kottke.org posts about Tom Vanderbilt

The unhappy traveling salesman problemSep 06 2013

Solving the traveling salesman problem is difficult enough without having to consider the happiness of the salesman. But Tom Vanderbilt reports that's essentially what UPS, FedEx, and the like have had to do.

People are also emotional, and it turns out an unhappy truck driver can be trouble. Modern routing models incorporate whether a truck driver is happy or not -- something he may not know about himself. For example, one major trucking company that declined to be named does "predictive analysis" on when drivers are at greater risk of being involved in a crash. Not only does the company have information on how the truck is being driven -- speeding, hard-braking events, rapid lane changes -- but on the life of the driver. "We actually have built into the model a number of indicators that could be surrogates for dissatisfaction," said one employee familiar with the program.

This could be a change in a driver's take-home pay, a life event like a death in the family or divorce, or something as subtle as a driver whose morning start time has been suddenly changed. The analysis takes into account everything the company's engineers can think of, and then teases out which factors seem correlated to accident risk. Drivers who appear to be at highest risk are flagged. Then there are programs in place to ensure the driver's manager will talk to a flagged driver.

In other words, the traveling salesman problem grows considerably more complex when you actually have to think about the happiness of the salesman. And, not only do you have to know when he's unhappy, you have to know if your model might make him unhappy. Warren Powell, director of the Castle Laboratory at Princeton University's Department of Operations Research and Financial Engineering, has optimized transportation companies from Netjets to Burlington Northern. He recalls how, at Yellow Freight company, "we were doing things with drivers -- they said, you just can't do that." There were union rules, there was industry practice. Tractors can be stored anywhere, humans like to go home at night. "I said we're going to need a file with 2,000 rules. Trucks are simple; drivers are complicated."

The iPhone, an automobile for your mindApr 25 2012

Tom Vanderbilt says Americans don't walk as much as they used to; automobile usage has eaten into our perambulation time.

If walking is a casualty of modern life the world over -- the historian Joe Moran estimates, for instance, that in the last quarter century in the U.K., the amount of walking has declined by 25 percent -- why then do Americans walk even less than people in other countries? Here we need to look not at pedometers, but at the odometer: We drive more than anyone else in the world. (Hence a joke: In America a pedestrian is someone who has just parked their car.) Statistics on walking are more elusive than those on driving, but from the latter one might infer the former: The National Household Travel Survey shows that the number of vehicle trips a person took and the miles they traveled per day rose from 2.32 trips and 20.64 miles in 1969 to 3.35 and 32.73 in 2001. More time spent driving means less time spent on other activities, including walking. And part of the reason we are driving more is that we are living farther from the places we need to go; to take just one measure, in 1969, roughly half of all children lived a mile or more from their school; by 2001 three out of four did. During that same period, unsurprisingly, the rates of children walking to school dropped from roughly half to approximately 13 percent.

Sherry Turkle says young Americans don't converse as much as they used to; usage of mobile devices like the iPhone and iPod has eaten into our chat time.

A businessman laments that he no longer has colleagues at work. He doesn't stop by to talk; he doesn't call. He says that he doesn't want to interrupt them. He says they're "too busy on their e-mail." But then he pauses and corrects himself. "I'm not telling the truth. I'm the one who doesn't want to be interrupted. I think I should. But I'd rather just do things on my BlackBerry."

A 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, "Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I'd like to learn how to have a conversation."

In today's workplace, young people who have grown up fearing conversation show up on the job wearing earphones. Walking through a college library or the campus of a high-tech start-up, one sees the same thing: we are together, but each of us is in our own bubble, furiously connected to keyboards and tiny touch screens. A senior partner at a Boston law firm describes a scene in his office. Young associates lay out their suite of technologies: laptops, iPods and multiple phones. And then they put their earphones on. "Big ones. Like pilots. They turn their desks into cockpits." With the young lawyers in their cockpits, the office is quiet, a quiet that does not ask to be broken.

A cockpit or perhaps the safe bubble of the automobile? Steve Jobs was fond of saying the personal computer was "a bicycle for our mind":

I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn't look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.

And that's what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it's the most remarkable tool that we've ever come up with, and it's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds."

Perhaps then the iPhone is an automobile for our mind in that it allows us to go anywhere very quickly but isolates us along the way.

ps. This photo that accompanies Vanderbilt's article is kind of amazing:

Walking fail

Totally speechless. I think it's further from my desk to the bathroom here in the office than it is from that house to the bus.

The real-world architecture of the internet cloudJun 11 2009

The internet cloud is actually "giant buildings full of computers and diesel generators".

Yet as data centers increasingly become the nerve centers of business and society -- even the storehouses of our fleeting cultural memory (that dancing cockatoo on YouTube!) -- the demand for bigger and better ones increases: there is a growing need to produce the most computing power per square foot at the lowest possible cost in energy and resources. All of which is bringing a new level of attention, and challenges, to a once rather hidden phenomenon. Call it the architecture of search: the tens of thousands of square feet of machinery, humming away 24/7, 365 days a year -- often built on, say, a former bean field -- that lie behind your Internet queries.

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