Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Aha! If Only I Could Remember ...

By Keith McDowell

For a brief moment as the warm and soothing waters of the morning shower pummel your body, your subconscious brain pierces through the fog of sleepiness and reveals to you the most brilliant idea ever conceived. Frantically, you attempt to reduce all the nuances of your brilliance into a few words hoping against hope to later recreate the thread of your idea. In desperation you scribble a few of those words onto the steam-covered glass walls of your shower knowing full well the impermanence of their watery existence. But alas, by the time you are dressed with notepad and pencil in hand, the brilliance is gone, lost to the trivia of the daily pursuit of getting ready for work.

At other times, such rare moments of clarity occur while walking or jogging. If only you could remember to carry a string along with you to tie around your finger and to help you to remember that which you always seem to forget. And then there are those moments when you stare at the string with no recall of that which you are supposed to remember. It’s all so confusing and so frustrating.  Of course, in the modern world, one simply whips out the ubiquitous iPhone, turns on the audio recorder, and joyful blathers away in mostly incoherent babblespeak. And you wonder why your fellow walkers and joggers always pass you by on the opposite side of the road! Hmm, I wonder if iPhones are waterproof?

Like many scholars through the ages, I have long been interested in creativity and the “Aha!” or “Eureka!” experience. Archimedes notwithstanding, such events do occur in one’s life and they are not figments of the imagination. I’ve been blessed with several such moments.

One occurred during the early morning hours in the fall of 1981 in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The rhythmic creaking of the rocking chair loaned to my family by Dr. Jimmie Doll made it difficult for me to stay awake as I held my infant son, John, and slowly rocked him back to sleep. Suddenly, I bolted up out of the chair and realized that I knew the perfect model to study the dynamics of electron transfer at surfaces in the context of using Brownian motion as a metaphor. I had been thinking about the problem for weeks with no success. Somehow, the state of being semi-awake and completely relaxed was exactly the right formula to cause the breakthrough. Mercifully, John remained asleep, but I quickly grabbed pencil and paper and wrote down the essence of my thoughts. The result was a number of research publications and the creation of a concept that I later called electron bath theory.

A second occurrence had a similar theme in the late 1990s. After a long drive from Dallas to Memphis including a snowstorm during the final hour on Interstate 40, I arrived at the conference hotel exhausted and plopped down on the bed, ignoring the vapid offerings on the television. Within minutes, a deep understanding of time reversal in classical trajectories suddenly burst into my wandering mind and led me to a similar understanding for quantum systems. It was the breakthrough that I needed to construct a quantum Langevin equation from first principles after nearly five years of pondering the problem.

The “Eureka!” or “Aha!” moment that occurs under such relaxed conditions is a well-known anecdotal phenomenon recounted by many scientists. For psychologists, the phenomenon or effect falls under the category of “insight.” And as one might expect, it has been parsed into multiple categories and tested using so-called “insight problems” under the watchful eye of EEGs, ERPs, and fMRIs monitoring brain activity. For those interested in a quick look at such mental gymnastics, I recommend Wikipedia and the Eureka effect. Personally, I’m not sure if such studies and brain teasers have much to do with the act of creation, but more to do with IQ, mental agility, and rapid solution of a puzzle. I’ve known plenty of people with such puzzle-solving skills who have displayed no creative ability.

More recently, Jonah Lehrer has published a book entitled Imagine: How Creativity Works.  His musings on the role of daydreaming in the act of creation have garnered much attention in the public press, especially as regards creativity and innovation in the workplace. Over the years, many entities including companies, the military, and universities have attempted to institutionalize the “Eureka!” phenomenon by structuring an array of environments suitable for creativity. They include freaky Friday (usually pizza and beer happy hours), relaxed dress codes (sorry guys, nudity for the females is not an option), game rooms (somehow ping pong doesn’t work for me), exercise rooms (free sports drinks for the extremists), and the ubiquitous brainstorming or team meetings. Do these gimmicks work?

Quite frankly, every serial creator or innovator I’ve talked with tells me the same story as to what constitutes the essential factor. It’s called sweat equity! While some innovations seem to occur spontaneously, serendipitously, or reward the lucky, most require extensive hard work, whether by individual effort and daydreaming or through enhancement by group or collective open innovation. There simply is no substitute for being prepared. Those creative moments in the shower or on the jogging path are informed by the effort put forward. Of course, the innovation itself often follows a completely different line or approach than the one being attempted. As Forrest Gump famously said about his box of chocolates:  “you never know what you’re gonna get.”

Now if I can just remember where I left my iPhone …

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Innovation Writ Large

By Keith McDowell

As Americans line up to purchase the latest technological innovation to satisfy their fix for gadgets – otherwise known as the Apple iPad 3 with its new Retina display, it is sobering to see the juxtaposition of this consumer frenzy – obsolete iPad’s as millinery wear for the lined-up addicts notwithstanding – against the frenzy occurring in the Republican presidential primary race. Some would argue it’s the race to the top versus the race to the bottom. Of course, “which is which” is in the eye of the beholder! And therein lies an interesting connection between the two events: it’s called innovation.

But it’s innovation outside the norms of conventional wisdom and discourse delimited by the language of business and technology. It’s innovation writ large to include the social and civil dimensions of society. And yes, such innovations do ultimately create commercial value in the marketplace for without such change and enhancement of our society, there would be no advanced economy to support the iPad 3 or enlightened consumers ready to line up to putatively improve their condition. We would still be living in the “hunter-gatherer” era of humankind.

But what has any of this got to do with the Republican presidential campaign, you ask? Before we answer that question, it is instructive to review the history of three of America’s most prominent Presidents and their role as innovators. And yes, they were Republicans!

First on our list is Abraham Lincoln. During a time of great travail as our nation was being torn apart by the Civil War, Lincoln’s Administration passed the famous Morrill Act of 1862 that established land-grant colleges and universities to teach the agricultural and mechanical arts to Americans and “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.” In one innovative stroke, he created one of the most powerful engines of innovation for modern America. But it didn’t stop there. He also created on March 3, 1863, the National Academy of Sciences knowing full well that being anti-science or anti-intellectual wasn’t the proper course for America.

History records that Lincoln’s greatest achievement was to free the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 leading eventually to progress in the women’s rights movement and their right to vote in elections, the civil rights movement of the Twentieth century, and the gay rights movement of the present time – all such movements to achieve equality in the American experience. I wonder what Lincoln would have thought about using voter-ID fraud laws to suppress voting by minorities, the poor, and the elderly?

Second on our list is Theodore Roosevelt. Arguably our first conservation President, Teddy was the forerunner of the modern environmentalist and is credited with creating our national parks system, having established five such parks. As an avid mountaineer, I cherish this innovation by Roosevelt. One wonders what his position would have been on “climate change deniers” and “drill, baby drill” versus a rational alternative energy program and protection of our environment while achieving energy independence.

Roosevelt also understood the condition of his fellow man and championed the progressive movement of the early Twentieth century that led to many of the improvements in the lot of the working class in America including the notion of health benefits for employees from employers. While an iconic individualist and a “man’s man,” Roosevelt would never have supported the insidious concept of “you’re on your own.”

And finally we arrive at the third President on our list and one of my favorites, Dwight D. Eisenhower. As a child growing up in 1950s, I was often accused of having the famous Eisenhower grin. It was an accusation that I bore with pride.

Although portrayed by many of his contemporary pundits as the “do nothing” president, Eisenhower was in fact a significant innovator and implementer of innovations. For example, his administration put into place the interstate freeway system in 1956, one of our nation’s greatest infrastructure innovations. Sadly, our current Congress recently struggled to pass a simple two-year transportation bill.

Eisenhower was also a supporter of higher education signing the National Defense Education Act on March 2, 1958. Many members of my generation were fortunate enough to attend college under the NDEA loan program and to become contributors to a better America. Was Eisenhower a snob for supporting such a program? And don’t forget that Eisenhower and his brother, Milton, served as university presidents!

Surprisingly, Eisenhower was a champion for civil rights, although muted in some measure to fit the culture of the 1950s. He successfully implemented desegregation in the armed forces during his first two years in office. One suspects in more modern times that he would have understood the need to throw out “don’t ask, don’t tell” and openly accept gay service members. As he famously said in his remarks at a United Negro College Fund luncheon on May 19, 1953: “I believe as long as we allow conditions to exist that make for second-class citizens, we are making of ourselves less than first-class citizens.” Well said! Our current crop of extremist Republicans would do well to understand what Eisenhower was saying, especially as regards the treatment of women and their health.

Following along the pathway set by Lincoln, Eisenhower took his boldest and most important step with respect to the desegregation of American public schools. He ordered Federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce federal court orders to desegregate the local high school. Unlike Governor Rick Perry and other such pretenders to the Republican throne, Eisenhower wasn’t “fed up” with the federal government. He understood governing and how to use such power.

And so we return to our question about the connection between the current Republican primary race, its contenders, and innovation in the broader context of social and civil innovations. I suspect you already know the answer. Such innovations by our Presidents are absolutely essential for the growth of America, both as an economic power house and as a bastion of enhanced civilization. The current crop of Republican candidates simply don’t get it. Rolling back the clock a century or two by undoing the social and civil innovations of three of our greatest Republican Presidents is not a proper course for America.

American political leaders, whatever their party allegiance or whether of the liberal or conservative persuasion, have always understood the concept of the “loyal opposition” – at least, until now. But today, instead of freeing slaves, creating an improved model for higher education, promoting the rights of our citizens, conserving our environment and our natural resources, building new civil infrastructure such as our interstate freeway system, or investing in any of the other countless innovations required by our society and similar to those supported by previous Republican Presidents, extremists in the right wing of our country want American women to put an aspirin between their knees and to be shamed by wearing a theocratic paper sack over their heads in the modern version of the scarlet letter. They even support state-sponsored rape. Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower must surely be turning over in their graves!

It’s time to expose this nonsense and foolishness for what it is and to expose these pretenders to the light of an informed citizenry. It’s not about liberal versus conservative, Republican versus Democrat, male versus female, religion or church versus the secular state, or any of the other common forms of contextualizing or polarizing American society. It’s certainly not about calling someone a slut on talk radio.

Instead, it’s about human dignity and a regard for our fellow human beings rather than throwing people under the bus. It’s about telling the truth instead of lying. It’s about the greater good over personal selfishness. It’s about facing our greatest fears and making progress in spite of them. And in some measure, as practiced by previous American Presidents, it’s about innovation writ large.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Laziness is the Mother of Innovation

By Keith McDowell

“Please pass the popcorn!” was a phrase often heard in the basement of the Chemistry and Metallurgical Research (CMR) building at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the late 1970s and early 1980s as my good friend Dr. Jim Doll and I watched small circles bounce around on top of other small circles on a computer monitor. It wasn’t the same as watching Star Trek, the prequel, but then we were having our version of fun simulating the diffusion of a single adatom on a metallic surface using a molecular dynamics program developed by Doll. We had grown tired of endless lists of numbers printed out on the ubiquitous green-striped computer paper and decided to simply observe the motion of the attached atom. For theoreticians, it was a novel concept to actually observe an experiment, even if a computer-generated one. Of course, the popcorn helped! Beer would have complemented the ambience, but then alcohol and national labs don’t mix.

While watching our homemade movie, we noticed that the attached atom occasionally hopped not just to a neighboring site, but jumped several surface sites in one correlated motion. Wow! Maybe we had just observed a new phenomenon to be explained. We certainly couldn’t blame it on seeing double from being inebriated!

To satisfy our curiosity, we wanted to fit the data to a rather complex mathematical form, but knew that the fitting subroutine deck of cards was on the first floor of CMR and required passing through a “booty area” to get there. Did I mention that the CMR was a nuclear materials facility?  Taking the flimsy booties with the elastic band on and off of our shoes was a real drag requiring a delicate balancing act, so Doll suggested creating a random number game to determine the fit. We did just that without ever moving from our chairs and “simulated annealing” as a fitting procedure was invented. Laziness, not necessity, won the day! Unfortunately, neither of us bothered to publish the method. We would have been the first to do so. We thought it was too trivial! In the mid-1980s, simulated annealing rapidly became a classic method found in the bible of numerical methods, Numerical Recipes, a surprisingly best selling book. Oh well, such is life! I’ll blame it on the effect of eating too much buttered popcorn.

But the story doesn’t end in the basement of CMR! In 1985, I had an opportunity to visit an old friend, Dr. Dennis W. Bennett, at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. After a great meal in a German restaurant and several beers, Dennis was talking with me about x-ray diffraction and refinements of the R-factor, basically a measure of the resolution of a crystal structure in terms of the observed location of the atoms versus the calculated location. I mentioned to him the possibility of using the simulated annealing method using random numbers as a means of improving the R-factor instead of the usual deterministic methods. After demonstrating the method on his computer with some simple code, Dennis became very excited and intrigued by the method. Subsequently, he developed simulated annealing computer code for x-ray diffractometers as a commercial product that ultimately was sold and installed on many instruments in many laboratories.

Knowledge diffused, innovation occurred, and a product emerged. On that we can agree, but what is innovation and what caused it to occur? What was the actual act of innovation or did several occur? And who gets credit? Furthermore, is such an amorphous act of innovation going to show up in someone’s metric as a measure of innovation? Indeed, is this the manner in which most innovations occur? Wow, this isn’t easy. One thing is certain. We proved that laziness is the mother of innovation, not necessity – or did we?

“Hello, dear, how are you feeling today? You must be angry! You’re pounding my keyboard too hard.” Such was the conversation between a “psycho-friendly” computer and its operator during a 1980s newspaper comic strip. My apologies to the cartoonist, but I’ve been unable to find the original source for this even after hours of googling. I particularly remember this comic strip and its concept of a “psycho-friendly” computer because of the conversations it engendered on having a computer that could do your work for you. Just tell it the nature of the discovery or innovation that you want next and enjoy your popcorn while the computer toils away. Is this a fantasy? Can such laziness really be the mother of invention?

Well, yes! United States Patent 6185534 entitled “Modeling emotion and personally in a computer user interface” can be found online and describes such a “psycho-friendly” computer. Indeed, as reported at on 10 February 2009 by Reuters in an article entitled “Einstein Robot Head Dazzles Tech Conference,” the “empathetic robot” was described as one that “pushes the boundaries of automation by being able to interact with people using emotional nuances.” Hmm, I’ll pass on the “nagging wife” version of the robot, but think of the limitless choice of personality types that could be made, especially in the context of a virtual reality interface driven by one’s directed thought commands, eye movements, or other such actions. It would be a “hands-free” environment. How else are we going to eat the buttered popcorn?

Even better, the barrier of having a computer (or robot) do our discovery and innovation work for us has been broken. Victoria Gill, science reporter for the BBC News, informs us in a story on 4 April 2009 entitled “Robo-scientist’s first findings” that “The robot, called Adam, is the first machine to have independently ‘discovered new scientific knowledge’.” She further reports that “Ross King from the department of computer science at Aberystwyth University, and who led the team, told BBC News that he envisaged a future when human scientists’ time would be ‘freed up to do more advanced experiments’.” Actually, I was hoping to be freed up to climb more mountains, visit great restaurants, be lazy, and still get paid. If such a state of affairs isn’t “laziness as the mother on innovation,” what else is it?

Absent the psycho-friendly, discovery-capable computer, the modern era of information technology and the Internet offers us many other examples sufficient to further inform and possibly prove our assertion about the true driver of innovation.  For example, we have open source innovation sites where one can post problems and permit crowdsourcing to dissect the known pathways and create new pathways for achieving insight into a solution or innovation. Obviously, such an approach is nothing more than a social network version of a discovery-capable computer ala “Adam.” And best of all, we don’t even have to take a bath, shave, don our geek suit of clothes, or travel to the office as we pursue new discoveries and innovations from the comfort of our Lazy Boy recliner using our wireless iPad.

How much more proof do you need? It’s a changed world as we invent and create new approaches for discovery and innovation. It’s the 21st century where laziness has replaced necessity as the mother of innovation! Oh, and please pass the popcorn before you finish reading.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Know Before You Owe!

By Keith McDowell

So how much does it really cost to go to college? Do you know? And what about all those headlines bemoaning the continuing – and some would say accelerating – growth in tuition at our institutions of higher education including community colleges? Are we rapidly making higher education accessible and available only to a privileged few? Are we truly cutting off and restricting the pipeline of talent and diversity needed to function as a nation in the 21st century of global competition?

Like many of our national leaders, President Barack Obama has taken up the cudgels for the many students heavily burdened by the debt and savaged by the rising cost of a college education. In a speech on January 27, 2012, at the University of Michigan, Obama said, “We should push colleges to do better. We should hold them accountable if they don’t.” And following in the footsteps of Richard Cordray, Director of the Consumer Finance Protection Board, and the person who coined the phrase “know before you owe,” Obama then stated that “today I’m also calling for a new report card for colleges.” Obama proposed to tie some forms of federal student-aid assistance for colleges to performance-based funding. But, of course, such a plan would only affect those students most in need of financial aid.  As always, the devil is in the details.

And not to be outdone by our political leaders, pundits and television-show hosts have also taken on the issue of the rising cost of a college education – most notably, Dylan Ratigan. For the record, I’m a fan of Ratigan and greatly enjoy the intelligent discourse in his daytime program, the quality of his guests, and the data-driven nature of his presentations. But on the issue of the rising cost of a college education, he gets a failing grade. He mostly rants with little factual basis and entertains guests who are clueless on the subject. One suspects it has to do with promoting the sale of his new book, Greedy Bastards – college administrators being one of his examples. 

In a clever twist of programming subterfuge coupled to a book-signing tour, Ratigan created a 30 Million Jobs Tour for the purpose of visiting regional innovation ecosystems and gee-whiz universities in order to tie together a number of innovation threads including how to get to the magic 30 million new jobs mark and the effect of the horrible job market on college graduates. It was well-done and informative except for one thing. He bashed colleges and universities – almost in the same gleeful spirit as Rich Santorum who equates colleges with liberal indoctrination mills and those who advocate for a college education with snobs. Ratigan currently has two main points: (1) colleges should invest in modern technology as well as group learning and team-playing modalities in order to become more effective and efficient for the purpose of driving down costs, and (2) colleges should be transparent in how tuition dollars are spent.

Ratigan’s first point requires an article all to itself but suffice it to say here that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Most of the high technology experiments that the author is aware of including ones that he personally participated in have cost a great deal of money, have been very time consuming and burdensome for the instructors – who wants to receive lots of emails or texts in the middle of the night, have often not been the choice of the students, and have mostly led to marginal improvement in student performance. There are notable exceptions, but one should always be wary of true-believers. They are often wrong. In the final analysis, I support continued experimentation and the use of high technology in education but with the usual caveat of it actually making a difference.

So what about Obama’s “report card” (in other words, accountability) and Ratigan’s transparency? To the casual observer who listens to the two of them, you would think we have neither accountability nor transparency. And what about the students on Ratigan’s show who don’t how their tuition dollar is spent? Whose fault is that? Is the information lacking or are they just too lazy to find out? I’ll use my experience with The University of Texas System and its institutions to address these questions.

First, let’s deal with the specific issue of transparency in tuition and student input. At UT Austin, a student representative serves on the committee that sets changes in tuition while at UT System, a student regent serves on the Board of Regents. Furthermore, UT Austin hosts an information website on tuition including a link to how tuition is used and how it is coupled to the university budget. For inquiring minds who want the ultimate in detail, one need only download and peruse one of the Annual Financial Reports for the complete financial picture for the university.

With respect to accountability or the filing of a report card, UT System produces a massive annual accountability report as well as a more facile “Productivity Dashboard.” Both are available at the Info Center on the bottom of the home page of UT System and are loaded with data. And for those still not satisfied or sated with data, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board webpage has many links to a copious quantity of available data, especially as regards accountability. 

Dylan! Are you satisfied yet that the data on tuition, university finances, and accountability reporting are easily available to everyone and anyone via the Internet? Are you satisfied that there is no secret cabal bent on keeping the facts from the commoners? Folks, let’s be clear here. Transparency and accountability reporting are not the issues. If anything, we have overkill and data overload. The issue is that nobody actually reads this material and nobody really wants to address the fundamental issue of investment and support of higher education in America.

Of course, students, parents, regents, legislators, and plenty of other people would like to see a simplistic display of all these data, but that’s hard to do and many have tried. Let’s face it. Universities are a complex enterprise with many sources of revenue, many diverse restrictions on how the income is spent, and multiple tortured pathways from an income chart to an expenditure report.

My response and challenge to Dylan Ratigan, President Obama, and others who want to take colleges and universities behind the wood shed for a paddling is this: do your homework first, get the facts right, and then invite guests to your show who actually know something about university finances and university accountability. Peter McPherson, head of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, comes to mind.

An affordable and accessible college education, whether at community colleges, four-year colleges, or research universities, is essential for America to maintain a quality workforce in the 21st century and to remain globally competitive. As we collectively address the issue of the rising costs of a college education and its impact on our economy and our competitiveness, let’s deal from a deck stacked with the correct facts. As Cordray said, “know before you owe.”