From the ORSSA Newsletter archives, Jacques du Toit's reflection on what it was like to attend the ORSSA Conference a decade ago. You can read the entire Newsletter edition and many others documenting the Society's past on the archive page here.
A reflection on the 42nd Annual Conference of ORSSA
by Jacques du Toit
“On a small and obscure world in the middle of nowhere in particular, it was raining”. Not much though thankfully, and not nearly as much as the ORSSA conference of 2010 in Magoebaskloof. With the conference occurring ever so slightly on the wintry side of the spring equinox (September, 22), and with it being in the Western Cape, this was not at all unexpected (indeed, those familiar with the place can easily recount snowfalls in late October). The designated location for the welcoming reception was the main foyer of the hotel or, as the program said, the patio if the weather was permitting. It was. As the light drizzle earlier in the day had since subsided, delegates enjoyed the beautiful views of Stellenbosch Berg and Helderberg from the vantage point of the Protea Hotel. I’ve come to think of these receptions as the weddings in the life cycle of a conference. The delegate arrives at the venue, is given gits and signs a register. This is all ordained by the local organising committee who then usher people into the reception area. here we all are, married to the conference for the next three days but still close enough to the very beginning that there is only hope and optimism for what lies ahead.
The newly weds trickled into the Omega Hall to enjoy tasty finger treats and a fine selection of wine with an aural serving of Chopin. Of the three, Chopin received the least attention; perhaps fairly so since delegates were excited to see old friends and make new ones (I’m not sure that this actually happened, it just sounds better). For some the welcoming continued briefly in the pub below the hotel, whilst others toiled with projectors and computers, and the rest likely turned in looking forward to the day that lay ahead. “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.” The honeymoon was over and it was time to get to business. The chair of the local organising committee, Mr Daniel Lotter, welcomed delegates and attempted to grease the wheels of the hulking conference machine with information. Information about the plenaries, information about the carding system which would prevent speakers from overrunning their allotted time, information about the new student session, but most tellingly (if you care for the order), his first three titbits of information were where coffee, tea and lunch would be served, and where the ablutions could be found. The intellectual punctuated by the practical. The ORSSA president delivered his address thereafter and explored challenges and opportunities involving intertwinement. He specifically asked for permission to stereotype the roles of operations researchers (consultants and academics) and non operations researchers (clients and the public), and did a pretty darn good job of it. he keynote speaker for this 42nd conference was Theo Stewart who provided a “whistle stop tour of MCDA” on the occasion of his birthday. The approach seems to so widely applicable that he commented that his wife communicates with him using MCDA. He offered that “MCDA is a way of thinking, a life philosophy for the operational researcher.”
As delegates dispersed from the Omega hall they were treated to coffee, tea and scrumptious cupcakes in celebration of Theo Stewart’s continued and successful participation in the grandest of all endeavors, life.
“Just believe everything I tell you, and it will all be very, very simple. Ah, well, I’m not sure I believe that.” The parallel sessions got under way and I had to make choices. I chose to attend the Heuristics & Meta-heuristics session in which the differences & similarities between genetic algorithms and programs, a linear programming solution to a Dial-A-light problem in Botswana and meta-heuristics for a parallel machine problem were discussed. A little legwork got me in the session on allocation and selection problems for an update on the diet problem.
“One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious.” I was most pleased to see that the single queue lunch problem of the previous conference was solved by the ingenious introduction of a second queue. Just like the food, the results of this clever solution were glorious.
The session after lunch was dedicated to Theo Stewart. The papers presented in this session were published in Vol. 29, No. 1 of ORiON. Firstly, Hans Ittmann provided a historical review of the Tom Rozwadowski medal. He presented a few lovely black and white photos of Tom and his family and listed the journals in which the winning papers were published (ORiON is featuring strongly amongst them). In providing a breakdown of the recipients via their institutions, he pitted academic institutions, the CSIR and a category to subsume the complement of these against one another. The latter category came up trumps with 10 medals, the CSIR in a close second with 8.5 and Stellenbosch University received the meta-bronze medal with a score of 7 (adjusted to eight now surely that Jonas Stray and Jan van Vuuren were this year’s recipients). Secondly, Ian Durbach reviewed a masters course offered at UCT and asked difficult pedagogical questions which he simplified with Swiss army knives featured in various states of preparedness. he session closed with a presentation by Jan van Vuuren on the evolutionary spatial prisoner’s dilemma in which he provided, amongst other things, insights into the probability of persistent cooperation on a cycle (graph).
The final tea-time on Monday was an important one, and not only for those who enjoyed the welcoming immensely, but as it was the longest session of the conference (at two and a half hours). I found myself in the machine learning and classification session which landed me my first session hot-streak (a session which features all that a delegate may want and does not require them to change venues for the duration of the session).
A cheese and wine tasting followed shortly after the close of play. We were treated to delightful platters and lively presentations of wines by a number of farms in the Stellenbosch region. Conflicting evidence was presented as to the role that American oak plays in the wine-making business, but this was largely overlooked or ignored by an eager audience.
I started my Tuesday morning in the OR in Industry session wherein Ian Durbach presented an agent-based model he had devised in exploring the role of theft in the conservation of the Aloe dichotoma. In OR in Mining and Manufacturing, Frank Ortmann bandied overly large numbers around when presenting on the optimization of circuits for superconducting super-computers. He stated that the (current) fastest supercomputer in the word is capable of 33.86 petaFLOPS on 3,120,000 cores. This massive machine guzzles a sizeable 17MW. Things got even more ridiculous when he spoke of data centres that cover 100,000 square metres and require 100MW of power. Wayne Bossenger followed with a presentation showing how far thinking, a single core and a few seconds can go to solving the problem of 2D irregular strip packing.
I was particularly interested in Dewald Engelbrecht’s talk on the fairness of the Super 15 schedule and so found myself in the Timetabling and Tournament Scheduling session. his talk inevitably featured a number of references to a certain red-card (not of the kind we were brandishing at the conference to indicate it was time to stop talking) incident at Eden Park in New Zealand. I was quick to change venues when Social Darwinism reared its head during the question session. Self preservation was high on my agenda and I was concerned that the discussion may lead to a fight to the death. In the Transport and Transportation session, Hans Ittmann outlined the challenges faced in determining freight demand for Transnet. With planning horizons and forecasts spanning 30 years this seemed to be rather challenging. I finally made my way to the Student Competition session in time for the master's student presentations, which saw the speakers presenting a derth of work at an extraordinary speed. It was quite an impressive display. In the session that followed lunch, David Lubinsky (the session chair for that session) shared an interview question sometimes asked of prospective employees by OPSI systems. He didn’t share the answer.
The underrated AGM delivered a number of enjoyable moments that were really best experienced in person. he treasurer, Jonas Stray, offered to sing for those gathered and it was established that the society is engaged in the real estate market (they rent a postbox for the princely sum of R340 a year). Lieschen Venter whet our appetites for next year’s conference in the “Freestate’s Franschoek” and assured us that things were going to “get rural”.
“Don’t panic.” I suspect that it was around this time that I had lost the notebook I had been using throughout the conference. Having to pen this piece without quotes from ORSSA members has been unfortunate, hence my reliance on quotes from certain fictional [non-]ORSSA members.
Delegates and guests arrived for the banquet to the delightful accompaniment of a string-duo featuring a cello and a violin. Seating was predetermined by the benevolent ORSSA fairies who placed a seating chart in the foyer and favoured a fine grained seating assignment over simple table assignments. Hans Itmann was the master of ceremonies and as things got under way he fired a playful warning shot across the bow of any potentially boisterous and rowdy delegates (last year’s banquet was sometimes a noisy affair). His jest was not let unanswered as a set of delegates (possibly overlapping with the rowdy set) seated at various tables throughout the venue showed the master of ceremonies the five-minutes-remaining (green) card. Over four hours later, the Tom Rozwadowski medal was awarded and in-between three courses were served and seven recognition awards were made for contributions to the OR (the citations appear in this issue). he recipients of the Category III, II and I awards took to the podium to say a few words. All were very gracious in their acceptance thereof and a few recounted tales from colourful OR pasts.
“This must be [Wednesday],’ said Arthur to himself, sinking low over his beer. ‘I never could get the hang of [Wednesday].” Although there were a few stragglers at the banquet the night before, things were far more subdued than in previous years (and of course, Dave Evans was not there, himself a member of the Noble Order of the Brave Stayers). Hans Itmann’s statements regarding the fact that young(er) members are not remaining with the society is increasingly in evidence at the post-banquet congregations. Of course, the more important business of learning was to continue and so I attended the Agriculture, Forestry and Land Use session where I caught Berndt Lindner’s excellent presentation on optimal sawing and ripping of pine. I spent the remainder of the early morning in the Simulation session were I enjoyed a presentation on autonomous agents by Robert Hagspihl and a presentation by Prenitha Pooren on the use of stochastic simulation in the assessment of a new chemical plant.
Theo Stewart deftly delivered a very interesting closing plenary in which he discussed MCDA as an aid to operations research for development. He discussed four interesting case studies and introduced various tools, such as thermometer scales, causal maps, value trees and post-it brainstorming sessions, that were employed in interactions with stakeholders in identifying goals. he ORSS
A elders then took to the floor to reflect on papers presented at the conference. I realised that I had missed an opportunity in not simply transcribing their words and passing it of as my report on the conference. Gerhard Geldenhuys solved the parallel session problem by pointing out that one should use tea-times to engage with speakers whose presentations might have been missed due to a conflict. He also revealed a passing interest in the abundance of acronyms and abbreviations in use at the conference. Inspired by this I quickly reviewed the abstracts and found that 41% of them do not feature any acronyms and, for the sake of it, I compiled a box plot of the occurrences of abbreviations within the abstracts
As was the case with the Tom Rozwadowski medal in the years 1971-1976, there will be no recipients of the we-didn’t-win-conference-prizes-but-we-said-something memorable awards. Not for lack of quality comments, but due to the terrible fate that had befallen my notebook. he conference ended as it had began for the local organising committee, but they were now the pall-bearers ferrying unclaimed conference bags and a few dribs and drabs out of the hotel while delegates slowly departed. Farewells were said and thanks were given. he local organising committee had succeeded in making the life of this conference a brilliant one. “The Answer to the Great Question... Of Life, the Universe and Everything... Is... Forty-two,’ said Deep thought, with infinite majesty and calm.”