Sunday, July 02, 2006

Do the Math 

What ho! From the S.F. Chronicle, an intriguing if not altogether comforting profile of Stanford professor Laurence Wein, whose use of mathematical models to analyze potential terrorist threats has earned him the sobriquet "Dr. Doom":
He has ciphered the risks of our "woefully inadequate" inspection of container ships, assessed the effectiveness of border-control fingerprint checks to spot terrorists, and performed what may well be the first math analyses of hypothetical botulism, anthrax and smallpox contaminations.

Recall the agitation last year over warnings that the nation's milk supply was vulnerable, based on the calculation that one terrorist with a few grams of botulinum could contaminate a tanker and potentially poison 100,000 gallons of milk? That's just one of many tidings of comfort and joy brought to you by Wein.

Another such upper is that just about 6 percent of containers shipped into U.S. ports will be categorized as suspicious and subjected to tests for a nuclear device, based on a system that relies largely on reporting by the shipper. The rest, Wein noted, "just waltz right into the country without an inspector laying an eye on them."

At Stanford's Graduate School of Business, he teaches a core course in operations, and he says the parallels are strikingly similar: Just as McDonald's needs a well-designed distribution system to get its hamburgers out quickly, so the government needs a well-designed distribution system to get vaccines and antibiotics to citizens who might sicken or die from a bioterror attack. In math lingo, some of these computations rest on "queueing theory" -- the notion that a lot of needy people must line up behind a limited number of distributors.

And what do we do after crunching millions of numbers to arrive at specific prescriptions? Wein has taken on the role of necessary nag to a torpid federal bureaucracy and recalcitrant industries.

In fact, the feds scrambled to try to suppress publication of his damning milk study as a threat to national security -- an argument the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences rejected before publishing the work.

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