Wednesday, 23 July 2014

A nation of tea-drinkers

For years, the United Kingdom has been known as a nation of tea-drinkers.  Selling tea and tea-bags is a big business, estimated at half a billion pounds per year.  Until the invention of teabags, tea was made with leaves in a pot.  Teapots were to be found in every household, in all shapes and sizes, and associated with the serving of tea came tea-caddies, tea strainers, tea-cups and so on.  Tea-bags changed some of these habits.  With a tea-bag, a cup of tea can be mad by pouring boiling water onto the bag in a cup or mug, so dispensing with the need for a teapot.  For the company making tea, tea-bags mean that finer leaves can be used.  In our household, we use both leaf tea and tea-bags, but almost always use one of our teapots.  (We have four teapots: one holds enough for two cups, the next holds enough for four or five, the third is slightly larger, and my heirloom Victorian one holds ten or so cups.)

Today several newspapers have reported a story about measurement of tea made with tea-bags, to settle a dispute about "What is better?"  And of course, OR is all about "What is better?"  The story can be read here.  It all followed from an advertisement which included this picture:

(c) Daily Mail
The tea on the left is made with a pyramid-shaped tea-bag, that on the right with a round bag.  The claim is that pyramids are better.  A leading manufacturer of round tea-bags claimed that this was a misleading claim in an advert, so there have been laboratory tests whose results are supporting the claims for the pyramids.  Ultimately, it will be up to the consumer, who will apply an OR technique, cost-benefit analysis.  Is it worth buying more expensive tea-bags or not?  But it is nice to see that in the nation of tea-drinkers, people are prepared to study whether one "cuppa" is better than another.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Operational Research Scientists, Architects, Town Planners and Democracy

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog "I am not an architect" following an editorial in the UK OR Newsletter by the OR Society's then president, drawing parallels between the profession of OR and the profession of architecture.  I was not convinced by those parallels, for a number of reasons.

Recently, I have changed my mind - but not much.  A review led me to the book "Happy City" by Charles Montgomery (CM), which looks at the effect of urban design on the general well-being of the people who live and work in towns and cities across the world.  CM is a passionate writer urging his readers to consider the built environment of their homes and offices.  He draws together strands from many disciplines in his proposals; health, safety on the roads, transport links, general well-being such as knowing ones neighbours, the design of houses and schools and offices.  One chapter is titled "Everything is Connected to Everything Else", and it argues that our towns and cities are complex systems, where changes in one part of the system affect many other parts.  So, building a shop with its own car park affects the number of people who use cars in the vicinity, which changes the safety of the roads there, and influences the use of other forms of transport.

Within OR, recognising that our work affects a system is a general principle.  Because it is not possible to model an entire system, we simplify, but remain aware of the wider ramifications of what we do.  One of the reasons that I took issue with the parallel with the profession of architecture was that the public face of architecture is such that the effect on a wider system is ignored or minimised.

Most of the examples in the book come from outside the UK; CM is from Vancouver in Canada, and writes about that city and others in Canada and the USA, though he has travelled widely in South America, Europe and South Africa.  But it is easy to see how his experiences and ideas can be paralleled in the UK. 

By the time that I had finished the book (it is a long one) I was convinced that the best architects could work to reflect beneficially on the system where their projects were being planned and built.  In so doing, they would move on from being architects to town planners.  (So I am prepared to be associated with the most visionary architects who do look at the system as a whole.)  And then, CM argues, they come across the blockage known as democracy.  Towns and cities are democratic organisations - up to a point.  City officials have rules to follow, some of which are sensible, and some of which have never been examined to see if they are appropriate in the 21st century.  So, CM says, there are constraints (another OR term) on what can be done to an urban system to make it better.  Some of those constraints shackle the town planner.  In other cases, those with power and influence and money can dictate what happens.  Throughout, there are many conflicting objectives - another OR term.

CM argues that urban development is inevitable;  but if the people who control it make sensible decisions about the whole system, with models drawn from transport, health and well-being, and even the concept of measured happiness, then that development will  lead to better places for citizens to live and work.

And what about my home city?  Part of my immediate neighbourhood is purely residential, because the land was sold for housing a hundred years ago, with restrictions that no building be used for trade.  So there are no shops, no offices, no workshops.  And as a result, there are gaps in the system.  To shop, most people get into their cars (OK, I walk or cycle when I can).  To go to work, people move out of the neighbourhood, as there are few jobs here (schools, care homes) and then major employers on the fringe of the area drawing in people from a wide radius.  The road layout was laid out in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and is not ideal for today's mix of road vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists.  We have neighbours who we never see except through their car windows, because that is the only way that they can access work, leisure facilities, commerce.  And the economy of the houses in the area is being forced by the taxation involved on moving home, so it is easier and cheaper to extend or remodel one's home than to move.  Hence there are fewer newcomers to the area, and the social mix is changing - larger, extended houses, are only affordable by the affluent.

Oh dear, Charles Montgomery has convinced me - the urban system is not optimal - it can be improved!

Monday, 7 July 2014

What makes the best blog?

Several free magazines target the residents of Exeter.  To be free, they must draw an income from advertising, so the ratio of articles to advertisements reflects this.   The magazines vary in their mode of distribution; some are delivered with other advertising literature through the letterbox.  Others can be picked up at "select" locations.

We were in one of the latter locations the other day, and picked up the two latest copies of the glossiest free magazines.  Both featured a set of pictures about a meeting for bloggers.  One described it as being a party for the "hundred best bloggers in Exeter", the other was a little vaguer, and said that it was for "a hundred of the best bloggers in the south-west".  Now you can imagine that I was piqued at not being invited(!)

So what makes the best bloggers in Exeter/south-west England? How do you measure the multiple criteria?  What surrogate measures do you use since "best" is not well-defined?

There wasn't much detail with the pictures, but both Philippa and Tina looked at the pictures with me, and remarked that I obviously didn't fit the criteria.  All those pictured were female and nearly all were clearly under 30.  Little was said about the subjects of the blogs, but we read that the party included styling by a local salon, manicures and makeovers, and several of the pictures showed the logo of a major producer of beauty products for women.  (and don't forget the cocktails!) 

Curious, I went to the website, so now I can reveal that to have made it to be one of the hundred best bloggers in Exeter, you needed to book and pay for the meeting, knowing that it was intended for a young, fashion-oriented, female audience.

So that is how to assess the multi-criteria measure of best, when it comes to blogging!  A very interesting way of making the measurements of "best".

I shall continue to write blogs as a non-young, non-fashion-oriented, non-female writer.

What makes a good Operational Research scientist?

Like many readers of the INFORMS journal ORMS Today, I turn to Doug Samuelson's ORacle articles with interest each issue.  In the current issue (Volume 41, number 3, page 56, June 2014) Doug has a quote that resonated with me.  Given a group of "social or industrial psychologists, or something like that" who had irked the hero of his article, that hero said "no matter what degrees those people have and what positions they hold, they're not scientists and they never will be.  The essential quality of a scientist is playful curiosity, and they don't even recognise that quality when they see it".

Sir Hermann Bondi was linked to the O.R. Society in the U.K. for many years.  He once wrote: "Little children, up to the age of five or six or seven, are constantly asking questions starting 'Why?'  Education aims to stop such questions.  But education has its failures.  The results are called scientists."

Perhaps, when recruiting O.R. scientists, we should ask if they have a playful curiosity, or when they last asked a question that started 'Why?'

Check-out mathematics

My dinner-party explanation of operational research has come back to haunt me.

When asked what O.R. can do, I talk about models of the supermarket check-out queue, and ensuring that there are enough check-outs open.  I say "the answer is a number, so there is mathematics involved".

The current issue of the US journal/magazine ORMS Today (June 2014, volume 41, number 3, page 17) has a cutting from Information Week about queues at Kroger shops.  The OR people there have taken the problem one stage further than simply collecting statistics about past queues.  Instead, they have a real-time modelling process which monitors arrivals at the shop door, uses the results of a simulation model to predict the demand for check-outs as a result of those arrivals and their shopping habits, and allocates staff to these.  There are other inputs into the model from the point-of-sale terminals.  One measure of interest is associated with customers not finding a check-out with more than one person ahead of them.  Or, to make the customer shopping experience as pleasant as possible.  ("Shopping experience" is a multi-dimensional measure.)

My initial reaction when I read this story was to wonder: had the team heard of Occam's razor?  The most widespread form is "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity" (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem) which was expressed much later than Occam.  In the O.R. world, it is sometimes expressed as "Use the simplest model that will work".  I wondered whether the effort needed to devise the monitoring systems, modelling process, validate the model and devise a feedback strategy that would work was really necessary.  At first sight, it would not be the simplest model!  In the UK, the feedback often comes from a check-out manager who can call trained staff at any time that the check-outs become busy. 

But, it looks as if the effort has been worth it for Kroger.  The feedback strategy includes a large digital display about the check-outs that is visible to staff and customers, not simply to staff.  As a result, customers report increased satisfaction, because they can see that something is being done.  Whether by accident, or design, check-out staff are now happier (more relaxed?) and have a better interaction with customers.

Will it be good for the bottom line?  Like every commercial enterprise, that is an industrial secret.  But well done to the team at Kroger for taking the problem of supermarket check-out staffing into the 21st century!