Manager, mathematical programming
"I feel like I have a good novel in me that is struggling to get out --- but I do have a regular job that consumes much of my energy!"
On the book: A First Course in Combinatorial Optimization (2004)
What made you decide to write a book on this topic?
I have been teaching graduate students on this topic for the last 20 years --- at Yale, the University of Kentucky and now at New York University. For most of those years, I used my own notes in lieu of a textbook, since I could not find a book that: (i) was appropriately sized for a one-semester course, (ii) had the mix of topics and emphasis that I prefer, and (iii) had a low price. With regard to each of these points, (i) many of the available alternatives are excellent reference texts, but they are too long --- not geared for one semester; (ii) I like to emphasize the mathematical aspects and not get bogged down in data structures; (iii) Cambridge University Press was willing to publish the book in paperback as well as hardback, right from the start, so the price point is palatable for students.
How did you go about the research necessary to write such a technical book?
Writing the book did not directly involve research. Most of the topics that I wrote about I learned as a graduate student in the early 80's. But I have gained considerable perspective by teaching and carrying out research in the last 20 years, and this had a very strong indirect influence on the final product.
For this book in particular, but also when I write research papers, the most difficult and also the most important point is to keep in mind how the material will appear to your target audience. For me, the shortcoming of many introductory graduate textbooks is that they seem to be written for sophisticated colleagues rather than typical beginning graduate students. The goal should be to entice the student into further study, not to impress one's colleagues. So, though I did get some useful feedback from reviewers and colleagues as I developed this book, the most important input came from students. The other great challenge that I faced was related to my self-imposed page limit; it was a struggle to decide what I could include, while presenting all necessary details, under this restriction. Finally, another hard part for me was deciding when it was time to call it done.
What or who inspires and encourages you to write?
Ego I suppose.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Carefully consider whether you want to spend ten times as much time writing the book as you expect that it will take.
Who are some of your favorite authors today?
I do not read much that is contemporary. I like to read writers who are good story tellers but also have something critical to say about the time/place in which they lived and say it with some passion. For example, I really enjoy Candide (Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire), Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad), Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera), Tropic of Cancer/Capricorn (Henry Miller). Much of this is timeless.
What role did books play in your childhood?
I have a vivid and painful memory of my dog eating a copy of Harriet the Spy that I had borrowed from the New York City Public Library. I did not read all that much as a child --- I am catching up. But I have always liked to write. My first publication was a poem that I wrote in fourth grade, which was published in an anthology. It is a rather dark piece, unconnected with any real experience that I had (like Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte), but it was mainly inspired by my teacher Mrs. Bard telling me that it did not have to rhyme; a sudden change in the rules can be very inspiring. I feel like I have a good novel in me that is struggling to get out --- but I do have a regular job that consumes much of my energy!
Other books by Jon Lee
Trends in Optimization (2004)