All posts by Toni Tileva

What Are the Odds? A computational neuroscientist and Kogod adjunct scores a career as a data scientist with the NBA.

So much of our everyday life involves making predictions—from picking the best route for our morning commute to bringing an umbrella to choosing a partner. “We predict all the time, so the process is natural,” says Grant Fiddyment, adjunct professor of predictive analytics at Kogod and data scientist for the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. “In a lot of ways, it’s the same way we interact with technology and the world. For instance, how can I phrase my web search so that the site will match what I’m looking for? How can I pronounce a word so that a virtual assistant will understand what I’m saying? Without knowing the technical details, we implicitly learn how these technologies work.”

What is predictive analytics, and how does it offer us a glimpse into the future?

At its most fundamental level, the discipline calculates the likelihood of future events by simply (although many would cry foul at this characterization) counting the possible outcomes. Its foundations were laid in a 1654 letter exchange between French mathematicians Pierre de Fermat and Blaise Pascal discussing how the winnings of a coin-flipping gambling game should be split. And while we all know that the house always wins in Vegas, few would know to credit Jacob Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers from 1713 as the reason why.

Despite predictive analytics’ old roots, it is responsible for many facets of modern-day life we give little thought to—things like credit card fraud detection, virtual chess partners, and, of most interest to Fiddyment, creating professional sports super teams.

Grant Fiddyment's headshot.

As a data scientist on the research and development team for the 76ers, Fiddyment helps frame and analyze the predictive questions that arise in sports—for example, how will signing a new player impact a team’s title odds, or how well will a tall lineup play against a smaller, quicker one?

Predictive analytics has long been used in sports, going back to the analog days of yore. Baseball has historically led the movement. One of the most famous success stories is told in the movie Moneyball, which follows 2002 Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane as he uses predictive analytics to hire under-valued players and send his team on a crowd-wowing 20-game winning streak. But the methods developed in Oakland have application across all sports.

“Most teams were asking, ‘How often does a batter get a hit when they go to bat?’ Instead, the A’s asked, ‘How many bases does a player get when they go to bat?’ Looking at total bases turns out to be more predictive of how many runs a team will score,” explains Fiddyment. “Similarly, in the NBA, teams used to ask how often a player will make a shot. But this overlooks the fact that all shots are not equal. So now teams are asking, ‘How many points will a player get when they take a shot?’”

In the past decade the number of three-point shots in the NBA has increased. Is the rise just due to random luck or is it part of a well-crafted strategy? Fiddyment and other fellow data scientists employed full-time by sports teams work to answer new questions like these. He credits the invention of video tracking as the proverbial game changer. “Chip or camera-based systems will follow players as they actively play a sport, and the data we get is much more nuanced than a single-number summary,” says Fiddyment. “For example, we can answer how many pick-and-rolls the team ran last game or how open were the shots they generated. We can analyze the individual and team as a whole.”

At the moment, this kind of data collection is limited to professional teams, making it difficult to spot up-and-coming superstars. “College and international teams typically don’t have the same camera systems, so projecting which players will become successful remains a very challenging problem,” Fiddyment says.

Despite rapid advancements in technology, however, not all data is created equal—or, perhaps, equally useful. The limitations of data translate to limitations in predictive accuracy (as meteorologists can confirm). “We need to be aware of computers’ strengths and weaknesses,” Fiddyment advises. “Computers can process vast amounts of data much more quickly than humans ever could. But they are restricted to the data they have and operate very literally, so we should never expect them to behave exactly like a human, even if they can match our performance at a given task.”

From the glitz of Vegas to the life-saving powers of storm forecasts to the way opinion polls affect voters, predictive analytics is ever-present in our lives. Advances in machine learning and big data models are improving our ability to look into the future, but they are also raising some thorny issues, one of the most notable being the boundaries of data privacy. For now, however, Fiddyment has scored a slam dunk for the NBA.

From Veteran to Venture: Kogod alum-turned-professor helps veteran entrepreneurs launch their businesses

My story for Kogod School of Business

Each year, roughly 200,000 US service members transition from the military to the private sector. Although veterans are twice as likely as non-veterans to be self-employed, their rate of business ownership has dropped precipitously from the entrepreneurial high of their predecessors in the last century.

Half of World War II veterans went on to own or operate a business—a similar rate to the 40% of Korean War vets who did the same almost a decade later. Of the more than 3.6 million people who have served in the military since September 11, 2001, only 4.5% have started a business. What has led to such an enormous gap in veteran entrepreneurship?

In short, more challenges—and fewer resources to overcome them.

Although 25% of veterans say they want to start their own businesses, they face more obstacles securing the capital needed to get their ideas off the ground than in the past. Unlike the GI Bill of 1944, the updated 2008 version does not include access to low-interest loans to start a business. The financing needs of veteran and non-veteran businesses are similar, research shows, but even though would-be veteran business owners submitted more loan applications and reached out to a wider variety of lenders, they typically obtained less financing and got lower approval rates.

Because of frequent travel and work abroad, some veterans are also struggling with building a credit history and amassing collateral. And while previous military drafts drew from all segments of society, this century’s all-volunteer armed forces are more likely to come from military families, making them increasingly isolated from the non-military community and the networks that facilitate business success.

Seda Goff—a Kogod adjunct professor and MBA alumna—is helping veteran entrepreneurs overcome these challenges in her role as the director of veteran entrepreneurship at the PenFed Foundation. Through the foundation’s Veteran Entrepreneur Investment Program (VEIP), veterans can get the seed capital and mentorship they need to build and grow their ventures.

“Veterans have given a lot to serve and protect us, and the skill sets that they gained in the process lend themselves perfectly to entrepreneurship,” Goff says. “This new generation of entrepreneurs feel that same desire to serve and to make a difference and be bigger than themselves.”

After graduating from Kogod, Goff worked for the US Department of Veterans Affairs before moving to PenFed, where she was able to build the nonprofit investment program from the ground up. Her passion for helping veterans stems from growing up in close contact with service members.

“My father was in the Turkish Navy. He worked for the navy for almost 30 years after we came to the US,” Goff recalls. “I loved being around service members and their families. Everybody is very mission- and service-oriented.”

Since launching in March 2018, the Veteran Entrepreneur Investment Program has invested in and offered resources to veteran entrepreneurs. And because veterans are 30% more likely to hire other veterans, the program’s benefits extend to the entire veteran community.

VEIP is funded by outside donors, with PenFed Credit Union matching up to $1 million in contributions. Returns on all investments go back into the program to support future veteran-owned ventures. “The success of veteran entrepreneurs allows the program to exist,” Goff explains. “The dividends go right back into investing in more entrepreneurs. The multiplier effect translates to growth for businesses that are ready to launch, established businesses that want to grow, and those that are still in the exploratory stages.”

In the future, the PenFed Foundation aims to develop new resources for veteran entrepreneurs in all stages of the business cycle, with a focus on women veteran entrepreneurs—who have grown from owning 2.5% of veteran-owned businesses in 2008 to 4.4% in 2012.

Goff, who works with the American University Entrepreneurship Incubator, hopes to one day launch an incubator for veteran entrepreneurs at Kogod, too.

“I feel like the majority of entrepreneurs are just problem solvers. And if you point them in a direction, they’re going to solve problems,” Goff says. “In my work, I have seen how a military career is not something that you need to transition away from to be successful. Serving already has given vets the tools for success.”

Islamic Finance—A Centuries-Old Approach Providing Modern Solutions

Published here

Could a system of finance dating back to the seventh century offer modern solutions to problems like college debt and crumbling infrastructure? Dr. Ghiyath Nakshbendi, chair and founder of the graduate certificate in Islamic finance at the Kogod School of Business, believes so.

“In America, millennials are growing tired of the system of interest, especially when it comes to student loans. They are looking for something that is different,” Dr. Nakshbendi explains. “We also have big problems with infrastructure. More than 54,000 bridges need repairing, for example. Islamic finance could be a way to fund these projects.”

Kogod’s graduate certificate in Islamic finance is the first of its kind in the US. Although Islamic finance has been practiced for over a millennium in Muslim countries, it is relatively new to the US, with the Office of the Comptroller of Currency approving its use for home lending in 1997. It  has taken strong root in Europe, with nations like the United Kingdom, Germany, and Luxembourg at the forefront. In 2018, the UK’s largest Islamic bank, Al Rayan Bank, said about one-third of its customers were non-Muslim, up from one-eighth in 2010. So what is driving Western interest in this ancient approach?

“Islamic finance is not for Muslims only,” Dr. Nakshbendi states. “It is for humanity.”

Islamic finance is an alternative to conventional finance. Sharia law—Islamic law based on the religious principles of the Quran and the Hadith—forbids the charging of interest. Because money is only a way of defining value, making money from money is not permissible, rendering financial products like options, futures, and derivatives moot. In Islamic finance, lending can only occur in the context of a sale or exchange of some sort, meaning investments must result in something tangible.

If interest is forbidden, how do Islamic institutions interact with conventional financial markets? Profit-and-loss sharing contracts are one way, where an Islamic bank pools investors’ money and assumes a share of the profits and losses. Another way is renting or leasing products and services. Or a bank can form a partnership with the company it is sponsoring, reaping some of the benefits once the company produces its product. There are also sukuk—Islamic bonds.

Malaysia, a leader in Islamic banking, has been at the forefront of using Islamic finance to fund environmental sustainability projects. In 2018, Malaysia’s Securities Commission debuted the world’s first green sukuk, an Islamic bond used to fund environmentally sustainable infrastructure projects. Two Malaysian investment companies have already issued green sukuk to fund the construction of large-scale solar power plants in multiple districts.

Islamic finance is even finding its way into cryptocurrency. Rain, a Bahrain-based cryptocurrency exchange, announced in February that it had passed a Sharia compliance certification and bills itself as “the most regulated and secure digital currency exchange in the Middle East.”

“Malaysia and Bahrain are setting global best practice standards of Islamic finance. Business juggernauts like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have been relying on this system, and they are at the forefront of all sorts of innovations,” says Dr. Nakshbendi.

The Islamic finance program attracts a wide variety of students who are eager to learn an alternative way of doing business, from creating community-minded, sustainable development to avoiding predatory lending and promoting inclusive growth.

Recent graduate Bianca Tardio sees Islamic finance as an avenue for positive societal change. “A lot of conventional finance funding provides more of a debt problem, which people obviously have trouble getting out of,” Tardio says. “Islamic finance would be an alternative to benefit not just companies or corporations but actually the people.”

Many students see Islamic finance gaining traction in the world economy and want to make sure they’re prepared to be a part of this growing global branch of finance. For them, the certificate opens up a world of career prospects.

“If one of the regular banking institutions wants to open an Islamic finance branch, someone with this certificate will be the first they will ask to get involved,” Dr. Nakshbendi says. “Even though the figure is from 2016, a study found that there are more than 50,000 jobs in Islamic finance worldwide.”

In 2017, total worldwide Islamic finance assets were estimated at $2 trillion. By 2021, they are expected to grow to $3.5 trillion. In the US, banks like Standard Chartered and JP Morgan—alongside several smaller banking institutions—are already offering Islamic personal and business banking services.

Students graduating from the certificate program are positioned to be at the forefront of Islamic finance’s growth in the US and around the world. From infrastructure development to climate-friendly investments to cryptocurrency, Islamic finance’s inherent innovation invites further exploring.

Though it has ancient roots, Islamic finance is far from irrelevant or antiquated; it offers solutions to some of the world’s most entrenched modern problems. Rather than focusing on wealth generation, Islamic finance offers an avenue to community-focused development and socially responsible investing.

Rebel in the Rye Review

My review

Director Danny Strong offers a tepid biopic riff on the 2013 documentary Salinger in “Rebel in the Rye.” The film explores the 1950s, around Salinger’s writing of “The Catcher in the Rye,” whose place in the pantheon of great American novels is indelible. Holden Caulfield, the novel’s protagonist, gave a voice to the disaffection and confusion of modern living and his condemnation of all things fake rendered the book timeless and dearly loved.The main issue with “Rebel in the Rye” is that it expects us to take its word for how rebellious and revolutionary J.D. Salinger was, and it certainly fails to make the audience get a sense of that. Nicholas Hoult portrays Salinger as a handsome, brash, sardonic and outspoken young man. Salinger’s strong-headedness, perhaps even arrogance as it is portrayed in the film, is incredibly difficult to reconcile with Salinger’s later turn to reclusion, when he eschewed publishing and public appearances to live in a house in the woods in Cornish, New Hampshire. “Rebel in the Rye” also falls short in its portrayal of the effect WWII had on Salinger. His stint “in the nuthouse” is only hinted at, with a repeated image of Salinger’s hand shaking as he tries to put words to paper. We don’t find out that Salinger voluntarily enlisted in the war. The film portrays D-Day only briefly, and we don’t quite get a sense of the atrocities he lived through in France during the war─a place called the “meat grinder,” where 200 men would routinely die in the span of a couple of hours. Witnessing the utter desecration of humanity in camps abandoned by the Nazis left lasting scars on Salinger’s mind, and the film eloquently portrays that with a flashback of outstretched, skeletal hands grasping for bread through barbed wires.

Some of the greatest moments in the film come from the interaction between a young Salinger and his Columbia University creative writing mentor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey). Spacey’s “Dead Poets Society”-esque performance certainly carries the film. The poignancy of Salinger’s turn away from Burnett, who publishes Salinger’s very first story, is made palpable. So is the magic of writing, of which Burnett comments, “There is nothing more sacred than a story.”

“Rebel in the Rye” is captivating in that Salinger himself is an enigmatic, enthralling figure, but the film seems to suffer from trying to cover too much ground and fails in its broad strokes approach. If Holden Caulfield really saved Salinger’s life, as the film suggests, we get only a tenuous sense of how this happened.

 

“It” Successfully Floats, And So Will You

My review of “It” for The Eagle

Stephen King’s seminal─and wildly popular─tome “It” is newly interpreted by “Mama” writer and director, Andy Muschietti. Unlike the 1990 TV mini-series, this silver screen adaptation focuses on the protagonists’ childhood encounter with the demonic killer-clown Pennywise, leaving the adulthood one for a future sequel.

The setting is 1989 in the small town of Derry, Maine. Beneath the bucolic exterior, something dark is stirring in the town’s underbelly─literally, in the sewers, and figuratively, too. Whatever “it” is, it kills children. And adults, too. But mostly children. The film opens with the classic scene of six-year-old, yellow-raincoat-clad Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) chasing a paper boat that falls into a drain. Enter Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), who lures Georgie with the promise of a circus down in the sewer, inch by inch, into his demise. Muschietti allows the scene to unfurl deliberately unrushed, making it all the more unsettling. More unsettling, however, is that someone witnesses what happens and seemingly just ignores it. There is a lot of that in “It”─adults turning a blind eye to the kinds of sickening violence that “it” has made commonplace in Derry.

Speaking of violence, something is definitely in the water in Derry. Perhaps the greatest horror comes not from the sewer-dwelling Pennywise, but the adults of Derry. “It” eloquently portrays the much more pedestrian, if you will, horrors of childhood. The adults in the film loom more monstrously than the evil clown–from Beverly’s serpentine, abusive father to Eddie’s manipulative mother, who feeds his hypochondria so she can control him, to the town bully’s policeman father who shoots a gun at his son’s feet, to the bullies themselves who think nothing of carving their name into the belly of a new kid they call “Tits,” in reference to his body size. “It” also seems to suggest that the absentee adults have left the kids, in this case the self-monikered Losers’ Club, to slay the monster.

“It”–it is a horror film after all–does deliver on the scares, too, but it is refreshingly less CGI-gore-fest and more “Stranger Things” in its style. Pennywise is the amalgamation of everyone’s worst fears, even if clowns don’t phase you. The Losers’ Club and “It” both tread through some gray water and come out on the other side (you will get the reference once you see the film).

Grade: A

No Reservations–Wind River Review

My review for the Eagle

There is no comprehensive reporting system for the number of missing and murdered Native American women and girls in the United States–the only category of missing persons without one. Many reports, however, estimate that Native women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average.

“Wind River,” although fictional, portrays this bleak reality with a steely resolve. Screenwriter and director Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario” and “Hell and High Water”) paints a picture of life on a reservation in muted, grim tones. The film brings to vivid life how drugs have ravaged the community, how violence so often punctures the fabric of daily existence, how Native culture has been obliterated and how the reservation is a place both forgotten and stigmatized.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a federal wildlife officer who hunts predatory animals at the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. While searching for a mountain lion that has been attacking livestock, he finds the raped and beaten body of a young Native woman in the snow. The tracks point to a seeming impossibility–that she had been running barefoot through the snow for miles. Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), the best friend of Cory’s daughter, had died three years earlier under similar circumstances.

Rookie FBI agent Jane Banner ( Elizabeth Olsen) flies in from Vegas, where she is stationed, to investigate the crime. The Tribal Police chief, who has come to accept law enforcement’s utter lack of concern for his people, jokingly remarks, “see what they send us,” when she arrives clad in summery attire in the midst of a blizzard. But Jane is different. The absolute brutality and violence women are subjected to at Wind River shakes her to her core. Olsen makes palpable the feeling of a woman contending with violence against women─as something that feels intensely and viscerally personal.

Jane asks Cory to help her in the investigation. That dynamic is also really interesting since Jane lacks the typical authority figure hubris. Witnessing the dynamics in a community that has received no help from “the government,” she recognizes that Cory can not only “help her hunt a predator” but that he can also earn the trust of the community, which has no reason to trust anyone outside of it.

“Wind River” is a so much more than a taut murder mystery. Free of polemics, Sheridan’s director hand turns the lens on how elusive “justice” can be for the Native American community, on multiple levels. Finding the perpetrator of this specific crime can’t offer the satisfaction traditional murder mystery films offer in catching the bad guy, because most other victims never get the dignity of having someone care to find the perpetrators.

“Wind River” will shake you to your core, but it is an important film to see.

Grade: A

No Justice; No Streets: Documentary Shines a Light on the Protests in Ferguson

My review for The Eagle

“Whose Streets” is a first-hand account of the protests following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The necessity of covering the events from a perspective other than that of the mainstream media is without question, and this film offers unprecedented access.

“Whose Streets” captures the siege-like atmosphere in Ferguson when the protests began─including how the midnight curfew, an intimidation tactic, was couched as a safety measure. A woman shouts, “This is not Iraq,” as officers begin to enforce the curfew that doesn’t start for another 90 minutes. Families in their own backyards are asked to go back inside. In another particularly chilling scene, the memorial for Michael Brown is dismantled, as though the teddy bears and candles, too, have no right to be there. Director Sabaah Folayan stays largely off-screen, instead just letting the intensity of the footage take over.

One way in which the documentary stumbles, however, is in the choice of featured activists. The way in which their personal lives are brought into the film seems haphazard and the choice of what to include also seems to have no rhyme or reason. For example, the relationship between Brittany and Alexis, a young lesbian couple, seems completely irrelevant to the activist life of Brittany. We also meet Copwatch videographer David who lives in the housing complex where Brown was killed. He offers more insight into what’s it like to watch the very organization that relentlessly watches his community.

“Whose Streets” doesn’t seem interested in shaping a particular storyline, but instead offers a collage of first-person footage, tweets and Instagram posts. It’s an image of a community pushed past its breaking point. But there are questions that remain unanswered. One scene hints at the tension between the African-American churches and the young activist community, who characterize themselves as not “your Grandaddy’s civil rights movement.” A lot is missing, though, because we never find out what makes them different. There is also no exploration about the ways in which the Black Lives Matter movement is not only about police violence. Ferguson is a city built by racial capitalism, but we don’t really get too much of a sense of how this happened.

“Whose Streets” does an amazing job of making palpable the anger and pain the community feels after being victimized by a police state for decades. It allows the viewer a perspective never quite seen on mainstream media, which perpetuated the image of the movement as “looters” and “rioters.” It absolutely dismantles this view, in fact. The film could have been a bit more broad in its selection of figures from the movement and in interviewing them more in-depth, but nevertheless, it is an important activist and art work.

Grade: B

Atomic Blonde is Pure Hell on Heels

My review for the Eagle

“Atomic Blonde” drives a stiletto straight into the jugular of every “girl power” spy movie out there, literally and figuratively (watch the trailer and you will see what I mean). Based on the graphic novel series “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston, Sam Hart and Steven Perkins, “Atomic Blonde” is set in 1989, just as the Berlin Wall is collapsing.

Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, a British MI6 operative sent to Berlin to find a watch that contains the names of wanted agents, including a double-dealing mole known as Satchel. All this while supposedly collaborating with the MI6 contact in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy).

The ethos of “Atomic Blonde” is pure 80s with a “Drive”-esque neon palette and a new wave soundtrack to match, but this doesn’t lead to saccharine bliss (take a scene where a guy stomps someone to death to Nena’s “99 Luftballoons”). The soundtrack is also a reminder that the line between new wave and goth is a thin one. Even in the most ebullient of songs, there is a tension, a conflict, a turbulence. Director David Leitch deftly captures the disquieting energy in the air as walls tremble; rebellion is stirring the city awake while Siouxsie Sioux sings about cities in dust. In fact, this is one of the many subtle charms of the film— without being polemical, it is political in the subtlest of ways. A scene where Russian spies are shooting at German and British enemies in a crowd of protesters is a wry commentary on the shadowy workings of the state— in plain view, yet so inscrutable.

“Atomic Blonde” resoundingly disrupts the vapid “girl power” spy genre (yes, there is such a genre— think “Alias” and “La Femme Nikita”). The film is not overtly feminist, but Charlize Theron is every woman who has been called “bitch” by some old-boy type. As she soundly thrashes the archetype, she asks, “Am I still a bitch!?” The patriarchy ends up smashed in more ways than one. Lorraine also has to contend with questions of how well she is performing at her job— sound familiar? Her character, without relying on ham-handed political messages, is nevertheless that of a woman who doesn’t have time to take the numbers of those she has kicked to the curb. The dark humor of beating up men to the tune of George Michael’s “Father Figure” will not escape you. Similarly tongue-in-cheek is the way Lorraine makes fun of her male superior by saying had she known about an ambush, she would have “worn a different outfit.”

The fighting scenes in “Atomic Blonde” are edge-of-your-seat spectacular. The action avoids unrealistic hyperbole— in fact, it is mostly hand-to-hand combat. Theron, doing most of her own stunts, punches and kicks her way through the film with steely abandon. This is the picture of cool. There’s your girl power.

Grade: A