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October 2012

TED Talk on schools killing creativity

Today's post is on the most viewed TED talk to date in the organization's history, by Sir Ken Robinson on how schools kill creativity. (He defines creativity as the "process of having original ideas that are valued".) In this talk, which has already been watched more than 11 million times, Robinson argues for a rethink of the school system so that education will nurture - rather than kill - creativity, in his opinion just as important as literacy. This is due to the fast-changing environment facing young people soon to enter the workforce.

One of Robinson's famous quotes in the speech is: "If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” He also quotes a well-known line by Picasso: "All children are born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up." Robinson believes kids are being educated out of creativity and argues that the purpose of the education system is to produce university professors. This might be a bit of a stretch, but he points out that a lot of professors live in their head, while arts like dance are viewed as the least well-regarded part of the curriculum. Academic ability has come to dominate the education system, and students are discouraged from doing something they won't do a career of (music, etc), in spite of (a) the process of academic inflation, which means that they need always more advanced and expensive degrees to be competitive for a job - and (b) the fact that we don't even know the skills our children will need in the workforce decades from now.

According to Robinson, we need to rethink our view of intelligence to capture that: (1) it is diverse, like the world we live in, (2) it is dynamic & interactive, and finally (3) it is distinct (we process information by seeing, hearing, touching it). Sadly, he provides no specifics whatsoever. That's the issue with giving talks that are only eighteen minutes long. Thankfully, he expands on his views in his book Out of our minds, about which I'll write a post next.

Robinson had clearly prepared for his talk, though. I loved the story about Gillian Lynne, the Royal Ballet dancer who went on to great success on stage (especially thanks to Cats and Phantom of the Opera) but had been incorrectly labeled as incapable of learning as a child because she wanted to move all the time - it turns out she wasn't sick, she just wanted to dance. On the other hand, if you only have 18 minutes to make your point about schools killing creativity, maybe you could find a better example than someone who picked an athletic career. The over-diagnosis of ADHD, which Sir Robinson mentions in the dancer's story, is an important issue, but it brings us a bit far from the purpose of the talk.

As an obvious example, it never ceases to amaze me how multiple-choice tests are viewed in the US school system as the ultimately tool to distinguish top students from average ones. They're easy to scale, but they most certainly don't help in assessing creativity.

The talk, which was taped in 2006, isn't quite as polished as later TED talks, but it's a good watch nonetheless. Contrary to most TED talks these days, this one doesn't end with a call for action, and the audience is left wondering what to do next to bring about change in education. I also found his book Out of our minds to be light on practical recommendations, although very well researched and with good comments on how today's educational system emerged from the need to produce workers for assembly lines in the Henry Ford factory model. Of course if it was easy to figure out what to do to teach people how to be creative, it wouldn't be such a hot topic.

Do you know your cost of capital?

The July/August issue of Harvard Business Review had an outstanding article ("Do you know your cost of capital?") on how the assumptions that leaders make can affect their cost of capital. In a nutshell, the article explains that "companies differ widely in the assumptions built into the financial models they use to evaluate investment opportunities... Not a single question about such assumptions received the same answer from a majority [>50%] of respondents."

Here are some highlights:

  • What's your forecast horizon? 46% answered 5 years, 34% 10 years, 6% 15 years and 14% other.
  • What's your cost of debt? 37% answered current rate on outstanding debt, 34% forecasted rate on new issuance, 29% average historical rate.
  • What's the risk-free rate? 46% answered 10 years, 16% 90 days, 12% 5 years, 11% 30 years, 6% other, 5% 1 year and 4% 20 years.
  • What's the equity-market risk premium? 49% answered 5%-6%, 23% 3%-4%, 17% 7% or greater and 11% less than 3%.
  • What's your beta period? 41% answered 5 years, 29% 1 year, 15% 3 years, 13% 2 years and 2% other.
  • What's your debt-to-equity ratio? 30% answered current book debt to equity, 28% targeted book debt to equity, 23% current market debt to equity and 19% current book debt to current market equity.

The article provides insights into what the correct answers should be, and hopefully corrects some misconceptions. Readers can visit this HBR-sponsored website (hosted by, which builds custom simulations and sells simulation development software to businesses, universities and government agencies) to test out their own data and calculate their cost of capital.

INFORMS Future Practitioner Colloquium

I got back from the INFORMS Annual Meeting in Phoenix, AZ yesterday night and figured I'd write a quick blog post about something my doctoral student E.C. mentioned, in addition to my regular blog post for the week which was published on Tuesday. Here is what prompted the extra post: my student participated in the Future Practitioner Colloquium, a one-day event before the annual meeting geared toward senior doctoral students that focuses on "career paths for OR/MS professionals, challenges that new practitioners experience, discussions concerning choosing between an academic and a practice career and more", and she said that, although the Future Academician Colloquium was very well attended, there were only twelve students in the Future Practitioner Colloquium, including nine from the University of Florida and herself. Only twelve.

Now, I don't know how many doctoral students in operations research or analytics have completed their basic course of study (one of the few requirements to be nominated, see here) and are interested in industry careers, but I'm very sure there are more than three in the country outside the University of Florida. With all the talk about the current analytics wave - or tsunami? - and interest from top companies in "data scientists", as well as the number of companies recruiting at the annual meeting, it seems certain that a whole more students would have benefited from, and should have been interested in, attending the colloquium.

E.C. was actually happy at the small number because it gave her more opportunities to interact with the students who did attend, but from the perspective from someone who enjoys preparing tomorrow's practitioners, I wish more students had been able to benefit from the colloquium for several reasons. One, it covers important topics that we professors can't really teach to students who want to join the real world. And of course it takes more than a one-day colloquium to teach those topics, but at least the colloquium is a start. This is particularly relevant because the whole concept of doctorate involves spending several years making one's own contribution to the field in a specific area, and at the end there is only one name on the dissertation. In contrast, industry involves significantly reduced time scales and teamwork, among other things, which also has implications in terms of students' ability to interact with others, contribute to a large project, deal with difficult team members, and so on.

Intuitively, students who pursue doctoral studies are people very comfortable in spending a lot of time by themselves with their computer, equipment or textbooks, even if they have many friends outside the lab. We teach our undergraduate students to work in teams for some courses or capstone projects, and graduate students in some courses also do team projects, but as doctoral students gain seniority and focus on research, the whole emphasis shifts to that of individual performance over a time horizon of years. Hopefully students attracted to industry will already have the skills required to succeed in the real world - but maybe they'd benefit from identifying early on areas that are particularly important for them to work on in order to be successful, and from hearing about the experience of other O.R. professionals who made the choice before them.

Some students get that exposure through industry summer internships, but not every doctoral student is able to get one, perhaps because his/her adviser prefers that he/she focuses on working on his/her dissertation, and perhaps because industry summer internships for PhD students are not nearly as common as undergraduate internships - besides, finding one that meshes well with a student's expertise is not always easy. A one-day colloquium won't be the solution to everything, but not attending guarantees students won't get any exposure at all to those topics.

Two, given the rising importance of analytics, data science and O.R. in industry, it seems particularly relevant to create a network of young, up-and-coming practitioners who can stay in touch after graduation - those are the people who will call upon each other when senior analytics opportunities present themselves later on. Again, a one-day colloquium won't forge everlasting bonds, but if the students don't attend, then they most definitely won't know about each other. INFORMS tries hard to remain relevant for practitioners, and hopefully there will be a time in the not-too-distant future where the practice conference in the spring (rebranded "analytics conference") will attract as many attendees as the more academic one in the fall, but for now membership does seem to be heavily tilted toward faculty members, and helping future practitioners see a clear benefit in INFORMS membership could contribute to INFORMS's continued relevance in that respect.

Maybe an issue is that professors don't bother telling their department chair that they want to nominate their students for the practitioners colloquium - maybe they are not sure of the value of attending, and while the first student per department goes for free (i.e., the colloquium fee is waived), the department does have to shoulder some of the costs for the subsequent ones. So whoever organizes the colloquium might consider distributing the agenda from the previous year and testimonials from students when he/she calls for nominations. Maybe the timing, in the middle of the summer, is bad for the students or professors who are away; maybe it'd be easier to move the nomination date forward to match abstract submission. But if we want to ensure the continued relevance of analytics in industry, we academics should offer those among our students who are inclined to pursue industry careers more opportunities to meet like-minded students and learn about the specific challenges related to industry work. The University of Florida, whose ISE department is headed by a former Lehigh faculty member, certainly seems to have understood that. The rest of the O.R. departments in the country might want to take notice.

HBR's "Selling into Micromarkets"

Today's post is about an article that appeared in the July/August issue of Harvard Business Review: "Selling into Micromarkets: How to use big data to uncover lucrative new hot spots." It starts with an example at an unnamed chemical and service company, which "diced its seven US regions into 70 micromarkets and zeroed in on those with the greatest potential," leading to a twofold increase in the sales growth rate "without an increase in marketing or sales costs."

The article continues: "The key to the firm's remarkable turnaround was its new ability to combine, sift and sort vast troves of data to develop a highly efficient sales strategy." Apparently, "B2B sales organizations have only recently begun to use big data to both inform overall strategy and tailor sales pitches for specific customers in real time" and the thesis of the article is that "micromarket strategy is perhaps the most potent new application of big-data analytics in B2B sales."

The strategy it describes involves three steps: (1) find new pockets of growth, (2) make it easy for the sales team (align sales coverage with opportunity, create sales plays for each type of opportunity, support the sales force in executing the plays) and (3) put data at the heart of sales (through performance management, cross-functional collaboration and talent development).

Other articles I enjoyed in that HBR issue include:

and if you must only read one article from HBR, make it "Do you know your cost of capital" (more about that in my post next week).

Distance Learning and the Innovative American Classroom

I recently came across a transcript of an event at the Brookings Institution, about "education technology, distance learning and the innovative American classroom." What I found most fascinating about it was the glimpse it offers into how education technology can help improve the education in rural communities such as in Alaska. US senator Mark Begich from Alaska took part in the event and mentioned many wonderful science and engineering programs developed for Alaskan Native students in order to improve their academic preparedness in STEM disciplines:

Senator Begich also mentioned the Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund, which gave funding to the University of Alaska Statewide Office of K-12 outreach in 2011 (click here for a list of top-ranked applicants that year). Here are two quotes of his (in the transcript) that I liked:

  1. "Everyone in DC does these cookie-cutter deals. They say, you know, if we do this program, it's going to work everywhere. Well, not for rural America, not for rural Alaska." And later: "You hear... if it works in New York, it will work everywhere. If it works in Seattle, it's going to work everywhere. They have no clue when you go to a rural community where the school might be 10 people."
  2. "Our former governor, when I had a debate on the stimulus bill with her, we talked about broadband and she considered that a social program, a social service program, you know. Broadband is the highway of this century... The government interstate system is not a social program. It's an economic opportunity in connecting people."

The director of Internet2 K20 initiative, James Werle, also made very interesting remarks. This initiative "brings together Internet2 member institutions and innovators from primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, libraries, and museums to extend new technologies, applications, middleware, and content to all educational sectors, as quickly and connectedly as possible." Over 50,000 schools, museums and other cultural organizations are already connected. An application is to give remote access to K12 students to high-end equipment at universities when not in use (telescopes, microscopes, etc). Another application is next-generation interactive video conferencing between researchers and K-12 students in their classroom.

A great point Werle made is about new online assessments and bandwidth capacity. In particular, "punching a button here... or punching a button there" is not a bandwidth-intensive activity, but enriched tests with multimedia or similar kinds of technology will certainly require a lot of bandwidth for the students to take the assessments. The Vice President of Education and STEM Learning at Battelle, Eric Fingerhut, rightfully commented "We're at the pager stage [as opposed to the iPad stage] of what can be taught on these tools that are being made available."

The America Invents Act

The Leahy-Smith America Invents Act (AIA), which reforms the US patent system, was signed into law back in September 2011 and will bring about significant changes starting this coming March. The AIA was described by the New York Times as "a sweeping reform...that changes the system for determining priority for inventions at the patent office and provides more financing for an agency beset by application backlogs and outdated computer systems."

The White House press release identifies the following key features of the AIA:

  • a fast-track option for patent processing within 12 months
  • reducing the current patent backlog
  • reducing litigation
  • increasing patent quality
  • increasing the ability of American inventors to protect their intellectual property abroad.

The verdict of The Economist on the AIA was: "Congress tweaks, but not overhauls, America's patent system". For instance, the writer points out: "Those who think that patents are granted too easily complain that the bill will still allow too many suits, especially those by “non-practising entities”, which are also known derisively as “patent trolls”." Also, the AIA didn't do away with all business-method patent applications (which seek, as the name suggests, to patent a method to do business) - only those related to finance. More worryingly, the bill doesn't seem to help with the PTO's funding situation.

John Villasenor, a UCLA professor in electrical engineering and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution summarizes the AIA as follows:

  1. Starting mid-March 2013, the "first to invent" patent system will be replaced by "first to file", which is more in line with the practice in the rest of the world. (This change has been met with some criticism, though, as it is said to put small companies at a disadvantage.)
  2. A new prioritized patent examination program called Track One has been implemented, in which inventors can have their patent applications be processed within a year by paying an additional fee.
  3. Companies will have more options to challenge their competitors' patents (granted or pending), from a “post-grant review”, which will allow them to challenge a patent issued within the previous nine months, to a “pre-issuance submission” option - starting in September 2012 - with which they'll be able to explain to the Patent and Trademark Office why they feel a competitor’s pending patent shouldn't be granted, among other procedures.
  4. The AIA includes a defense to infringement based on prior user rights, which will help companies that were using as trade secret something later patented independently by a competitor. (Villasenor covers this topic in more depth in another post.)
  5. The requirement for an inventor to disclose the "best mode" to use his patent is still in effect to obtain a patent but the sanctions that punished the failure to do so have been removed.

If you're curious about the fees the US Patent and Trademark Office charges to process patent application (you know you are!), this schedule has all the information for you. For instance, a request for prioritized examination will cost $4,800 while the most expensive item I saw on the list was the "request for inter partes reexamination", at $8,800.

According to an article in the New York Times, the new law has created strong demand for patent specialists, who typically have a dual background in engineering and law. I've seen some of my MIT doctoral classmates move on to law firms after graduation to work in intellectual property while taking evening classes toward their JD (although a JD is not required for patent law, which requires admission in front of the USPTO rather than the patent bar). It seems a very worthwhile career path that allows science and engineering PhDs to help support US innovation and entrepreneurship through the protection of intellectual property.

It's also worth reading to the remarks of the USPTO Director David Kappos at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Venture Summit last April. The speech - very well-written - offers a good balance between concrete examples (including RPI's Emerging Ventures Ecosystems) and general statements about the policies of the current Administration on innovation, such as public-private partnerships, the handling of software-related inventions, and Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation.

I'll finish with an unusual example of innovation. Typically, universities are associated to the idea of innovation through their research labs, which involve mostly faculty and doctoral students. But George Washington University is injecting innovation in its own processes too, investigating ideas suggested by the GWU community, such as an increase in the number of hybrid courses - courses that combine on-campus class meetings with online learning activities - and better housing utilization to increase occupancy in the summer. GWU has showed its commitment to the experiment by identifying over $43M to be spent for Fiscal Year 2015 and each year thereafter on implementing these ideas. I find it a fascinating way to demonstrate the innovative process to students, from concept to implementation. Can't wait to see which ideas make it to real life!