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July 24, 2008 / or4green

The Woolsey Papers, Part I

OR/MS is the application of logic and mathematics to a real-world problem, in such a way that the method used does not get in the way of common sense. –Gene Woolsey

The quote is one of many gems from the book The Woolsey Papers, a collection of Gene Woolsey’s articles, edited by Richard L. Hewitt, mostly out of Interfaces from the early 1970’s to the early 2000’s. Woolsey is an OR professor at the Colorado School of Mines who strongly emphasizes the practical side of OR. He is known for having his students go out and work at the locations they’ll be consulting for. Stories in the Woolsey Papers include several examples of this such as driving a fork-lift in a beer warehouse, food/beverage delivery truck driver-salesman, etc. In many of the stories, the solution is more about understanding how people interact with their jobs, than with complicated mathematics. This gets pretty extreme in one of the stories with a tool clerk pointing a .44 at a factory bully to get him to use a check-out form – more action than your typical OR article.

In a way, the book reads a little like a Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman in how entertaining it can sometimes be, and in how the reader gains much more insight into the personality, experiences, and viewpoints of the writer than would be the case from a textbook. Being a collection of articles, there is some repetition, but I mostly liked that; it helped the lessons sink in. It is also short and fairly inexpensive. For all of these reasons and of course for the content (described more below), it could serve as a good companion text for an Operations Research course, particularly a project-based one.

There is great advice on getting practical experience:

If you have no experience, get some. If you don’t know where to start, call your county commissioner or mayor; tell him that you would like to give a free short course on fundamentals of OR/MS to anybody that might want to come. Tell him that you will cover some simple-minded methods that might help someone lay water and sewer lines more cheaply, route school buses better, assign people to jobs more efficiently, cut down materials inventory by finding better reorder points, etc. He will usually want to know why you want to do this. Tell him. Sooner or later someone will let you try.

Now if your tastes in application areas run towards sustainability, this is a great time to find opportunities. Sustainability committees and the like are forming on the local level on up to the federal. Universities, non-profits, and companies are also filled with these kinds of efforts. The decision-making tools (both common sense and mathematical) of the OR practitioner can be a great help to the committee. At the same time, the work provides a great opportunity for the OR practitioner’s education in these areas. It can be done.

Another piece of advice from the book that can be tailored to OR/Sustainability is to seek out knowledge from an application area by finding a professor from that specialty and educating each other, by attending conferences of professional societies in that field, by writing for its journals, etc. Go interdisciplinary. For sustainability there are many fields one could focus on: alternative energy, waste management, recycling, energy efficiency, remanufacturing, green buildings, etc. As for journals, there are undoubtedly many. Here are a few: International Journal of Global Environmental Issues, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Sustainability: The Journal of Record.

Whenever Woolsey consulted for governments, he did so for free. In a more recent piece (July-Aug’07 issue of Interfaces) he wrote:

In short, I worked for free, so I could work for money, with some hope of gain, so I could afford to choose which pro bono project would be the most fun to do next… This is the tip of the iceberg of what we have done for ourselves and for our state and community. What are you doing for yours?

Next time: an application of some of the ideas in the book

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