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Category: Technology


Peer review, replication, and thankless tasks

Peer review and the ability to test claims are powerful but not infallible. The video (here) from The Economist covers the way science and peer review may not be great or as reliable as we hope or believe. In short, industry such as pharmaceuticals, may draw on academia, but the research cannot be replicated. Pharma has revealed that issue. Many who think about this issue know that replication and verification is not well-rewarded, and so the scientific method may not live up to its potential. The chat also gets into some nice issues regarding statistics and false positives. It also looks at the failure of peer reviewers to do their jobs as well as desired (for example, not catching errors that one journal inserted as a test). And, peer review is not about reviewing the raw data.

I wonder whether open data sets as Victoria Stodden has described them will help here. It may be that modeling and other software approaches will be able to test the raw data and examine the method of collection to note it limits and find errors. Who knows? Maybe replication can be automated so that people could focus on the new work and machines can deal with the drudgery of “Yes, that is correct.”

UPDATE: I noticed that The Economist has an autoplay ad. That is lame. I have removed the embedded video but still recommend going to the site to watch it.


More Patent Fun, New York Times and another DC event

My paper with Gerard Magliocca made the New York Times in a piece called “Beyond 3-D Printers’ Magic, Possible Legal Wrangling,” and the fun continues. With patent reform on the table (pdf to the bill), the New America Foundation is holding a conference called Just How Broken Is the Patent System?. I will be on the kick-off panel with my friend Adam Mossoff. After some jousting over patents, property, and more with the help of Annie Lowery, the day will turn to industry folks, policy wonks, and more professors, to get into health and patents, green innovation, patent assertion, fixes to the patent system, and a keynote by Maureen K. Ohlhausen, Commissioner, Federal Trade Commission.

It promises to be a fun day. Hope to see folks there.


Drones, Amazon, Pizza, and More

As I saw that Amazon is tinkering with drone delivery, I thought “How very Stephenson” and that the opening of Snow Crash tracked the idea of 30 minutes or less delivery. Of course, others thought of this connection overnight. And although Fox News hyped the idea as the Senate holding hearings on Amazon and Drones (“Senate to hold hearing to discuss Amazon package delivery drones“), the hearings were already in place as Fox reports. The Amazon glory is icing on the cake of let’s freak out about drones. And, yes, there are reasons to think about drones and what, if anything, should be done to regulate them. In this post I am more interested in the labor issues. Chris Taylor’s thoughts at Mashable get into this question. There are many limits to the tech. But as I wrote before, Amazon strikes me as well-placed to press into new ways to use this sort of technology to reduce its labor needs. Local distribution sites, same day or now maybe within an hour delivery, maybe on-demand printing of books (or 3D things), and Amazon could yet again change shopping. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case about forcing retailers to collect taxes even when they have no presence in a state. Amazon’s response of moving into states and taking on local retailers may prove to increase competition locally and in an ironic twist the idea that imposing taxes would be fair may prove to be what eats at local businesses more than expected.


Search Engine Objectivity

(This is a guest post from Professor Mark R. Patterson of Fordham Law School. As someone who has participated in panels on antitrust with Prof. Patterson, I thought our readers would be interested in his perspective. –Frank Pasquale.)

pattersonM“Search is inherently subjective: it always involves guessing the diverse and unknown intentions of users. Regulators, however, need an objective standard to judge search engines against.”

The two claims above, from an essay by James Grimmelmann, are at the center of the conflict over regulation of search engines. Some argue that Google is a powerful gatekeeper for competing firms’ access to customers, so that it must operate in an objective or neutral manner to preserve a level competitive playing field. Those who make this argument necessarily assume that we can assess objectivity or neutrality in this context. Others, like Grimmelmann, support the first statement above, arguing that there is no objective, neutral means of assessing search results, so that there is no way to regulate search engines.

The European Commission (EC), having investigated Google’s practices and concluded that there are “competition concerns,” is apparently on the pro-regulation side, because it is entertaining proposed commitments from Google to address those concerns. (The U.S. F.T.C. conducted its own investigation and closed it without action, concluding that there was insufficient evidence to support the claim that Google’s practices lacked a legitimate business justification.) Google proposed a first set of commitments to the EC in April, but the Commission received “very negative” feedback from a market test of those commitments, so it asked Google for an improved proposal. Last month, Google proposed a second set of commitments. This new proposal was not put to a market test. Instead, the EC sent private inquiries to the complainants in the case and other market participants. Nevertheless, the proposal was leaked, and it offers much food for thought.

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The Dualities of Freedom and Innovation

What a rollercoaster week of incredibly thoughtful reviews of Talent Wants to Be Free! I am deeply grateful to all the participants of the symposium.  In The Age of Mass Mobility: Freedom and Insecurity, Anupam Chander, continuing Frank Pasquale’s and Matt Bodie’s questions about worker freedom and market power, asks whether Talent Wants to Be Free overly celebrates individualism, perhaps at the expense of a shared commitment to collective production, innovation, and equality. Deven Desai in What Sort of Innovation? asks about the kinds of investments and knowledge that are likely to be encouraged through private markets versus. And in Free Labor, Free Organizations,Competition and a Sports Analogy Shubha Ghosh reminds us that to create true freedom in markets we need to look closely at competition policy and antitrust law. These question about freedom/controls; individualism/collectivity; private/public are coming from left and right. And rightly so. These are fundamental tensions in the greater project of human progress and Talent Wants to Be Free strives to shows how certain dualities are pervasive and unresolvable. As Brett suggested, that’s where we need to be in the real world. From an innovation perspective, I describe in the book how “each of us holds competing ideas about the essence of innovation and conflicting views about the drive behind artistic and inventive work. The classic (no doubt romantic) image of invention is that of exogenous shocks, radical breakthroughs, and sweeping discoveries that revolutionize all that was before. The lone inventor is understood to be driven by a thirst for knowledge and a unique capacity to find what no one has seen before. But the solitude in the romantic image of the lone inventor or artist also leads to an image of the insignificance of place, environment, and ties…”.  Chapter 6 ends with the following visual:


Dualities of Innovation:

Individual / Collaborative


Accidental /Deliberate

Global /Local

Passion / Profit





And yet, the book takes on the contrarian title Talent Wants to Be Free! We are at a moment in history in which the pendulum has shifted too far. We have too much, not too little, controls over information, mobility and knowledge. We uncover this imbalance through the combination of a broad range of methodologies: historical, empirical, experimental, comparitive, theoretical, and normative. These are exciting times for innovation research and as I hope to convince the readers of Talent, insights from all disciplines are contributing to these debates.


Talent Timing Paradox

There is a hidden paradox in Talent Wants to be Free: There is time to lock down, and a time to set free (maybe to sow, reap, and more too). Lobel notes that some work indicates that early stage industries may benefit from lock down. But she also makes the observation that a company locking down talent may be in decline. What can we make of this possible paradox?

I think that it shows how difficult it is for any company or industry to truly innovate. As Lobel notes, when things plateau, talent should be loosened up. Why? I suggest that the old hack of the Innovator’s Dilemma is in play. As a company is used to a certain business there are many reasons it won’t move on to the next thing. And it may not be able to see or be willing to work on the next thing. The folks who are into crazy late night work, start-up adrenaline, and the chance to press the edge of whatever field they are in find that the company has become stale. That may also be an industry. I believe that the convergence of businesses is part of why Silicon Valley companies looked to limit talent movement. They both did not want their core people help competitors build rival services and found that folks may be tempted to move to a seemingly new place. For example, a social network person may have jumped to Google to build Google + if their old firm was stable or a search technologist to Amazon or FaceBook, and so on. The respective verticals may be stale and converging. So the leaders start to find ways to keep labor in place (and probably sneak folks to their outfits as much as they can nonetheless). Is there another option? Sure.

Start a Bell Labs, Skunk Works, or Google X. In the short term at least, some of the best folks may stay and set up the next stage of your company. But as the scenario planning and related literature show, sooner or later the company will fail to turn that work into something. When that happens, some of the talent may be frustrated and leave. Again, the need for the payoff, the we planned for X and delivered X vortex takes hold and down the drain we spin. The upside is that other companies will lurk at the edge of the collapse and pick out the best of the wreckage. The key as Lobel argues is that the human capital be able to picked up. If not, the stalling, collapsing company keeps hold of good folks who might do great work elsewhere.


What Sort of Innovation?

Professor Lobel’s book raises many questions. That is a good thing. I like books that connect to ideas that have been pinging about my brain and that spur new ones. Talent Wants to be Free does those things. For now, I will look at something that always lurks in this space for me: What type of innovation are we talking about?

I wonder about most discussions about innovation and disruption that focus on the private sector. Something, which for want of better or less exhausted words, we call innovation or disruption occurs at the firm level. But slowing down, we should parse these ideas. Marianna Mazzucuto has done some great work on the way the state is needed and has contributed to the innovations we all celebrate. Again, there are distinctions, as it may be that the work occurs at the state level (basic research), or that the state funded the core research. The counter-punch is that states may make big bets that pay off and they often make big bets that fail. That they fail seems a silly critic (though the linked Economist article makes it). I wonder whether any large institution struggles with two things. On the one hand, placing big bets at all takes bravery and/or vision. And on the other, what parts of the state or private sector carry forward that work is a big issue.

In other words, how much do market incentives skew focus for any of these outfits? Did Bell Labs or Parc do work that Mazzucuto would say was analogous to the state work? I think so. Today is Google doing some of that work? Microsoft Research? Sure. But in what way? The need for short-term payoffs is a problem for the core work that may then be transferred under Lobel’s ideals. Companies talk of moon shots and at the same time want them to occur within a year. Big leaps on the moon take years, perhaps more than a decade, of work to get to the wow moment.

Now it may be that an overall sector leads to great outcomes and breakthroughs, and thus the talent movement within a sector is needed as part of that process. Still I wonder at whether many of the areas the book considers and the issues about talent mobility relate more to applied innovations rather than bedrock work fueling a shift at a national or global economic scale. Remember Schumpeter drew on work that looked at long cycles and breakthroughs in fields that spawned many companies and sub-industries. So although I think it is wise to let talent be free, I wonder about whether that leads to better small steps (e.g., tweaks to phones, social networking, etc.) more than the sort of innovations that spur massive shifts in industry.


Individuals & Teams, Carrots & Sticks

I promised Victor Fleisher to return to his reflections on team production. Vic raised the issue of team production and the challenge of monitoring individual performance. In Talent Wants to Be Free I discuss some of these challenges in the connection to my argument that much of what firms try to achieve through restrictive covenants could be achieved through positive incentives:

“Stock options, bonuses, and profit-sharing programs induce loyalty and identification with the company without the negative effects of over-surveillance or over-restriction. Performance-based rewards increase employees’ stake in the company and increase their commitment to the success of the firm. These rewards (and the employee’s personal investment in the firm that is generated by them) can also motivate workers to monitor their co-workers. We now have evidence that companies that use such bonus structures and pay employees stock options outperform comparable companies .”

 But I also warn:

 “[W]hile stock options and bonuses reward hard work, these pay structures also present challenges. Measuring employee performance in innovative settings is a difficult task. One of the risks is that compensation schemes may inadvertently emphasize observable over unobservable outputs. Another risk is that when collaborative efforts are crucial, differential pay based on individual contribution will be counterproductive and impede teamwork, as workers will want to shine individually. Individual compensation incentives might lead employees to hoard information, divert their efforts from the team, and reduce team output. In other words, performance-based pay in some settings risks creating perverse incentives, driving individuals to spend too much time on solo inventions and not enough time collaborating. Even more worrisome is the fear that employees competing for bonus awards will have incentives to actively sabotage one another’s efforts.

A related potential pitfall of providing bonuses for performance and innovative activities is the creation of jealousy and a perception of unfairness among employees. Employees, as all of us do in most aspects of our lives, tend to overestimate their own abilities and efforts. When a select few employees are rewarded unevenly in a large workplace setting, employers risk demoralizing others. Such unintended consequences will vary in corporate and industry cultures across time and place, but they may explain why many companies decide to operate under wage compression structures with relatively narrow variance between their employees’ paychecks. For all of these concerns, the highly innovative software company Atlassian recently replaced individual performance bonuses with higher salaries, an organizational bonus, and stock options, believing that too much of a focus on immediate individual rewards depleted team effort.

Still, despite these risks, for many businesses the carrots of performance-based pay and profit sharing schemes have effectively replaced the sticks of controls. But there is a catch! Cleverly, sticks can be disguised as carrots. The infamous “golden handcuffs”- stock options and deferred compensation with punitive early exit trigger – can operate as de facto restrictive contracts….”

 All this is in line with what Vic is saying about the advantages of organizational forms that encourage longer term attachment. But the fundamental point is that stickiness (or what Vic refers to as soft control) is already quite strong through the firm form itself, along with status quo biases, risk aversion, and search lags. The stickiness has benefits but it also has heavy costs when it is compounded and infused with legal threats.


The Age of Mass Mobility: Freedom and Insecurity

In Talent Wants to Be Free, Orly Lobel’s masterfully demonstrates the importance to business, employees, and society at large of workers who are free to move and free to innovate. The symposium this week has seen well-deserved praise heaped on the book from many of the nation’s leading scholars in the area. Lobel, a legal academic, explains the law in a way that non-lawyers (and even lawyers seeking a summary of the law of covenants not to compete, confidentiality agreements, and trade secret) will greatly appreciate.

The shift she describes is part of the larger move from status to contract that has marked modernity—a world in which individuals make and remake themselves. I have myself embraced this model in my own way in my book The Electronic Silk Road. I accordingly find myself entirely sympathetic to Lobel’s prescription. In that book, I describe and embrace the ways that production processes are now splintered across the globe, with global supply chains now including services, not just manufactured parts, supplied in disparate locations. There is liberation implicit in this—on the Internet, no one knows what class or caste into which you were born (though cultural markers are never entirely absent, even in cyberspace). Equally important, it allows individuals in developing countries to participate in lucrative markets in developed countries that would deny those individuals visas.

When I moved to Northern California a decade and a half ago, I carried my Midwestern and East Coast sensibilities with me. When a former student told me he was leaving his job after just one year at one of the leading technology law firms, Wilson, Sonsini, I was not entirely sure this was wise. He joined an important Silicon Valley operating company, and worked there for two or three years. He surprised me by then informing me that he was returning to Wilson, Sonsini. I would have thought that his leaving his law firm after such a short time might have made him persona non grata there, but he returned there certainly a lot more knowledgeable about the needs of the firm’s clients. Wilson, Sonsini clearly understood the virtues of freedom of employees—seeing it not as a sign of instability or disloyalty, but a marker of curiosity, dynamism, and ambition. Lobel would certainly approve, both of the employee and of the employer.

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