMullen talks about how OR influences his world-view. Note for hard-core Fallows fans: He even mentions China!)
Yet, mentions of OR in the popular press are few and far between. Worse yet, popular media articles covering OR manage to avoid mentioning OR entirely! This points to a severe problem for the profession, which I will take up in a later post.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
Astronomers have spotted a strange mess of objects whirling around a distant star. Scientists who search for extraterrestrial civilizations are scrambling to get a closer look.
In the Northern hemisphere’s sky, hovering above the Milky Way, there are two constellations—Cygnus the swan, her wings outstretched in full flight, and Lyra, the harp that accompanied poetry in ancient Greece, from which we take our word “lyric.”
Between these constellations sits an unusual star, invisible to the naked eye, but visible to the Kepler Space Telescope, which stared at it for more than four years, beginning in 2009.
“We’d never seen anything like this star,” says Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoc at Yale. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”
Kepler was looking for tiny dips in the light emitted by this star. Indeed, it was looking for these dips in more than 150,000 stars, simultaneously, because these dips are often shadows cast by transiting planets. Especially when they repeat, periodically, as you’d expect if they were caused by orbiting objects.
As government agencies and tech companies develop more and more intrusive means of watching and influencing people, how can we live free lives?
I knew we’d bought walnuts at the store that week, and I wanted to add some to my oatmeal. I called to my wife and asked her where she’d put them. She was washing her face in the bathroom, running the faucet, and must not have heard me—she didn’t answer. I found the bag of nuts without her help and stirred a handful into my bowl. My phone was charging on the counter. Bored, I picked it up to check the app that wirelessly grabs data from the fitness band I’d started wearing a month earlier. I saw that I’d slept for almost eight hours the night before but had gotten a mere two hours of “deep sleep.” I saw that I’d reached exactly 30 percent of my day’s goal of 13,000 steps. And then I noticed a message in a small window reserved for miscellaneous health tips. “Walnuts,” it read. It told me to eat more walnuts.
When a congressional investigation turns into a partisan operation, the media need to treat it as such.
Hardly anyone still working in today’s media can remember an era in which “mainstream media” practices, as we now think of them, actually prevailed. By which I mean: a few dominant, sober-sided media outlets; a news cycle punctuated by evening network-news shows, morning (and sometimes afternoon) newspapers, weekend newsmaker talk shows, and weekly news magazines; and political discourse that shared enough assumptions about facts and logic that journalists felt they could do their jobs by saying, “We’ve heard from one side. Now let’s hear from the other.”
I can barely remember any of that, and I got my first magazine job (with The Washington Monthly) around the time of the Watergate break-in and subsequent Woodward-and-Bernstein scoops, when all parts of the old-style journalistic ecosystem were still functioning.
A decade since the book pushed “pickup artistry” into the mainstream, Neil Strauss has some mixed thoughts on its legacy.
When Neil Strauss’s blockbuster book about pickup artistry came out a decade ago, I was a Midwestern ingenue in New York City, and I read it mostly as a defensive measure. A nice Ph.D. student named Jon had mentioned The Game, and was demonstrating how it worked by means of “The Cube” routine, where you ask a woman to imagine a box standing in the desert, and you tell her about herself based on how she describes it. (The cube represents the woman’s ego or something—so if it’s big, it means she’s self-confident; if it’s transparent as opposed to opaque that means she’s open as opposed to guarded; if it’s pink that means she’s bright and energetic … basic non-falsifiable horoscope-type material she can read herself into and then find you perceptive.) It was basically a way to harness people’s love of talking about themselves in order to score.
Bill Gates has committed his fortune to moving the world beyond fossil fuels and mitigating climate change.
In his offices overlooking Lake Washington, just east of Seattle, Bill Gates grabbed a legal pad recently and began covering it in his left-handed scrawl. He scribbled arrows by each margin of the pad, both pointing inward. The arrow near the left margin, he said, represented how governments worldwide could stimulate ingenuity to combat climate change by dramatically increasing spending on research and development. “The push is the R&D,” he said, before indicating the arrow on the right. “The pull is the carbon tax.” Between the arrows he sketched boxes to represent areas, such as deployment of new technology, where, he argued, private investors should foot the bill. He has pledged to commit $2 billion himself.
When “M.S.” was 13, her math teacher at Edison middle school in Los Angeles invited her to be friends online. Soon, according to a California appeals court, the same teacher started sending her sexually explicit messages. That winter, he called the 8th grader into a classroom and told her to shut the door. The teacher, Elkis Hermida, kissed and hugged the student. In March, he drove M.S. (as she’s referred to in court records, to protect her privacy), then 14, to a motel, where, according to the court, “they had sexual intercourse.” On a second occasion, “they … had sexual intercourse” in Hermida’s classroom.
“The next time they had sexual intercourse was on a Saturday at a motel,” the court records say. “Hermida told her that they were not in a relationship but were just having sex.” At that point, M.S. “wanted to stop having sexual intercourse with Hermida, but did not feel that she was free to do so.” At their next encounter, the teacher wanted anal sex. M.S. objected. “Hermida inserted something into her anus anyway,” the court said.
Is there anything inherently “doggy” about the word “dog”? Obviously not—to the French, a dog is a chien, to Russians a sobaka, to Mandarin Chinese-speakers a gǒu. These words have nothing in common, and none seem any more connected to the canine essence than any other. One runs up against that wall with pretty much any word.
Except some. The word for “mother” seems often either to be mama or have a nasal sound similar to m, like nana. The word for “father” seems often either to be papa or have a sound similar to p, like b, in it—such that you get something like baba. The word for “dad” may also have either d or t, which is a variation on saying d, just as p is on b. People say mama or nana, and then papa, baba, dada, or tata,worldwide.
When the Sony hack happened and I found out how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks, I didn’t get mad at Sony. I got mad at myself. I failed as a negotiator because I gave up early. I didn’t want to keep fighting over millions of dollars that, frankly, due to two franchises, I don’t need. (I told you it wasn’t relatable, don’t hate me).
American politicians are now eager to disown a failed criminal-justice system that’s left the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world. But they've failed to reckon with history. Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report “The Negro Family” tragically helped create this system, it's time to reclaim his original intent.
By his own lights, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, ambassador, senator, sociologist, and itinerant American intellectual, was the product of a broken home and a pathological family. He was born in 1927 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but raised mostly in New York City. When Moynihan was 10 years old, his father, John, left the family, plunging it into poverty. Moynihan’s mother, Margaret, remarried, had another child, divorced, moved to Indiana to stay with relatives, then returned to New York, where she worked as a nurse. Moynihan’s childhood—a tangle of poverty, remarriage, relocation, and single motherhood—contrasted starkly with the idyllic American family life he would later extol.
Science says lasting relationships come down to—you guessed it—kindness and generosity.
Every day in June, the most popular wedding month of the year, about 13,000 American couples will say “I do,” committing to a lifelong relationship that will be full of friendship, joy, and love that will carry them forward to their final days on this earth.
Except, of course, it doesn’t work out that way for most people. The majority of marriages fail, either ending in divorce and separation or devolving into bitterness and dysfunction. Of all the people who get married, only three in ten remain in healthy, happy marriages, as psychologist Ty Tashiro points out in his book The Science of Happily Ever After, which was published earlier this year.
Social scientists first started studying marriages by observing them in action in the 1970s in response to a crisis: Married couples were divorcing at unprecedented rates. Worried about the impact these divorces would have on the children of the broken marriages, psychologists decided to cast their scientific net on couples, bringing them into the lab to observe them and determine what the ingredients of a healthy, lasting relationship were. Was each unhappy family unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy claimed, or did the miserable marriages all share something toxic in common?