Monthly Archives: September 2016

Frank Loesser and corruption in America

The movie musicals of Frank Loesser (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Guys and Dolls) are a straightforward celebration of a certain sort of peculiarly American form of corruption and adulteration. Both are about people dressing up formally and obeying elaborate forms of etiquette while optimizing for nothing but scamming one another. Highly recommended if you haven't already seen them - Frank Loesser is also a gifted lyricist and the choreography is great, so they're fun to watch.

Guys and Dolls is about how the occasional infusion of a person of integrity leads to the corruption of other people of integrity. Almost all the characters are gamblers, except for people who literally work as Salvation Army missionaries or police officers, and one stage performer. The gambling is made to seem charming since it resembles a children's game (all these grown up children just want to play with cards and dice and watch horses run fast and argue over who’s going to win), but it's clearly compulsive and antisocial behavior. The gamblers all dress up smartly and speak with elaborately formal diction, and in general it's a lot like The Godfather as an extreme romanticization of gangster culture (h/t Cracked) which plays up the honor ethic and sense of style. However, at one point a big out-of-town gambler who's lost a lot of money at a crap game pulls out a gun and a set of blank dice, claiming he remembers which side is which, in order to "win" his money back from the game organizer at gunpoint. So the honor is clearly sort of fake, but there’s some pressure to preserve appearances.

Marlon Brando's male lead character falls in love with a woman working for the Salvation Army, but in the process of being reformed by her, manipulates her into leaving town one night, leaving her mission unstaffed so that some gamblers can use it as a venue, and then lying to the police to protect them. The other male lead, played by Frank Sinatra, finally agrees to get married to throw police off his trail, and in the process gives an engagement speech in front of his fiancée about how happy he is that she's trusting him even though she knows he's scamming her.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is based on a satirical business handbook with the same title, and it's about how to use sociopathic Machiavellian manipulation to advance in a corporation. It's explicitly about clubbiness among graduates of the same college - at one point the young talented protagonist following the book's advice pretends to have gone to the same college as the CEO to curry favor with him. More generally, it is about coordination between people of a privileged class who want to continue extracting monopoly rents together instead of facing real competition - there's a scene where the other executives are meeting in the executive washroom to try and coordinate against the upstart. Near the climax there's a song called "Brotherhood of Man" about how top executives and board members should show solidarity with the rest of privileged middle and upper management and keep employing them them even if they don't add value. The protagonist becomes chairman of the board, and at the very end decides that he'd rather be President of the United States, so he shows up at the White House to implement the exact same strategy.

Increase bottleneck throughput by shortening queues?

I've been reading Yes to the Mess by Frank Barrett, and I'm confused about a queueing problem mentioned in it. He gives an example from Kip Hawley's book Permanent Emergency, which I'll quote here:

The Powder River Basin was the single biggest leverage point for increasing profitability in Union Pacific territory [...] one of the most important coal-producing areas in the United States - a place where our trains always seemed to get bottlenecked at a single line of rail leading to the coal fields while transporting coal to many of the nation's electric power plants.

Because on-time performance from this particular spot was so important - a serious delay in delivery could endanger the supply of electricity to the entire city of Atlanta - Union Pacific spent enormous energies trying to improve efficiency. We rushed high-priority coal cars to a continuous queue just outside the single-point entry to the basin. We advanced new, empty cars right after the previous train moved out loaded with coal. But instead of maximizing efficiency, we were overdoing it. One of the consequences of focusing so much operational and tactical energy on wringing every last second out of the process is that we left ourselves precious little slack when something did go wrong. [...]

It is simply the nature of large, heterogeneous systems like a railroad network to have things go wrong all the time. And as soon as something went wrong with one train, the other trains we'd stacked up behind it were stuck. Lining up all the trains in a row, we realized, had effectively squeezed all room for error out of the system and was slowing down our delivery schedule.

After letting that conundrum soak in, one of our brainstorming teams proposed a solution that directly contradicted the time-maximization mode we'd been toiling in. What if, rather than rushing the empties to the gridlock point, we staged the coal cars far away from the troublesome intersection and then flowed them in, so they arrived when the intersection was clear? Rather than trying to cram in as many priority trains as possible, we dispatched the cars to a collection of holding points dispersed across the railroad, making sure that the Powder River Basin's access point wasn't idle for very long. It worked. Not only did it clear up the gridlock, it also increased the number of daily coal trains by 30 percent. [...]

Another way of thinking about that solution was that railroad dispatchers were building resilience into the process. Previously, we'd put all our eggs in one perfect basket, leaving us no viable secondary options if the basket filled up. It was true that our new system of flowing in trains was not technically as time-efficient as the first system, but by accounting for the time eaten up by unpredictable problems that plague any complex network, it was ultimately more successful.

I don't understand how this can possibly be true.

I understand how this could improve average on-time performance. Keeping all available coal trains queued at the Powder River Basin means that they are not available elsewhere, so if there's a delay at that single bottleneck, it will cascade throughout the network. The first queueing train probably increases utilization of the one coal field line, but the tenth improves performance much less in expectation there, while it could easily improve performance in emptier areas of the network by quite a lot.

What I don't understand is how this could possibly improve throughput at the intersection, unless there's some key factor I'm missing. It's conceivable that the bottleneck could have been overutilized, or that there wasn't just the one line and there was an alternate route that farther-away trains could have gotten to, or that the section of track trains were queueing on was also sometimes needed as an exit, but nothing like that gets mentioned by Hawley as far as I can tell. The claim seems to be, simply, that shorter queues caused higher throughput.

What am I missing?