Portrait of an Academic Capitalist as a Young Man

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A parody of Joyce’s Künstlerroman, layered with Proustian reminiscence, unfolded using eight movies.

Ovid, in Metamorphoses:

Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these.

Once upon a time and a very good time, there was a nicens little boy named ಶ್ರೀಧರ್. 

000

Dead Poets Society is a teen drama film. The worldwide box office was over $235 million, on a budget of $16 million. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and received nominations for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Director and Best Picture. 

In high school, he memorized this poem of William Wordsworth:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

As an undergraduate, he became enchanted by Operations Research (OR), although (unlike Computer Science) it was not glamorous. 

As lucidly explained — using a maximally inverse framing! — in The Philosopher’s Secret Fire, A History of the Imagination (by Patrick Harpur) on how Wordsworth saw the golden daffodils (“Romantic Imagination”):

The subtle distinction between pishogue and glamour in Irish fairylore embodies a sophisticated epistemology. Glamour is an enchantment placed on the object so that it appears differently to us. Pishogue is an enchantment placed on us so that we see an object differently.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in looking with new eyes.

001 

Coming to America is a romantic comedy film, produced on a budget of $36 million. It made a worldwide total of over $288 million.

ಶ್ರೀಧರ್ was excited when he received a letter from Cornell OR offering admission along with generous financial support: Andrew D. White Fellowship

Andrew Dickson White was an American historian and educator, who was the cofounder of Cornell University and served as its first president for nearly two decades. He was known for expanding the scope of college curricula. 

The other cofounder:

Ezra Cornell was an American businessman and philanthropist. He was the founder of Western Union.

Horatio, could you have dreamt this in your philosophy? 

Cornell University is co-founded by an Academic and a Capitalist!

Cornell University is a private, Ivy League  research university in Ithaca, New York. Founded in 1865, the university was intended to teach and make contributions in all fields of knowledge—from the classics to the sciences, and from the theoretical to the applied. These ideals, unconventional for the time, are captured by Ezra Cornell: “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.”

He was swiftly disheartened by the distressing gulf between mathematical principles being taught and industrial practices that required re-engineering. The Probability core opened with Borel Sets and Dynkin’s Monotone Class Theorem

What about coin tosses? Throws of dice? Shuffling cards? 

Those have finite state-spaces. This course is about uncountably infinite ones.

A soft peal of mirthless laughter left his lips.  It pained him to realize that the raison d’etre for his coming to Cornell, to learn the use of appropriate mathematics to tackle practical problems, was not going to be the reality of his experience. Obtaining a PhD is a long-term investment, he rationalized. Just learn the stuff now and not worry too much about how, when or even whether you will use it. This Stoicism (of Epictetus and Seneca) would not come easily to him. It would be a gloomy semester.

Difficulties strengthen the mind.

002 

Wild at Heart is a black comedy romantic crime film.

His evenings were his own. It was towards the close of his first term that he accidentally discovered, in Ithaca Commons, a movie theater tucked away in a narrow street, that played independent films. He was happy and near to the wild heart of life. His soul was swooning into some new world.

1986. Blue Velvet. 1987. Raising Arizona. 1988. Cinema Paradiso. 1989. Do the Right Thing. 1990. Miller’s Crossing.

It was Wild at Heart that alerted him to film festivals – Sundance, Telluride, TriBeCa – that he would frequent in his adult life.  He liked the movie, but it was not received well in the US:

Early test screenings for Wild at Heart had a poor reception; about 300 people walked out of an early screening. On release, the film had mixed critical reviews, grossing $14 million, on a $10 million budget. The film won the Palme d’Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, which at the time was considered a controversial decision.

Quod? Who are these French cinephiles? His favorite Palme d’Or winners over the subsequent quarter century would be:

1994. Pulp Fiction.

Hang on to your youthful enthusiasmsyou’ll be able to use them better when you’re older.

003

Good Will Hunting is a drama film. The film grossed over $225 million, from a $10 million budget. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including the Academy Award for Best Picture, and won two: Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay.

Back to that Probability core. ಶ್ರೀಧರ್ finished the (in class, 2-hour, closed book) final exam, with 30 minutes to spare. Should he just sit around, or hand the exam to the professor and leave? She started to flip through his Blue Book. He had barely left the room, when she approached him:

I graded it. 100/100. 

The follow-up core course in the Spring semester was Stochastic Processes, that he enjoyed quite a bit. No actual real-world applications ever came up! He decided to minor in this area anyway, just because he enjoyed the math, and took electives in queuing theory. Of course, these – with Weiner-Hopf factorization and Volterra integrals — were not very applications oriented either!

How beautiful and sad that was. How beautiful the mathematics. How sad that it had so little impact. 

Imagine if all this beauty can be put to practical use. That was his epiphany. He decided do exactly that with his professional life, contrairement aux idées reçues

Zeal without prudence is like a ship adrift.  His other minor? From the Business School:

Operations Management.

Upon escaping – Oops! graduating — he elected to accept a job at a Business School, to considerable scorn from several OR faculty, as it was viewed as a fall from high-brow grace.

Ignoring them entirely, in retrospect, was a wonderful decision. GSIA (as it was called then, now Tepper School of Business) provided an especially conducive environment for his creative productivity, where he converted imaginations to actualities, leading to: 

University Professor! A Life of Practical Mathematics.

Otium cum dignitate.

004

A Few Good Men is a legal drama film. It became a box office hit grossing over $243 million against a budget of $40 million, and was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture.

Robin Roundy is a remarkable human being: unselfish, generous, caring, and above all, tolerant (even accommodating) of diametrically opposing viewpoints.

Robin was an untenured, Assistant Professor at Cornell when ಶ್ರೀಧರ್ arrived as a PhD student.  ಶ್ರೀಧರ್ wanted to work on his thesis on his own, writing single-authored papers, and on a topic (and by using techniques) that were completely different from Robin’s research. Robin worked on static deterministic models; ಶ್ರೀಧರ್ on dynamic, stochastic ones. Nevertheless, Robin supported him using his NSF Presidential Investigator Award. 

Robin is a devout Mormon (avoiding tea, coffee and, of course, alcohol) and volunteers at his tabernacle after his work hours. He and ಶ್ರೀಧರ್ had several spirited discussions on a range of topics spanning organized religions to Epicurean living. 

Robin attended church; ಶ್ರೀಧರ್ went to the movies.

Associate with people who are likely to improve you.

005

Slumdog Millionaire is a drama film. Nominated for ten, it won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It grossed over $375 million worldwide, on a budget of $15 million.

More than two decades later, Robin – who had since moved to BYU, relinquishing his tenure, Full Professorship and Endowed Chair at Cornell to lead a Mormon mission for three years, his calling – invited ಶ್ರೀಧರ್ to speak in their Math department. Scheduled during the week of Sundance Film Festival (in nearby Park City) the talk covered (as written up in A Model of Success):

Million-dollar business deals, video games, and life-saving jet planes. What sounds like a weekend blockbuster is actually a small portion of mathematician Sridhar Tayur’s résumé. As Tayur certainly demonstrated in his lecture —a career in math doesn’t have to be boring.

Tayur’s career has obviously been lucrative, but his interests extend beyond profit. “It is unfortunate,” Tayur joked, “but there comes a time when even a shallow guy like me starts thinking: ‘Maybe I can be of some use to somebody other than myself.’”

For Tayur, this meant re-examining the way people receive kidney transplants in the U.S., where every 90 minutes, someone dies waiting for a transplant. Because waiting lists in certain states are shorter than others, a patient’s wait for a kidney largely depends on his or her location. Tayur wanted to fix that.

Tayur decided, “I’m going to make what Steve Jobs had available for everyone. I’m going to democratize Steve Jobs.” From this decision, Tayur’s company OrganJet was created to fly patients in private jets to states with available kidneys.

Said one woman to Tayur, “You must be from God.” “No madam, I’m from Pittsburgh.”

Tayur’s final message was simple: math is about the joy of creating.

“Why do I do what I do?” asked Tayur. “I do it because I find it fun.”

As is customary, Robin and other faculty members took ಶ್ರೀಧರ್ out to dinner. Knowing that he was vegetarian, it was at an Italian restaurant. As they finished ordering (was risotto alla bergamasca on the menu?), Robin asked:

Are you not ordering wine?

I thought it was prohibited.

Ordinarily, yes. But I requested special permission for you.

BYU will pay?

Yes. I informed our leadership that you would find it laughable to be invited to give a talk, and then be told that you cannot drink wine at dinner or have to pay for it yourself.

They were okay with it?

They hope that you will not post pictures on social media.

For perhaps the only time in his adult life, ಶ್ರೀಧರ್ decided to skip alcohol during dinner at an Italian restaurant. The next morning, while at Starbucks, just before the morning shows at Sundance, he received a call that SAP Board had approved SmartOps acquisition

L.D.S. He could no longer disbelieve in the reality of God’s love for him. Is he unknowingly serving the divine purpose for which he was born? 

Maybe it’s written.

006

Scent of a Woman is a drama film, and earned over $134 million worldwide on a budget of $31 million. Nominated for four Academy Awards, Al Pacino won for Best Actor. 

Research. Teaching. Consulting. Entrepreneurship. Investing. Philanthropy. He apprehended all this as one thing. He saw it as a whole. Integritas. 

Employing Robert Frost, he wrote in An Essay on Operations Management

I took the road less traveled—which has indeed made all the difference—by putting the intimate fusion of theory with practice at the center of my scheme, by participating in the new forces (such as information technology, globalization, and venture capital (VC)-infused software entrepreneurship) that have made our world so different, and by distancing myself, repeatedly, from the mechanical imitations of inherited habits in favor of pursuing newness.

It is in the belief that many colleagues who wish to make an impact on practice—who hope that their final harvest will not just be a sheaf of mathematical formulae—could benefit from my experience and observations that I have written this essay, offering examples that depart from the mainstream, encouraging them to forge their own path. I hope that my cheerful insouciance—an untainted and joyous celebration of our kaleidoscopic choices—while hopping seamlessly from frivolous video games to lifesaving organ transplants, has not concealed my conviction that OM can be a channel for creating significant value in our society while retaining the aesthetic sensibilities that we academics value so much.

Kanbans. Cyclic Schedules. Vanilla Boxes. Private Jets. Responsive Supply Chains. SmartOps Enterprise Inventory Optimization. Seasonal Logistics. Production Planning. Product-line rationalization. Bundling and Pricing. Video Games. OrganJet. Nudge Videos. 

Easily the best repartee in movie history:

Are you finished?

I am just getting warmed up.

There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no circumference to us. The only sin is limitation. 

His long spell of leisure and liberty was not drawing to an end any time soon.

007

Quantum of Solace is the twenty-second in the James Bond series, earning $589 million worldwide. The Aston Martin DBS V12 returned for the film’s car chase (around Lake Garda) which is considered among the Top-10 greatest movie car chases of all time.

Recalling Wordsworth:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

Integer Programming! Was a very theoretical class, about Total Dual Integrality and such. He did not recall solving any numerical problem sets! 

Harnessing Francis Bacon, he cheekily introduced his next creation:

Neo-Quantum Organon, Book One: Quantum Integer Programming (QuIP).

When David Shmoys invited him to give the Bangs Lecture, he was pleasantly surprised. Has Cornell OR become such a different place from what he remembered as a PhD student? 

As he was living in Boston at that time, and the weather was pleasant, he drove to Ithaca, in his convertible Aston Martin DB7 V12 Vantage Volante, blasting James Bond Theme music (around Lake Cayuga). His talk was on:

OR/OM Entrepreneurship in the 21stCentury.

The perplexed OR PhD students who took him to lunch asked:

Did you graduate from this department?

He was not sure if they were sufficiently au fait to appreciate when he responded, repurposing Mary Flannery O’ Connor:

Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.

He recalled the song he was most known for during his undergraduate years:

We don’t need no education 
We don’t need no thought control 

Hey! Teacher, leave them kids alone 
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall 

Whatever happened to the ancien régime that suffered as much from a poverty of imagination as it did from the hubris in its own infallibility

Importantly, however, this and a subsequent visit (to honor Joe Thomas at the Business School) did help him see a new Cornell OR, in a favorable light.

Time heals what reason cannot.

* * * * 

April 2020. Enjoying a Vesper Martini, he Reimagined Paradise upon an exhortation by Toni Morrison (not John Milton). What is Life? 

Life is a two-sided platform that matches individuals to initiatives. A good life, for an individual, is the finding of, and, subsequently enjoying a life-long pre-occupation with, initiatives that gives the person joy, fulfillment and meaning while providing a dignified existence.

An ideal society is a collection of individuals and institutions (created by individuals) that is able to provide such a platform for all its people.

March 2021. No Time to Die (delayed again 😒). Dante (Paradiso, Canto 14):

Whoever laments that here we must die in order to live up above…does not see that the refreshment of the eternal shower is here.

TO BE CONTINUED…

2 comments

  1. Nice. I see many parallels.

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