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For me, the term "approximately optimize" doesn't make sense since:

Optimize - To make as perfect or effective as possible.

Approximately - Almost exact or correct

I can't quite think of the word that means "approximately optimizing"... unless do people think it's okay?

The context is as follows:

"The tool will approximately optimize the panels' positions by only selecting faces between 120-240 degrees orientation"

Edit: Thanks to FumbleFingers for helping clarify my understanding of the term "optimize". It seems that in computer programming it is possible for "partial" or "full" optimization. The original use of "approximately optimize" therefore is okay!

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How about "Improve"? –  Chris Cudmore Aug 28 '12 at 14:18
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In computing, optimise doesn't normally mean make as perfect or effective as possible - it usually just means make code changes that only improve performance, without affecting actual results. So it's perfectly normal for something to be, for example, partially, or highly optimised. If it's not much of an optimisation, you could just call it an enhancement, but there's nothing wrong with your original. –  FumbleFingers Aug 28 '12 at 14:27
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@Kel196: In your context, I doubt many people would think optimise could only mean make perfect. So I'd just cut out the unnecessary verbiage and say "The tool optimises panel positions by..." –  FumbleFingers Aug 28 '12 at 14:44
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related: 'satisfice' - to make as good as possible without wasting effort on the impossible last bits. –  Mitch Aug 28 '12 at 15:18
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It's not just in computing that optimize doesn't mean make as perfect as possible. People talk about approximate optimization in the academic fields of combinatorial optimization and operations research as well. –  Peter Shor Aug 28 '12 at 15:37

4 Answers 4

It depends on context, of course, but if approximate optimization sounds too odd or flowery for your tastes, you could try words like:

  • calibrate
  • adjust
  • attune

When used in conjunction with various equipments, those words imply that performance or measurement is being improved – with the optimum being ideal, though not necessarily attained.

The word tweak can also be used, though that sounds more informal to my ears.

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Satisfice

You'll run into this in economics. The idea is that people don't pull out a laptop with Matlab on it on order to calculate what to do; they merely have a short think in order to come to a solution that satisfies some conditions, and make do with whatever optimizations are easily to hand.

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The term "approximately optimal" - meaning "approaching or close to optimal" - makes sense. The jump is then to make this compound term a verb instead of an adjective. By saying "approximately optimize" as a verb, one means to improve the state of a system to a point that is believed or known to be close to optimal.

In your exact context, it may be known that this approach is not, in fact, the optimal solution. However, it may improve considerably upon a more naive approach, and produce performance or results very close to the "optimal" solution. The actual "optimal" solution may require an algorithm that is not known, or that is not available (perhaps due to intellectual property protection laws), or the "optimal" solution may produce optimal results but have unacceptable performance, or vice versa. In this case the result of the "approximate optimization" may sacrifice the perfection of results to maximize performance.

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I've thought about your question for a couple of hours, and I agree with your initial thought that "approximately optimize" doesn't actually make sense. I'm wondering if you couldn't simply use the word (the verb) approximate.

As a verb, approximate means to:

Estimate or calculate (a quantity) fairly accurately; Come close or be similar to something in quality, nature, or quantity

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