Thursday, November 29, 2012

Inconvenient Student Disorder

Mass schooling not only offers many impediments to true learning, it also actively distorts society's view of what is normal child behavior as it seeks ways to control and modify their behavior purely for its own ends. 

An article from HealthDay reports that "In the past decade, the number of children receiving a diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has risen by 66 percent, new research indicates. In 2000, just 6.2 million physician office visits resulted in a diagnosis of ADHD. By 2010, that number had jumped to 10.4 million office visits."

10.4 million represents about 20% of school-aged children  in the U.S. Think about that for a minute. 

Now, examine the list of official diagnostic symptoms for ADHD, taken from the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. It includes: 
  • Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish schoolwork, chores, or duties in the workplace. 
  • Often avoids, dislikes, or doesn't want to do things that take a lot of mental effort for a long period of time (such as schoolwork or homework).
  • Often loses things needed for tasks and activities (e.g. toys, school assignments, pencils, books, or tools).
  • Often fidgets with hands or feet or squirms in seat when sitting still is expected.
  • Often gets up from seat when remaining in seat is expected.
  • Often blurts out answers before questions have been finished.
  • Often has trouble waiting one's turn.
These are not symptoms of an abnormality --- it is a laundry list of behaviors that are inconvenient to a teacher trying to manage a large class. The kid in question is simply not docile and passive enough to sit patiently through something that does not interest that child. And it's not the occasional kid that is ill-suited for sitting quietly behind a desk all day and doing what he/she is told. It is about 20% of them! 


And there are literally no limits to how poorly and inhumanely kids diagnosed can be treated in a classroom, once they have been diagnosed with ADHD. This recent article posted on KATU reveals that Mint Valley Elementary School in Longview, Washington put elementary kids (we are talking 6-12 year olds here!) that were showing "behavioral problems" in a padded isolation cell. The school officials claimed this was merely a form of "therapy". But any sane individual should be able to see it for it is --- a punitive prison, a menacing jail. It is an instrument for behavioral control all right, but not one that belongs anywhere in a free, enlightened, society.

After a justifiable outcry after one concerned parent posted photos of it on Facebook, the school district has decided to suspend the use of these cells. I think this incident, given how long and freely the school operated this isolation cell, very pointedly illustrates the dark connection between coercive control in large classrooms and ADHD diagnoses.

(photos from


Here is a trailer for a documentary focusing on the issue of medication for ADHD diagnosed children, called "The Drugging of Our Children":

And the following is a trailer for a 2009 documentary called "The War on Kids," which makes this very point about ADHD being used to exert control in the classroom. This movie also discusses how kids freedoms are curtailed as they are suspended for various minor "offenses" due to excessive zero-tolerance policies:


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A 21st century school needs no classrooms

Image from

I just found out about an amazing school that opened last year in Sweden, called Vittra Telefonplan, that has eliminated the classroom. Instead there is a lot of open space and furniture that encourages discussion and collaboration as well as individual learning. For more photos, see the slides on Business Insider.

As someone says in the following video about the school: "learning how to learn is actually the biggest and most important ability". This is a space designed to encourage that ability, through flexible play, and freedom.

I have always believed that the kind of space that is available in a learning environment makes a big difference in what the people there do. Do we dare hope that universities will see similar changes in how educational spaces are structured, especially as the rise of MOOC's (Massive open online courses) changes what can / should be done in a traditional lecture format?

Friday, September 07, 2012

What Academics Do: The Big Five

I remember as a student wondering what exactly it is that university faculty do, besides teaching classes. I figured out some of it by direct observation while I was a graduate student; but it is only after experiencing it for myself and reflecting on it for a decade that I feel I can articulate it satisfactorily.

Everything I do as an academic that is of essence can be categorized into five dimensions:
  • Learning:  Mastering new mathematical techniques, algorithms, software programming tools. Keeping up with new theoretical and experimental results and developments in the field. This happens through reading papers, articles, reports, and books, attending talks by visitors and at conferences and classes, discussing with peers and students at various venues. Practicing. Often learning occurs not when we are actively seeking it, but almost miraculously, such as in the process of trying to explain something to others.
  • Discovering: Coming up with new problem formulations, models, solutions, experiments, results and findings. This comprises not merely the end but also the means of discovery, via the process of thinking, pondering over,  making and proving/disproving conjectures, analyzing, solving, discussing,  algorithm and architecture design, pen-and-paper mathematical derivations, creating tangible new artifacts and proofs of concept, designing/creating software and hardware for and running simulations and test-bed experiments, collecting and analyzing experimental results. We are driven by this quest, hoping by our efforts to win back one more inch from the dark shadows of ignorance.
  • Sharing: Giving talks to diverse audiences at technical and non-technical meetings and conferences, universities, industry venues. Teaching --- all that it typically entails: lecturing, showing, conveying understanding, asking and answering questions, preparing and giving feedback on homework assignments and tests, one-on-one tutoring --- but also beyond: informal direct interactions with students outside the classroom, mentoring, providing opportunities for growth and building self-confidence. Sharing one's life experiences, offering advice, motivating, inspiring, encouraging. Advising and guiding undergraduate and graduate students on projects and thesis dissertations. Writing papers, books, reports, articles, emails. Translating ideas, simplifying their exposition. Creating and making  available to others code, hardware designs, and data. Making and giving demos and presentations. Discussing with students, colleagues, peers in academia and industry, and the press, when they visit, when visiting them, whenever together at meetings/conferences, or by electronic means. Ultimately, our impact on the world is determined by our skill at sharing what we have learned and discovered, enabling others to learn and discover even more.
  • Helping: Playing an active, helpful role in the twin-fold academic community that consists on the one hand of colleagues and students at one's own institution, and, on the other, of one's peers in the field. Helping is closely related to sharing. We help students, for instance, when we share our knowledge and experience with them, but also often by offering a friendly ear or a shoulder to cry on, or by putting them in touch with others who can be of more help. Reviewing papers, serving on proposal review panels, seeking reviews for journals and conferences, organizing meetings and events, being on Ph.D. student exam committees, faculty review committees, writing recommendation and tenure letters. As part of department, university, or other professional committees, or else informally, interacting with peers and administrators, engaging in a community dialogue to formulate strategic visions, develop programs, implement policies, and address various issues of concern as they arise. 
  • Fund-raising: Also referred to as grantsmanship. Seeking collaborators, forming teams. Brainstorming alone or with collaborators and students to identify compelling avenues of research and open research problems. Thinking through methodology and research plans. Writing and submitting competitive proposals to federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, industry, or internal funding sources within the university.  Interacting collaboratively with teams sharing common interest for industry funding. Idealists perceive all this "chasing after money" as a waste of time, at worst, or, at best, a necessary evil. But it is not unreasonable to expect that the request for public and private funds for the pursuit of academic inquiry be justified from the perspectives of intellectual value and practical utility; moreover, the very process of writing a proposal often clarifies one's thinking and can help identify interesting and important new avenues for investigation.
Though the details may vary from field to field, I believe these five categories of activity go to the very heart of what it means to be an academic today.

These dimensions are very closely linked and often seamlessly integrated with each other. We learn so we can discover, and what we discover only has value when we share it. Because all of this happens not in isolation, but in an inter-connected social context, we must also be good citizens and help others in the community. And in order to find the resources to aid the process of learning, discovering, sharing, and helping, we must raise funds.

There is also a process of meta-learning that forms a  natural part of the academic life: namely, the continual learning that results in the improvement of one's ability to learn, discover, share, help, and raise funds.

Why not just "Research, Teaching, and Service"?

Traditionally, the academic enterprise is divided not into five dimensions as I have indicated here, but into three: research, teaching, and service. I believe that standard tripartite definition of academic life is an oversimplification that does real harm in many ways. It creates and propagates a false dichotomy between teaching and research in the minds of many. It contributes to creating a negative impression of service as consisting of miscellaneous chores. And it impedes us from presenting to students an inspiring vision of the academic life.

At the core, what we care about is not the distinction between "doing research" and "doing teaching." What motivates us rather is the passionate desire to learn, to discover, and to share, whether it be in the classroom or the lab. The various ways of helping others (more than just "doing service") and fund-raising also do not abide by this fragmentation, as they sustain our activities in both settings.

Thus, the five-dimensional decomposition advocated here allows for a more holistic view of the academic's life, shedding a useful light on what matters to us and why.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Advice for Ph.D. Students Seeking Industry Jobs

When I joined USC ten years ago, having followed my own Ph.D. directly with a job in academia, I naively thought a good number of my students would do the same.

But the reality of the matter is that there are few openings in academia for the large number of Ph.D.'s graduating each year from our universities. And these have become more competitive by the year.

To give you a more concrete idea, top departments may receive 200 or more applications for a single tenure track position. Consequently, young applicants for new faculty positions today are locked in an arms race that is spiraling out of control --- my colleagues and I sometimes joke when looking at applications for assistant professor positions that the presented credentials presented by many candidates would have been sufficient to get them tenure just a few years ago.

One could argue that academia has always been selective and competitive. But then, it used to be the case that there were many research labs in industry where the majority of Ph.D.'s could go if they weren't interested in academia or weren't able to find an academic job. For a number of socio-economic reasons, beginning with the late 90's and through the 2000's,  this ecosystem of industrial research has essentially collapsed. With a handful of exceptions like Microsoft Research, there are not a lot of jobs in industry today where a Ph.D.-graduate will be hired to write papers.

Life after the Ph.D. has therefore changed dramatically. A great majority of Ph.D. graduates in many EE/CS disciplines now go to work in development jobs in industry, often in areas that are quite different from the focus of their graduate studies. I have experienced this first-hand. Most of the graduated Ph.D. students from my own group at USC have gone on to software-related jobs in the networking industry.

Vivek Haldar, a Ph.D. graduate from UC Irvine who works at Google has written a nice blog post titled "what is life like for PhDs in computer science who go into industry?"  that echoes my thoughts on the subject (and motivated me to write this). He writes:

It was also around this time (early 2000’s) that the expectations of what PhDs should work on began to change. If you graduated with a PhD, the highest status job you could get was a tenure track university professorship. Indeed, most PhD programs implicitly gear graduates for that end. If you could not attain that, the next best thing to strive for was a researcher position in one of the aforementioned industrial labs. And, if you could not even land that, you would go looking for regular industry jobs with the unwashed masses. 
The problem with this picture is that there are 10 PhD graduates for every tenure-track position. And, while I don’t have figures, the industrial labs don’t hire at a much faster rate either. And that left regular industry jobs as the only viable option for the vast majority of PhDs. My guess is that the recruitment engines of most major tech companies also wised up to this fact, and started actively pitching to not just bachelors and Masters graduates, but PhDs as well. The new crop of web companies, with Google at the forefront, also started projecting the image that the work being done there and new and cool and challenging and important enough to keep PhDs engaged. Also, the pay was pretty good. When you saw that year after year a significant fraction of the outgoing PhD graduates from your CS department were happily ensconced in regular industrial jobs, option number 3 began rapidly catching up with the other options.

Over the years, I've kept in close touch with the alumni from my group, probing them on what they found helped them get jobs and do well in industry. Besides this, having myself worked with and consulted for industry partners at many places, I have observed what they look for in their employees.

It boils down to two pieces of advice that I convey to my own students:

First, they must be able to program well. This applies broadly to many EE/CS disciplines where the primary end-product is software, and even to many hardware-related disciplines where the design and testing process is done entirely in software (of course, in the latter case, additional hardware-related skills may be required). In particular, it's not enough to be good at algorithm design at the level of psuedocode. Besides what they have learned in introductory programming classes, and the ability to program in environments geared for scientific experiments (such as MATLAB), they should be familiar with state-of-the-art  programming languages, tools, and practices. It is very useful for them to do significant hands-on software projects and industry internships during their Ph.D to gain significant experience in this direction.

As Vivek Haldar puts it:
You must be a great coder. That is a minimum prerequisite. During one interview, I asked a candidate (a recent PhD graduate) to give me some pseudo-code for the solution he had just described, and he went “oh well, if you must make me code…” That pretty much made me go “no hire.” What did you think the job involved?
Where does this advice leave students with a more mathematical bent, those who are primarily interested in proving theorems, whose dissertations don't require the building and testing of any software artifact beyond some MATLAB code? Not much worse off. Complementing their strong theoretical abilities with practical coding skills will not harm them, even if they do plan to pursue a research career.

Second, they must be able to communicate well in diverse settings. They must learn to communicate their ideas effectively, not only in a deep and rigorous manner as they must when writing for and giving talks to a technical audience of researchers and faculty in their own field, but also in an accessible and engaging manner to a broader audience. In industry, they will need to be articulate in contributing ideas in informal brainstorming sessions and meetings with their colleagues, as well as in formal presentations and reports, when they need to convince managers and clients of the merits of their proposals and solutions. In an industry setting, unlike in academia, they will need to be able to communicate with people from diverse backgrounds. Towards this end, while doing a Ph.D., they should practice giving talks to people outside their immediate field, and writing for a broader audience.

This second piece of advice also works well for Ph.D. students who don't go on to industry positions. Even at academic interviews one is often talking to smart people who are not in one's own area of expertise. And whether it is writing grant proposals or talking to students, being able to communicate coherently and persuasively with diverse audiences is an essential career skill for academics as well.

In his post, Haldar points out that besides opportunities to hone their communication skills, a significant way in which a Ph.D. benefits someone in preparing them for a career is by giving them an ability to work on "ambiguous and ill-specified problems." I agree wholeheartedly.

A few months ago, I had lunch with some of my former students working in industry in the bay area. After our usual banter, the talk turned to this very topic. I asked them if they felt doing a Ph.D. had been worthwhile, given that they were now working in industry.

They unanimously said it had been worth it. Certainly, there is a spiritual satisfaction obtained from growing substantially in one's learning and from having contributed something new to humankind's collective knowledge. But several of them told me that they felt they also had a practical advantage over many non-Ph.D. colleagues at work. Their Ph.D. training gave them the ability to tackle new problems not only using what they already knew, but also by seeking and reading up on related work in the literature and evaluating different solution approaches to find one that is effective.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

a good quote

I came across an excellent quote today: 

“We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and “success”, defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.” - Chris Hedges, Empire of Illustion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

In an ideal world (which by all measures this is not), education would be this pure process of learning and self-improvement that you take full responsibility for. The connection between one's education and one's career would actually be made deeper and stronger. When you feel ready, if you wish to get a job, you would seek it not on the basis of a piece of paper offered to you by an institution of learning, not on the basis of the grades that your teachers said you got in certain courses, but on the basis of skills, knowledge and abilities that you could prove to a suitable employer (over a probationary period) are sufficient for that job. Or you would choose to use your abilities and skills to do something entrepreneurial on your own that you would personally find rewarding. Importantly, your learning would help you identify and pursue as the best career for you one that offers you great freedom and flexibility to balance work, personal life,  relationships, and voluntary activities.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Fleeing the Real World

I came across a thought-provoking speech given by Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, from 1990. He titled it "Some thoughts on the real world by one who glimpsed it and fled."

This key passage from it is full of gems:
"You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don't discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success. 
Many of you will be going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, with luck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your own lifetime. 
But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another. Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it's to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth. 
You'll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you're doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you'll hear about them. 
To invent your own life's meaning is not easy, but it's still allowed, and I think you'll be happier for the trouble."

Friday, July 06, 2012


Dr. Özlem Durmaz Incel, a co-author, discovered the following paper yesterday, which turns out to be entirely a verbatim copy of three papers from my group:

It's a very sad incident, reflecting very poorly indeed on the authors. Here is a copy of the letter I sent to the Editors of this Journal on behalf of my co-authors, with more details: 

Dear Editor, 
I’m writing about a paper which has been published in your“International Journal of Management, IT and Engineering” In July2012, titled “Strategies Of Data Collection In Tree-Based WirelessSensor Networks” authored by “Nita V. Jaiswal, Vishal S. Dhole, Prof.D.M.Dakhane and Harshal N. Datir”, pages 390-408. This paper isplagiarized verbatim from my group's previous work, specifically twojournal papers (published in the IEEE Transactions on Mobile Computingand ACM/IEEE Transactions on Networking) and a chapter in a book published by Springer. 
Without a doubt, the paper is an exact copy/paste version of our previous studies; both the text and the figures are copied. The paper does not include any new material, aside from a different title. 
This is terrible and completely unacceptable, an instance of the worst kind of scientific misconduct. This paper should immediately be withdrawn with a public notice of retraction and the authors should be censured in the strongest possible terms for their shameful behavior.I urge you to take the necessary actions urgently. Please confirm at the earliest your receipt of this letter, and let us know what actions you will be taking in response. 
I’m also cc’ing this message to editors of the journals and the bookchapter where our previous papers were published as well as my co-authors. We intend to explore other actions that can be taken to settle this serious matter. 
The follow is a list of the plagiarized papers: 
1. TMC: Ozlem Durmaz Incel, Amitabha Ghosh, Bhaskar Krishnamachari,and Krishnakant Chintalapudi, Fast Data Collection in Tree-Based Wireless Sensor Networks, IEEE Transactions on Mobile Computing, vol.11, no. 1, pp. 86-99, Jan. 2012, doi:10.1109/TMC.2011.22: 
2. Book Chapter: Ozlem Durmaz Incel, Amitabha Ghosh, and Bhaskar Krishnamachari, Scheduling Algorithms for Tree-Based Data Collectionin Wireless Sensor Networks, Book Chapter: Theoretical Aspects of Distributed Computing in Sensor Networks, Nikoletseas, Sotiris; Rolim,José D.P. (Eds.), Springer, 2011., 
3. TON: Amitabha Ghosh, Ozlem Durmaz Incel, V. S. Anil Kumar, and Bhaskar Krishnamachari, Multi-Channel Scheduling and Spanning Trees:Throughput-Delay Trade-off for Fast Data Collection in Sensor Networks, IEEE/ACM Transactions on Networking, Volume: 19 Issue:6, pp.1       731 - 1744, Dec. 2011:

In the attached file, we have marked each individual section and addednotes from which paper they have been copied. Below you can find asummary of which section is copied from which paper:
-       Abstract Section: First 2 sentences are copied from the bookchapter, 3rd sentence is copied from the TMC paper. 
-       Introduction: All the text is copied from the book chapter and the TMC paper. 
-       Related Work: All the text is copied from TON and TMC papers. 
-       Section 1.1 and Section 1.2 are totally copied from the book chapter. 
-       Section 1.3 (Degree Constrained Trees) is an exact copy of Section 5.2.3 of the TMC paper and Section 1.3 (Assignment of Time Slots) is an exact copy of Section 4.1.2 of the TMC paper. 
-       Section 2 and 3 are copied from the book chapter. 
-       Section on “Multi-channel Scheduling” is an exact copy of Section 5.2 of the TMC paper. 
-       Section on “Future Research Directions” is an exact copy of Section 4 of the book chapter. 
-       Conclusion is copied from the TMC paper.

Sincere regards,  
Bhaskar Krishnamachari
Bhaskar Krishnamachari  
Associate Professor and Ming Hsieh Faculty Fellow in Electrical Engineering 
USC Viterbi School of Engineering 

update 1:  The link for the paper is now down. I got the following email from an unnamed "Editor in Chief". There is no public notice of retraction or censure of the authors as we had requested:

 Dear Sir

We are very sorry for this inconvenience.
Thanks for your information we are going to d-link this paper with our website till next decision.

Thank you
With Regards

Editor in Chief

update 2: The story just got even richer. Brian Cheung dug around and found yet another paper by a different set of authors that is also a clearly plagiarized version of one of these papers. As Matt Welsh pointed out on my blog, a dead giveaway is the presence of fuzzy images. See for yourself: (plagiarized from

Note: This is not the first time I've noticed papers of mine being plagiarized. Given that it involves authors at relatively unknown institutes publishing in relatively unknown conferences and journals, one is generally inclined to conserve one's energy for more important causes and simply ignore these incidents. Still it's a pity that these should go completely unremarked. A few public incidents may bring greater awareness of plagiarism, bringing some light even to these dark corners of the academic world...

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The other end of the log

Mark Putnam, the President of Central College, writes in Inside Higher Ed about the difference between the transactional and relational views of education:

James A. Garfield was president of the United States for a brief time in 1881. Though his life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet, historians note his many contributions to our nation. During his years as an undergraduate at Williams College, Garfield was the beneficiary of both the teaching and leadership of Mark Hopkins, who served as president of the college for 36 years during an even longer career as a member of the faculty. Garfield’s admiration for Hopkins is remembered through his still famous quote: 
The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other. 
For educators, the image is poetic. It stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric we hear today. Many voices are calling for an educational approach designed for efficiency – less time to degree completion, fully online programs of study and customer convenience. It’s a very transactional model resting on the individual accumulation of credits, courses and credentials. By checking boxes to fulfill requirements we assume we can efficiently declare an individual educated. It’s all nice and neat. 
An education at “the other end of the log,” however, is not transactional – it’s relational. The opportunity for faculty to spend time with students is not at all efficient, but our experience tells us it’s incredibly effective.

What we remember most about our school and college experiences are not the facts we memorized, but the inspiring people we met, and the transformative and confidence-building experiences we had. 

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Project-based learning

Just a short post, to note this nice article on project based learning for K-12.

Suzie Boss writes:

For a closer look at what this looks like, consider just a few examples of the learning experiences that happen more frequently in PBL classrooms:
  • Students compare information from different sources before completing an assignment
  • Students draw their own conclusions based on analysis of numbers, facts, or relevant information
  • Students try to solve complex problems or answer questions that have no single correct solution
  • Students give feedback to peers or assess other students' work
  • Students convey their ideas using media other than a written paper (such as posters, blogs, or videos)
  • Students answer questions in front of an audience
  • Students generate their own ideas about how to confront a problem
These indicators paint a picture of students who are able to think on their feet, contribute to a team effort, and work creatively when they confront new challenges.

Having just concluded my own project-based course this semester (albeit for masters students in engineering), I can strongly attest to the powerful learning that can take place in such an environment.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ideal Company

An illustration from the Handbook

Recently, someone leaked Valve's handbook for new employees. It's a remarkable introduction to what is clearly an exceptional place to work.

Valve, in case you haven't heard of it, is a game software company known for highly popular products such as Portal, Steam.

Here are some excerpts from this thought-provoking document.

On why Valve is a flat company:
... when you’re an entertainment company that’s spent the last decade going out of its way to recruit the most intelligent, innovative, talented people on Earth, telling them to sit at a desk and do what they’re told obliterates 99 percent of their value. 
We want innovators, and that means maintaining an environment where they’ll flourish. That’s why Valve is flat. It’s our shorthand way of saying that we don’t have any management, and nobody “reports to” anybody else.
On how self-directed individuals organize to work together (see illustration above):
We’ve heard that other companies have people allocate a percentage of their time to self-directed projects. At Valve, that percentage is 100. 
Since Valve is flat, people don’t join projects because they’re told to. Instead, you’ll decide what to work on after asking yourself the right questions (more on that later). Employees vote on projects with their feet (or desk wheels). Strong projects are ones in which people can see demonstrated value; they staff up easily. This means there are any number of internal recruiting efforts constantly under way.
(Yes, apparently they really do have desks with wheels that allow them to move around to physically different locations depending on the project and the group they are working with.)

Questions employees are asked to consider when deciding on what to work on:
• Of all the projects currently under way, what’s the most valuable thing I can be working on?
• Which project will have the highest direct impact on our customers? How much will the work I ship benefit them?
• Is Valve not doing something that it should be doing?
• What’s interesting? What’s rewarding? What leverages my individual strengths the most?
On work-life balance:
While people occasionally choose to push themselves to work some extra hours at times when something big is going out the door, for the most part working overtime for extended periods indicates a fundamental failure in planning or communication. If this happens at Valve, it’s a sign that something needs to be reevaluated and corrected. If you’re looking around wondering why people aren’t in “crunch mode,” the answer’s pretty simple. The thing we work hardest at is hiring good people, so we want them to stick around and have a good balance between work and family and the rest of the important stuff in life.
And there's a lot more! The handbook discusses everything from the importance of hiring and what they look for when hiring new recruits to how they evaluate each other's work and value to the company. Read it for yourself.  For additional reading, there is Michael Abrash's blog post on "Valve: how I got here, what it's like, and what I'm doing".

While I've heard of other small creative companies that provide a great deal of freedom and hierarchy-free operation (for example, IDEO), Valve is clearly an extreme example of this kind of company, and an extremely successful one at that.

It occurred to me when reading this handbook that this kind of creativity-enabling autonomy is precisely why many academics love their job.  There is a remarkable degree of similarity between the way Valve operates and the way a top academic department operates. There is a lot of effort put in to hire the very best possible individuals as tenure-track faculty. But once they are hired, faculty have complete autonomy on what to work on, how to work on it, how much funding to get, and where to get it from, who to collaborate with, how to balance their work and life (though arguably, during the years on the tenure track this can be a bit skewed). There is also an internal peer review process which provides faculty with an incentive to stay productive and contribute in their own way to the mission of the department. (It's a pity we don't have massage rooms!).

How can we all take inspiration from Valve to change our work environments to be even more flat and autonomy-encouraging? What would it take to change the prevailing paradigm so more companies are operated this way?

I would of course wish for all my students that they could find for themselves a job that offers this degree of autonomy and opportunity for self-realization through passionate engagement. But I also wonder: are they all ready for such a place? Would they all have the self-confidence, the proactive, entrepreneurial attitude, the service orientation, the passion, the self-drive, and the grit to get and succeed in such a job?

Indeed, a central question of this blog, one I have been probing in many of my posts, is this: what do we need to change about our current system of education at all levels so that it aids in the development of more individuals capable of creating and excelling in self-directed environments?

For more on Valve, check out this informative video:

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Free Education, For Profit

Following closely on the heels of Udacity, the company founded by Sebastian Thrun, Coursera, another new startup by two other Stanford Professors is offering free college courses online. The aforelinked article notes:

 "Mountain View, Calif.-based Coursera is backed with $16 million in funding led by John Doerr at Kleiner Perkins and Scott Sandell at NEA. It has no immediate plans to charge for courses or to make money in other ways." 

Making college classes accessible to a large audience is great, and I do support this in principle to a large extent, but I have to say it bothers me that Coursera, like Udacity, is a for-profit private company. 

I fear that sooner or later the investors will demand their pound of flesh. 

Think about Facebook and Google. They are both free, but ultimately they both make their revenue from advertising. Increasingly they've been driven towards trying to extract more information about their users and exploiting this information for targeted advertising. Similarly, Coursera, for instance, will be able to accumulate quite a lot of information about participants in its courses - their interests, their skills, their strengths and weaknesses in the context of learning and problem solving. Will these be for sale too?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Can innovation be taught?

This article by Tony Wagner in the Wall Street Journal, titled "Educating the Next Steve Jobs" echoes exactly  my key concerns about traditional education, in particular that it puts too high a price on failure, is too subject-focused (rather than experience-focused), and treats grades as the main end. A few excellent quotes from the article:

In most high-school and college classes, failure is penalized. But without trial and error, there is no innovation...Students gain lasting self-confidence not by being protected from failure but by learning that they can survive it. 
Learning in most conventional education settings is a passive experience: The students listen. But at the most innovative schools, classes are "hands-on," and students are creators, not mere consumers. They acquire skills and knowledge while solving a problem, creating a product or generating a new understanding.
In conventional schools, students learn so that they can get good grades. My most important research finding is that young innovators are intrinsically motivated. The culture of learning in programs that excel at educating for innovation emphasize what I call the three P's—play, passion and purpose. The play is discovery-based learning that leads young people to find and pursue a passion, which evolves, over time, into a deeper sense of purpose. 
Creating new lab schools around the country and training more teachers to innovate will take time. Meanwhile, what the parents of future innovators do matters enormously. My interviews with parents of today's innovators revealed some fascinating patterns. They valued having their children pursue a genuine passion above their getting straight As, and they talked about the importance of "giving back." As their children matured, they also encouraged them to take risks and learn from mistakes. There is much that all of us stand to learn from them. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A double loss

Wu Ying and Qu Ming were two MS students in my electrical engineering department at USC. I mourn for their tragic loss in a shooting that took place outside the campus yesterday. Today would have been Ming's 24th birthday.

I did not know them personally. They did not take any classes with me. But by all the accounts given by my colleagues today in a brief department memorial, these were two wonderful, smart, quietly hard-working students. They had taken a series of challenging classes, and were just about to graduate at the end of this semester, a few weeks away. No doubt they had great hopes and dreams for their future.

As a father, I cannot bring myself to even imagine the magnitude of this loss to their parents in China. It must be very painful, indeed. My deepest sympathies go out to them and all who knew, loved, and cared for Ying and Ming.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Homeschooling Infographic

I was recently pointed to this interesting chart about homeschooling. I do think a lot of these numbers reflect the socio-economic, the educational status, and the general outlook on education of the parents who choose, or can choose, to homeschool  their kids (though the chart itself shows numbers suggesting that household income is not a key determinant of homeschooling student success). And there is a huge variation in how the homeschooling is done, from recreating the traditional classroom at home to unschooling. But it nonetheless gives some good insights into the prospects for kids and parents pursuing alternatives to traditional schooling.

Created by: College At Home

Thursday, March 15, 2012

How many Books

My 8 year old asked out of the blue, the way kids do, "Dad, how many books are there?" 

After some discussion, it emerged that he was looking for a count of all the books ever published. 

Using rough back of the envelope techniques I teach engineering freshmen, I conservatively estimated an upper-bound of about 500 million. 

Then I looked it up online. Turns out Google did a count just a couple of years ago, and found that there were about 174 million known unique works.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Failing by Solving

The upcoming February 2012 issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society contains an interesting essay titled "A Modest Proposal" by Alan H. Schoenfeld, a Professor of Education and Mathematics at UC Berkeley. He writes of some "horror stories" of how kids being taught mathematics respond to questions that don't match the usual pattern:

Reusser [2] asked ninety-seven first- and second-grade students the following question:  
There are 26 sheep and 10 goats on a ship. How old is the captain?  
More than 3/4 of the students “solved” the problem, obtaining their answers by combining the integers 26 and 10.
( Note: The cited paper is K. Reusser, Problem solving beyond the logic of things, Instructional Science 17 (1988), 309–338. )

Schonfeld concludes that kids are not being taught how to think correctly in classrooms and advocates teaching in such a way that they come to view mathematics as providing  "a set of sensible answers to a set of reasonable questions".

This is certainly commendable, and I like the example he gives of how to make the arc length formula simple and intuitive. But, as I've argued repeatedly on this blog, the problem runs deeper.

Over-schooling, by its very nature, so constrains young children's thinking that they are unable to see outside the patterns that they have been drilled on and made to repeat. They need to learn in a more carefree environment, ideally one where they have plenty of time to think of many "reasonable" questions and possible solutions on their own through their natural habits of play and curiosity-driven exploration, free of the overwhelming pressures of adult expectations.

Here is a relevant piece from John Holt's foreword to his classic "How Children Fail"; the italicized words in brackets are mine, connecting the quote to the above setting:

...there is a more important sense in which almost all children fail: Except for a handful, who may or may not be good students, they fail to develop more than a tiny part of the tremendous capacity for learning, understanding, and creating with which they were born and of which they made full use during the first two or three years of their lives.  
Why do they fail?  
They fail because they are afraid, bored, and confused.  
They are afraid, above all else, of failing, of disappointing or displeasing the many anxious adults around them, whose limitless hopes and expectations for them hang over their heads like a cloud. [Every question posed to them at school has a clear and definite answer; and failure to answer disappoints the teacher. So they know once they are asked a question, they *must* set out to solve it.
They are bored because the things they are given and told to do in school are so trivial, so dull, and make such limited and narrow demands on the wide spectrum of their intelligence, capabilities, and talents. [Face it. At the end of the day, solving word problems about addition are simply not as interesting as any of the dozen other things related to playing and exploring and being with friends that little kids would rather be doing.]
They are confused because most of the torrent of words that pours over them in school makes little or no sense. It often flatly contradicts other things they have been told, and hardly ever has any relation to what they really know — to the rough model of reality that they carry around in their minds. [If much of what is presented to them in their workbooks or by the teacher doesn't make sense anyway, most of the time,  why should this puzzle be any different? What all this confusion sadly does is to breed a special form of intellectual laziness --- it's easier just to play along and mindlessly apply some known formula, rather than say over and over again, "I don't understand".]
I asked my eight-year old the same question. The amazing school he goes to leaves him to his resources almost entirely. I do teach him a bit myself from time to time, mostly because of my own interest in mathematics, but I try hard not to over-do it. And when we do talk about math, our discussions are very much in the spirit of Schonfeld's "reasonable questions" approach. So I was quite sure how he would respond.

Nevertheless, it was with some relief that I heard him say, "Wait, that doesn't make sense! What does that have to do with anything?"


This post seems as good place a place as any to put in a pointer to one of my favorite songs: