Sunday, July 25, 2010

Packing as an Optimization Problem -- Off to Europe

I will soon be on a two week trip to Europe to speak at conferences and have begun to pack.

Packing a suitcase is an optimization problem to which we can apply the tools of operations research.

First, consider the constraints:

I am assuming one carryon suitcase which must fit into the overhead compartment in the airplane(s) so I have to deal with a limited volume.

I am also limited as to the weight of the fully packed suitcase since I insist on carrying my suitcase on the plane and having it with me in my travels. (I recall not so fondly having to dump some of my favorite shoes at the Auckland airport since I was over the weight limit and refuse, if at all possible, to check my luggage, since my suitcase from Japan, lost two decades ago, compliments of United, has yet to arrive.) Also, every academic has his share of horror stories of suitcases that arrived at the destination after the talks were given.

One should pack for the weather (so I have been checking the weather forecasts for my two destinations) and for the occasion. I have to give two plenary talks so I have to look professional for the duration of the two conferences (besides my European mother instilled this in me and even as a child she dressed me in suits). In Vienna, the temps are forecasted to be rainy and cooler next week whereas Yalta is a summer tourist destination on the Black Sea and can be quite warm (but probably cooler than in the steamy Northeast of the US now).

Of course (I wonder whether male academics care about this), I believe that the clothing that one takes should be color-coordinated and in good taste (and one should not wear the same outfit every day). Plus, with the right combination of skirts, tops, and accessories (shoes matter, too), one can maximize the number of outfits that one can generate. One has to factor in those evening banquets and conference excursions.

Going for this period of time, one needs to also plan for including some exercise, so I will make do with a good pair of sneakers and some colorful t-shirts and shorts.

Luckily, conferences in the summer only require lighter-weight clothing!

So, I need to identify which resources (pieces of clothing) I should take with me in the carryon suitcase so that they do not exceed the volume of the suitcase nor the weight limit and maximize some representation of the utility or satisfaction that I get from bringing and wearing them. Additional constraints include "matching" type of constraints -- I can't very well just show up in only tops or only bottoms but need each day a complete outfit when I venture out.

One of my most challenging extended business trips took place a few years ago when I had to speak in Cyprus (where it was very hot), then fly to Iceland for a conference (with temps in the mid40s), and then back to give a talk in Erice, Sicily, where it was also very warm. Luckily, my husband and daughter met me in Iceland and brought warm clothing so I did not have to deal with that part.

I emailed my presentations to the organizers of the two conferences so I don't have to lug a laptop but have backups on a pendrive.

I solved the above optimization problem and am delighted with the result. I could include a photo of my suitcase contents but, instead, I will surprise you with photos after this trip.

And, remember to always take an umbrella!