Previous month:
June 2010
Next month:
August 2010

July 2010

"Three Cups of Tea", by Greg Mortenson and David Relin

Lehigh’s Office of the First-Year Experience has assigned international best-seller Three Cups of Tea, by former mountaineer Greg Mortenson and journalist David Relin, for the incoming first-year students to read over the summer. The reading program is part of the evoLUtion seminar, a four-week seminar geared towards helping the freshmen (and freshwomen) make the transition into college. Over the past few years, many colleges and universities have introduced reading programs for their incoming classes, with the goal of building a sense of community by giving the students shared academic experiences early on. While I'm not sure that the reading program is nearly as successful in terms of community building as the events held during Orientation Week, I find any activity that makes teenagers read highly welcome.

As a faculty volunteer for the evoLUtion seminar, I have to read the book over the summer too. I had mixed feelings about Three Cups of Tea before I began. Although I was aware of its status as international best-seller, I had read some negative reviews about the book, which are hinted at in the Bookmarks magazine excerpt published on Amazon.com – it was supposed to tell a great story but in a grating style, and was overly focused on heaping praise on Greg Mortenson. (I also heard, and I’m sorry I don’t remember my source but the story is repeated on Wikipedia, that the book wasn’t selling too well with its initial subtitle of “One man’s mission to fight terrorism one school at a time”: only 20,000 copies were bought in the hardcover edition. Then, at Mortenson's prompting, the subtitle was changed to “One man’s mission to promote peace one school at a time,” and the book found itself propelled onto the bestseller lists, landing a coveted #1 spot on the New York Times rankings. Excellent marketing lesson.)

Three Cups of Tea turned out to be an engrossing, and very well-written, account of the extraordinary mission former climber Greg Mortenson set for himself after a failed attempt at climbing K2 (reputedly the most dangerous summit in the world): to build schools, especially for girls, in Pakistan. Mortenson, exhausted after his aborted bid for the summit, wandered off the track on the way down and ended up in the wrong village – a village Western climbers usually didn’t go through. He befriended the population and promised them he would come back to build a school for the village children, who studied their lessons in a field, and were even left by themselves on the days the teacher they shared with another village was away teaching the other children.

Mortenson was a bit of a Californian drifter back then, living in his car to save money, working as an ER nurse to pay the bills and spending his free time first climbing and later writing letters asking for money for the school. (Budget: $12,000, in early 1990s money.) I liked that he discovered, in his mid-thirties, what has become his claim to posterity by accident – so many students are expected to figure out their passion by the time they graduate from college, which is unrealistic – and he struggled to raise the money for months afterward. The people he contacted (painstakingly typing 580 letters one by one at a typewriter because he did not know about word processing) did not exactly fall over themselves to lend money to a stranger with no track record, no matter how worthy his goal sounded. I cannot think of a better lesson in fortitude and perseverance. Ultimately, a philanthropist named Jean Hoerni wrote the check for the whole amount Mortenson needed.

In Pakistan, the idea of building schools for the local children aroused much enthusiasm and Mortenson benefited from the advice of several Pakistanis, who helped him decipher local customs and introduced him to the right people to buy construction materials for the school. The need to rely on others, and to build schools in places where Mortenson already had contacts (a foray in Waziristan, where he ventured alone, could have ended tragically), was reinforced throughout the book. Those are valuable insights in business too. In addition, his criticism of the US media (the “circus”, as his driver called the whole thing), dropped in Pakistan after September 2001 with little understanding of the area, provides an interesting perspective. The hate mail Mortenson received in late 2001 for helping Muslims is contrasted with the overwhelmingly positive reaction that followed an article about him in the magazine Parade in April 2003. Eye-opening, the difference eighteen months can make.

Mortenson makes many important points. He explains that offering Pakistani children a better future through schools, in addition to being a source of great pride and excitement for Pakistanis, is key to winning the war against terrorism. To stop suicide bombings, he says, you have to give youngsters a reason to believe life is better than death; abject poverty just won’t do it. Education is a critical component of that fight. (“The enemy is ignorance,” a Pakistani Brigadier General is quoted as saying.) Mortenson also emphasizes the need to view Pakistan as many tribes with their own history, tribes who might or might not coexist well together. It comes as no surprise that, according to the afterword, the book has become “required reading for senior US military commanders, Pentagon officers in counter-insurgency training, and Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan.”

What about the criticism that the book glorifies Mortenson? Three Cups of Tea is indeed very positive about its main character, understandably so since he co-authored it, but I never felt that the book tried to gloss over his failings. For instance, the book does not hide that board members of the Central Asia Institute, which Mortenson directs and which raises money to build schools in Pakistan (and now Afghanistan), have criticized his inability to delegate or train replacements, and the fact that he is stretched too thin; this has even led Jean Hoerni’s widow, a former board member, to step down. (Another business lesson: the need to delegate to sustain growth. There comes a point where you can no longer do everything by yourself.)

Yes, the Central Asia Institute sounds a lot like a one-man show, with superhero Mortenson accomplishing incredible feats for the children of Pakistan, day in and day out. But you need a lot of self-confidence to attempt a climb of K2; besides, Mortenson shows himself eager to learn local customs and respectful of others’ religions – he’s not a know-it-all. When he tries to make people stick to his schedule to build a school, the elder of the village takes him aside and gently explains that he is driving everyone crazy. Mortenson learns the lesson and changes his ways. Later, as the foundation has a more solid financial footing, he does hire people to help him and finally gives himself an overdue raise. (He was originally paid about $25,000 a year. It’s a good thing he settled down in Montana with his wife rather than, say, Boston or San Francisco.)

As a side note, I enjoyed reading Tom Brokaw’s blurb on the front of the paperback edition: “Thrilling… proof that one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, really can change the world.” Of the 580 people Mortenson contacted by mail before Jean Hoerni decided to help, a single one replied, with “a check for one hundred dollars and a note wishing him luck.” That person was Tom Brokaw.

In summary, I thought the book was excellent. Mortenson is an inspiring figure and hopefully will motivate first-year students to aim high and dream big. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Stones into Schools, about Mortenson building schools in Afghanistan.


Highlights from HBR

Here are a few highlights from the July/August issue of Harvard Business Review. (More next week.)

  • Wall Street is no friend to radical innovation, by Julia Kirby. "[Mary Benner of the Wharton School] finds that analysts tend to speak glowingly about innovations from major players that extend old technology, while downplaying the initiatives those firms have under way to capitalize on the next wave of technology."
  • How investors react when women join boards, by Andrew O'Connell. "After women are appointed to corporate directorships... institutional investors that each own 5% or more of a company's shares increase their shares, but small-holding firms cut back." This leads to stock prices declining slightly, although "financial performance, on average, remains unchanged".
  • Powerlessness corrupts, by Rosabeth Moss Kanter. "Hemmed in by rules and treated as unimportant, people get even by overcontrolling their own turf, demanding tribute before responding to requests... Scarcity feeds resentment."
  • Singapore Airlines' Balancing Act, by Loizos Heracleous and Jochen Wirtz. The carrier "successfully executes a dual strategy: it offers a world-class service and is a cost leader." The article provides an excellent overview of Singapore Airlines' operations and strategy.
  • Stop trying to delight your customers, by Matthew Dixon, Karen Freeman and Nicholas Toman. Customers don't want a superior experience when they call for service. They want the problem they are calling about to be handled quickly; they resent having to contact the company multiple times or having to repeat information if they're transferred. The authors advocate that "reps should focus on reducing the effort customers must make."
  • Job-hopping to the top and other career fallacies, by Monika Hamori. Here are the four fallacies: (1) Job-hoppers prosper. (2) A move should be a move up. (3) Big fish swin in big ponds. (Actually, many people from "big ponds" leave for smaller firms but cash in on the brand name of their former employer, gaining in terms of title or position.) (4) Career and industry switchers are penalized. The article goes in a lot of details about each fallacy - I highly recommend it.

Quote of the Day

"Why do so many young bloggers sound like hyenas laughing in the dark? Maybe it's because there's no old hand at the next desk to turn and say, 'Son, being an enraged, profane, unmoderated, unmediated, hit-loving, trash-talking rage monkey is no way to go through life.' " -Peggy Noonan, Youth has outlived its usefulness, Wall Street Journal, July 16, 2010.

In this column for the Wall Street Journal, Noonan argues that "American politics is desperately in need of adult supervision", that what President Obama has lacked over the past 18 months is "a wise man... to offer counsel and perspective" and that the nation learned the wrong lessons from the Vietnam war: it learned "never listen to wise men" instead of "wise men can be wrong too". (If you can't access the full article, Google it and click on the link. The full version should appear then.)

Interestingly, Noonan connects this to a broader emerging mentoring gap that affects not only politicians but also lawyers and editors - hence the quote. I do find it a little easy to pretend that the issue, at least in blogging (which admittedly represents only a tangential point in Noonan's column), is age - if only the youngsters benefited from the mentoring of their elders, they would see the light and behave in a civilized fashion.

Of course, young bloggers who don't know any better might adopt a shrill tone to get noticed in the overcrowded blogosphere. But isn't getting noticed and having an illusion of power the reason why (not particularly young) commentators have taken extreme stances too? When you come across a twenty-something behaving like "an enraged... trash-talking rage monkey", you can at least hope he'll change as he matures. What about the middle-aged folks, though, who rant on their blogs or - worse - on primetime TV? Who will mentor them and tell them "sound[ing] like hyenas laughing in the dark... is no way to go through life"?


Summer Reading

Links I like:

  • FedEx Looks to 777s to Deliver an Edge, by the Wall Street Journal. Indicators give FexEx reasons to be optimistic about the economy, thus justifying its purchase of 777s for its fleet. The new planes are more efficient and, because they don't have to refuel in Anchorage, Alaska on US-Asia trips, cut flight times by one to three hours. That means Asia factories can work one to three hours longer and still have their goods shipped out on time for next-day delivery.
  • Liberal Arts and the Bottom Line, by Lane Wallace at the Atlantic, about a New York Times article, which describes the efforts of the Bell company, back in its heyday, to create better-rounded managers. The training program was ultimately discontinued because "while executives came out of the program more confident and more intellectually engaged, they were also less interested in putting the company’s bottom line ahead of their commitments to their families and communities."
  • The Power of Pliable Thinking, from WSJ's Hire Education blog. About young graduates looking for work and facing constant rejection, resignation vs positive/negative thinking.
  • Cyber Accountability: Should ISPs Quarantine Bad Users? by Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic. Asks many important questions, such as: "[W]ho's accountable for protecting the dot.com domain?... Can Comcast charge customers who regularly update their anti-virus software less than those who don't? Can the security incentives be aligned with the financial incentives the market imposes without violating people's rights?"
  • When Polling Numbers Don't Look Random, by Carl Bialik (Numbers Guy) at the Atlantic. "Using widely accepted statistical theory, the authors [of a study about a polling firm's numbers] write, the chance of such an anomaly happening [the percentage of men and women agreeing on a statement being both even or both odd] 776 out of 778 times by random chance is less than one in one followed by 228 zeros."
  • Summa Cum What? by Lane Wallace at the Atlantic. About a high school with 41 valedictorians, which dilutes the prestige of being selected. "Ask any mid-50s group of professionals, and they will tell you how many over-achieving classmates fizzled or became alcoholics, unemployed, or just terribly unhappy in the years after graduation, because they lacked the balance or life skills to handle the inevitable curve balls life throws out along the way. Knowing how to pick yourself up after failure and learn something from it, it turns out, is far more important than being such a wonderful success in the first place."
  • The Plagiosphere Bites Back, by Edward Tenner at the Atlantic.  "Are more students really cheating now, or are they simply more shameless in acknowledging it? ... Students at the end of the 19th century often considered their peers selfishly ambitious if they did not share answers."

Multi-Range Robust Optimization

In a recently completed research paper, my doctoral student Ruken Düzgün and I present a robust optimization approach when the uncertainty in objective coefficients is described using multiple ranges for each coefficient. This setting arises when the value of the uncertain coefficients, such as cash flows, depends on an underlying random variable, such as the effectiveness of a new drug (in addition to traditional sources of uncertainty such as customer demand).

Traditional robust optimization with a single range per coefficient would require very large ranges in this case and lead to overly conservative results. In our approach, the decision-maker limits the number of coefficients that fall within each range; he can also limit the number of coefficients that deviate from their nominal value in a given range. Modeling multiple ranges requires the use of binary variables in the uncertainty set, which raises tractability challenges. (Side note for the technically minded: This is because strong duality - the key optimization tool that, in linear and convex programming, allows the inner minimization problem in the max-min models of robust optimization to be turned into an equivalent maximization - cannot be directly applied when the uncertainty set has integer variables.) We show how to address this issue to develop tractable reformulations.

Furthermore, we apply our approach to a R&D project selection problem when cash flows are uncertain. We develop a robust ranking heuristic, where the project manager ranks the projects according to densities (ratio of cash flows to development costs) or Net Present Values, while incorporating the budgets of uncertainty but without requiring any optimization procedure. While both density-based and NPV-based ranking heuristics perform very well in experiments, the NPV-based heuristic performs better; in particular, it finds the truly optimal solution more often.

Full version is available at optimization-online.org.


Welcome, Dr Katya Scheinberg!

The department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Lehigh University is thrilled to announce that Dr Katya Scheinberg will be joining the faculty in the fall. After receiving a MS degree from the Lomonosov Moscow State University in 1992 and a PhD in operations research from Columbia University in 1997, Dr Scheinberg spent over a decade on the staff of the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center; most recently, she held a visiting appointment at Columbia University. In addition, she co-authored the book Introduction to Derivative-Free Optimization, published by SIAM (the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics) in January 2009. Her strengths in optimization, and especially in developing and analyzing algorithms for continuous optimization, makes her a perfect fit for the department. We are looking forward to welcoming her in August.

I got a Twitter account!

I finally got a Twitter account, on the advice of some friends who just love that website - at least when it's not over capacity. It took me a while to decide to give it a try, as I worry that the web trend toward short updates encourages shallowness. (In case you haven't noticed the usual length of my blog posts, I don't do short very well.) But in the end, I've heard so many people praise it as a powerful tool that I thought I should see for myself what the fuss was about.

I like best tweets linking to news articles, which don't necessarily show in the blog feeds I'm subscribed to. Also, I often find myself saving links to interesting articles I've stumbled upon on the Internet but don't have enough to say about them to warrant a blog post, and hope I can share some of those on Twitter, as well as provide an umbrella for my two blogs (updates to this blog will be posted automatically on Twitter; I'm hoping to make the other blog public in the coming months). Hopefully, Twitter will provide another avenue to disseminate thoughts and keep myself updated about my favorite media outlets and companies.