Monthly Archives: March 2015

Optimization and the Gulag: A brief tour of certain 20th-century intellectual anxieties

Optimized labor?

Optimized contruction? Prisoner laborers constructing the Baltic Sea-White Sea canal

In her recent New York Times Magazine essay, “A Sucker is Optimized Every Minute,” Virginia Heffernan posits that an increasing infatuation with “optimization” in our society is leading to cultural, economic, and political harms. Her themes and some of the topics she examines are very much in this blog’s wheelhouse, so I thought it would be useful to take a look at some of the ideas in her piece. First, I’d like to point out that, if we stand back and think about the various associations Heffernan draws, they should seem bizarre. A good example is her concluding line, “Right there in my Apple Watch: a mini Gulag, optimized just for me.” Suppose she chose a slightly different metaphor, say comparing Spotify music-selecting algorithms to Auschwitz. The obvious distastefulness of the comparison would make it immediately apparent that the former and the latter simply exist in totally different moral, intellectual, and institutional universes. Let’s leave aside the question of why it seems to be OK to rope Soviet forced-labor camps into clever cultural critiques. The fact is it is actually perfectly possible to follow Heffernan’s argument without undue bafflement. The reason has to do with our various inheritances from intellectual history. Continue reading

The Traveling Salesman Problem: How much computational efficiency do you really need?

This post is inspired by a blog post by analytics and software engineer Nathan Brixius concerning recent media interest in the Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP). The TSP, for the uninitiated, is to find a minimum-distance route between a set number of points; as the number of points increases, the problem of being certain one has found a solution becomes computationally formidable. Thus, the problem is really to find an efficient algorithm for finding solutions.

Randal Olson's minimum-distance road trip

Randal Olson’s minimum-distance road trip

Come out with guns blazing, or lay out the welcome mat?

Michigan State computer science grad student Randal Olson developed, and blogged about, an algorithm to solve the Traveling Salesman Problem for a 48-stop tour of the United States. This is almost the exact same version of the problem featured in 1954 in the first publication to use linear programming methods to address the TSP. Olson’s approach was picked up by blogs at the Washington Post and New York TImes websites as an interest story. Unfortunately, Olson also suggested that guaranteeing a solution is computationally impossible—for 48 stops it is actually very simple to prove optimality.

TSP expert Bill Cook, Professor of Combinatorics and Optimization at the University of Waterloo, quickly pointed out that the true shortest route—35,940 meters shorter than Olson’s—could be easily computed on an iPhone using his Concorde TSP app. Brixius writes that, good as it is to point out OR’s extensive work on the TSP, it was important to go gently on Olson’s misstatements so that the OR profession would not come out of the episode looking bad.

And it’s here where, as a historian of science who happens to study the history of OR, I find I recognize the issue from two complementary perspectives.

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What did Warren Weaver mean when he spoke of “the rational life”?

In 1947 Air Force Project RAND—then a branch of Douglas Aircraft, but soon to become the independent RAND Corporation—decided that it needed to recruit social scientists to aid it in its studies of prospective military technologies. As a step forward it held a conference of social scientists that September. The director of natural sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, mathematician Warren Waver, delivered the conference’s opening remarks.

The beginning of Warren Weaver's speech to open the RAND conference on social science

The characteristically jokey opening to Warren Weaver’s opening remarks to the RAND Corporation’s 1947 conference on social science. People from technical fields moonlighting in the social sciences are prominently mentioned. The president of the New Jersey Telephone Company was Chester Barnard, who would soon become president of the Rockefeller Foundation. Document source: Papers of Edward L. Bowles, Box 44, Folder 4, Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

Asking the rhetorical question of why they had assembled there, Weaver began by explaining: “I take it that every person in this room is fundamentally interested and devoted to what you can just broadly call the rational life.”

As I note in a parallel post at Ether Wave Propaganda, the remark was first quoted in journalist Fred Kaplan’s 1983 book The Wizards of Armageddon, where it is truncated and explained in such a way that it appears to augur an attempt to marshall social scientists into an attempt “impose” a rational order on military strategy and national policy. The “rational life” quote has been used by a number of other authors since Kaplan’s book appeared, and the meaning of the term has always been taken for granted. This post explores what Weaver had in mind.

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