Breakthroughs

and the “Long Tail”
of Innovation
FAL L 2007 VOL . 49 NO. 1
RE PRI NT NUMBE R 49114
Lee Fleming
Please note that gray areas reflect artwork that has been
intentionally removed. The substantive content of the ar-
ticle appears as originally published.
M
any managers have little understanding of the process of invention.
Nor do they possess much insight about the most likely sources of
technological and scientific breakthroughs. Specifically, are blockbuster
innovations more likely to come from a lone inventor or from a collabora-
tive team? If it’s the latter, does greater diversity on the team help or hurt
the group’s chances? And does a deeper understanding of science lead to
more breakthroughs, or is such knowledge more likely to result in only
incremental progress?
To answer such questions, managers first need to understand that inven-
tion is essentially a process of recombinant search. That is, I adopt the
classic definition of invention as a new combination of components, ideas
or processes. At its simplest level, this definition provides an accessible pic-
ture of the inventor as a tinker, trying different combinations of materials,
gadgets and configurations, and every invention can be thought of as an
assemblage of its constituent parts, including the steamship (sailing ship
and steam engine), the automobile (bicycle, carriage and internal combus-
tion engine) and Apple Inc.’s iPod (cheap memory, digital music and
lightweight battery).
The prevailing view is that breakthroughs are impossible to predict, but
that’s only partly true. Much of the misconception arises because people tend
to focus on just the breakthroughs while ignoring the iterative process of in-
vention and the resulting total distribution of outcomes. When all inventions
(that is, all new combinations) are considered, they demonstrate a highly
skewed distribution (see “Histogram of Creativity,” p. 70). Almost all inven-
tions are useless; a few are of moderate value; and only a very, very few are
breakthroughs. Those breakthroughs constitute the “long tail” of innovation.
Every well-sampled distribution of inventive value, creativity or success I
have ever observed has demonstrated that highly skewed profile. This holds
true whether the measure is patent citations,
1
scientific citations,
2
financial
returns
3
or the number of times a novel combination is used by future inven-
tors.
4
Interestingly, it also characterizes other creative fields, such as the
number of performances of a musical composition, the number of times a
book is reprinted or the value accorded to a collector’s comic book.
5
The skewed distribution, however, is rarely acknowledged, let alone in-
vestigated and systematically managed. That probably occurs for a number
FALL 2007 MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 69
I NNOVAT I ON
Breakthroughs and the
“Long Tail” of Innovation
Lee Fleming is an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business
School, Harvard University. Comment on this article or contact the author through
smrfeedback@mit.edu.
To understand how
breakthroughs in
innovation arise,
managers first need
to be aware of the
different factors that
shape the highly
skewed distribution
of creativity.
Lee Fleming
I NNOVAT I ON
of reasons, including the difficulty of collecting complete data
(failures are often forgotten), the statistical difficulties caused
by long-tail distributions and the convention of discarding out-
liers rather than learning from them. Yet if managers wish to
understand how those outliers (that is, breakthroughs in cre-
ativity) arise, they cannot ignore the process that generates the
entire distribution. In particular, they need to keep in mind the
following three measures:
1. Shots on goal: The first step in inventing a breakthrough is
generating numerous draws because single attempts rarely be-
come one-hit smashes. If invention is a process of recombinant
search, then generating draws requires putting together a lot of
previously untried combinations. Each new one is an invention
and provides a shot at a breakthrough.
2. Average score: Once a company is generating a sufficient
number of shots on goal, the next step is to maximize the average
score of those shots. (Here, the use of a sports metaphor is mis-
leading. Unlike basketball, soccer and other sports, innovation is
an endeavor in which the shot scores vary greatly in their value.
The value of a breakthrough invention can easily be several or-
ders of magnitude greater than the value of a mediocre one.) A
crucial thing to remember is that organizations rarely invent a
breakthrough if their average shot is worth little.
3. Maximum scores: If a company truly desires a break-
through, it needs to do more than simply increase the number
and average score of its shots. It also needs to substantially ex-
pand the variability of those scores. In other words, it needs to
take wild shots at a rich target (or, preferably, a set of rich tar-
gets) because the wider range will be more likely to contain
scores of maximum values.
With those three measures in mind, managers can gain a
deeper understanding of how breakthroughs truly occur. More-
over, they will be able to obtain a better appreciation of the
different factors that affect the process of innovation, enabling
them to manage that process to increase their odds of success.
Lone Inventors As the Source of Breakthroughs:
Myth or Reality?
One very persistent belief is that lone inventors are the source of
breakthroughs. That notion was popularized around the turn of
the 20th century when lone mavericks were credited with a host
of breakthroughs in communications (Alexander Graham Bell),
utilities and entertainment (Thomas Alva Edison) and transpor-
tation (Henry Ford), among other industries. But are lone
inventors truly the source of such quantum leaps in technology,
or is that belief more myth than reality?
My fieldwork consistently indicates that innovators working
by themselves can be the source of more failures as well as
more breakthroughs. Their output at both extremes of the
distribution suggests that the impact of lone inventors’ work is
highly variable. To test that hypothesis, I looked at a 10%
sample of all patented U.S. inventors since 1975. The models
indicate that lone inventors generate
fewer novel combinations and that the
combinations they create are less likely
to be used, on average, by future inven-
tors. Those results call into question
whether lone inventors are truly the
creative geniuses that they are reputed
to be. But the future use of their work
is also much more variable, such that
they are more likely to be the source of
a highly skewed outlier, thus bolstering
the argument that they are indeed
more likely to be the sources of radical
innovations.
6
One possible explanation is that
loners generate fewer novel combina-
tions because most inventors receive
their information from social sources.
7

As a result, collaborative inventors are
exposed to more recombinant oppor-
tunities and hence are able to contrive
a greater number of new combina-
tions. A reason that collaborators have
a higher average score than loners
When all inventions are plotted on a histogram, the resulting distribution is highly
skewed. Almost all inventions are useless, as indicated by the large amount of mass
on the far left. A few are of moderate value, as indicated by the much smaller bars in
the middle of the histogram. A very, very few are breakthroughs, as illustrated by the
far-right outliers, which are referred to as the “long tail” of innovation.
Histogram of Creativity
70 MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW FALL 2007
Value, Quality or Financial Returns of Inventions
Number of Inventions
Breakthroughs
SLOANREVIEW.MIT.EDU
might be because collaborators help one another
identify the most promising new combinations
for further development: They make the selec-
tion stage of invention more rigorous, thus
improving the average quality. Inventions by
collaborators are also more likely to be adopted
by others because there are a greater number of
diffusion paths for that knowledge to travel.
(For noncollaborative innovations, the lone in-
ventor is usually the sole source of the necessary
expertise.)
A less rigorous selection process for loners,
however, also means that they will have a greater
variance of output. Because they are less con-
strained by convention and skeptical groupthink,
lone inventors are more likely to invent (and not
immediately dismiss) the radical breakthrough.
Thus, lone inventors are less creative on average
and yet are also more likely to come up with a
breakthrough. In other words, lone inventors
make fewer shots on goal, have lower scores on
average and tend to score both very low and ex-
tremely high. They are on average both less
successful — and more likely to be the source of
breakthroughs.
Since 1975, lone inventors have been responsible for more
than 20% of all patents held by U.S. corporations.
8
As such, they
are an important resource in the corporate lab despite their repu-
tation (sometimes deserved) of difficult work habits and lack of
social skills. It therefore behooves companies to figure out ways
to motivate and compensate the prickly but prolific lone inventor
and to integrate the creative breakthroughs of such individuals.
Organizations that desire a greater number of breakthroughs
from lone inventors also must be willing to sort through and
absorb a greater number of failures. That said, the increasingly
popular managerial advice that collaboration will improve cre-
ativity appears to be correct, particularly for the typical manager
who prefers to minimize any uncertainty in the innovation pro-
cess. Still, if companies follow that advice and encourage all their
inventors to collaborate, they ironically will also likely achieve
fewer breakthroughs.
How Does Collaboration Influence Breakthroughs?
That raises the next question: What exactly is the role of col-
laboration? First, managers need to understand certain nuances
about joint work, specifically, the difference between brokered
and cohesive collaborations. Brokerage occurs when a single
individual is the hub through which all collaborators interact.
The opposite structure of cohesion occurs when collaborators
develop separate and independent relationships with one an-
other that do not include a central individual (see “Two Types
of Collaborations”).
By brokering others, hub inventors gain first access to and
control of information, enabling them to generate a greater num-
ber of new combinations. Yet this same social networking
structure also makes it inherently more difficult for others to
understand a focal inventor’s idea in order to critique, transfer
and evolve it. Hence, brokers tend to generate more new combi-
nations, but those innovations are less likely to be picked up and
developed by others.
9
That result suggests a reinterpretation of the “not invented
here” syndrome,
10
in which a group fails to embrace a superior
external technology despite managerial pressure to do so. This
typically is cast as a problem on the receiving end, specifically,
that the receiving group isn’t working hard enough to adopt the
technology or that it sabotages (either actively or passively) the
transfer. But if the external technology is from a brokered col-
laboration, then the problem might very well lie with the
transmitting end, specifically, that the hub inventor might lack
the motivation, resources or time to transfer the innovation. And
because that individual might be the only source with a complete
understanding of the technology, the organization must depend
on that person to participate in the transfer.
Brokered and cohesive collaborations have their relative pros
and cons, and companies need to understand the various trade-
FALL 2007 MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 71
Collaborations among inventors can be either brokered or cohesive.
Brokerage occurs when a single individual is the hub through which
others interact. In a cohesive collaboration, people develop separate and
independent relationships with one another that do not include a central
individual. In this network of inventors, Riceman is almost a consummate
broker, whereas Das collaborates within a very cohesive structure.
Two Types of Collaborations
Riceman
Das
SLOANREVIEW.MIT.EDU
I NNOVAT I ON
72 MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW FALL 2007
offs. Manipulating the brokerage-cohesion variable can increase
the generation of ideas or it can improve the diffusion of ideas,
but it can’t accomplish both without additional help. In other
words, managers must rely on other mechanisms (such as finan-
cial or professional incentives) to exploit the benefits and avoid
the downsides of either approach. Instead of rewarding just the
raw generation of ideas or patents by brokers, for example, com-
panies also might consider giving sufficient credit to the transfer
and adoption of knowledge and technology.
Neither brokered nor cohesive collaboration is inherently
superior to the other; much depends on the organizational cul-
ture and the specific environment of the inventors. For example,
although brokerage is better for the generation of new combina-
tions, cohesion confers strong marginal benefits in collaborations
that lack trust or involve fresh information. People who have
recently moved from another organization thus would be better
off collaborating within a cohesive structure in order to gain
their new colleagues’ trust and transfer their external informa-
tion most effectively.
Another important factor in collaborative work is the role of
gatekeepers, people who span the boundaries between different
groups.
11
Gatekeepers tend to increase a company’s inventive
creativity through their adoption of others’ new combinations.
But, in addition to simply transferring ideas from one group to
another, gatekeepers are more likely to invent new ideas. It is
important to remember that not all gatekeepers are created equal.
Companies should note that spanning a technological domain
doubles the likelihood of generating new combinations in com-
parison with spanning an organizational boundary. In other
words, even though technological and social borders tend to cor-
relate, the creative opportunities appear to be twice as great at the
technological boundaries.
Surprisingly, being embedded in a large and extended social
network has little effect on the creativity of the individual in-
ventor. But such networks do facilitate the diffusion of
technology. This can be a disadvantage for companies that want
to keep their internal technology from leaking to the outside
world.
12
That vulnerability is particularly acute for firms work-
ing with modular components to generate new combinations.
Such relatively straightforward knowledge tends to diffuse eas-
ily, in that any inventor can re-create and build upon a previous
inventor’s work. In contrast, very complex knowledge (such as
a biotech manufacturing process that is not fully understood)
diffuses only with great difficulty, in that no person, even one
who works for the same firm and has access to the original
source of the necessary knowledge, can re-create and build
upon the work.
13
The bottom line is that the collaborative structure of a lab has
a powerful effect on its inventive output and chances of a break-
through. Companies must realize how a structure that increases
the likelihood of a breakthrough will also disrupt their incre-
mental invention and efficiency. At one end of the spectrum, the
presence of just solitary inventors increases the chances of a
breakthrough (that is, higher maximum scores). At the other
end, having only cohesive collaboration improves the odds for
incremental and efficient invention and development (that is, a
higher average score).
Does Diversity Help or Hurt?
Many companies have noticed that diversity and breakthroughs
seem to co-occur. Yet that goes against the advantages of special-
ization and focus. This apparent contradiction can be resolved
by considering the histogram of inventive creativity. Diversity
helps generate more shots on goal although, on average, those
shots are less successful. But diversity also gives rise to new and
unexplored combinations that increase the probability of a
highly skewed breakthrough.
Perhaps the most popular prescription for creativity and
breakthroughs is multidisciplinary collaboration.
14
According to
its proponents, breakthroughs require the juxtaposition of inven-
tors with differing expertise. Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto Research
Center is often held up as the exemplar here. During its heyday,
Xerox PARC employed a phenomenally diverse assortment of
natural and social scientists, engineers and artistic personnel. Yet
the evidence linking breakthroughs with multidisciplinary col-
As collaborations among inventors become more
multidisciplinary, the average value of their output
decreases. But multidisciplinary collaboration
increases the variance of the outcome, such that
failures as well as breakthroughs are more likely.
The Effect of Multidisciplinary Collaboration
Single
Discipline
Value of Innovation
Breakthroughs
Multi-
Discipline
Failures
Average
SLOANREVIEW.MIT.EDU
laborations remains mixed. The truth is that, on average, it’s
more productive to search within established disciplines.
15
Or,
when trying to cross-pollinate between fields, the more produc-
tive approach is to combine areas that have some common
ground. Consider the rapid emergence of nanotechnology, which
relies on know-how from two fields — semiconductor manufac-
turing and mechanical engineering — that have deep foundations
in the physical sciences.
My own research studying more than 17,000 patents has found
that the greater the divergence between collaborators’ fields of
expertise, the lower the overall quality of their output. But multi-
disciplinary collaboration increases the variance of the outcome,
such that failures as well as breakthroughs are more likely (see
“The Effect of Multidisciplinary Collaboration”). Case in point:
the exciting research in the area of behavioral economics, which
resides at the intersection of two disparate fields — psychology
and economics.
Companies should go for depth, not breadth, when assem-
bling a diverse team. In general, individuals with deep expertise
will be more likely to see potential synergies across fields than
will those with broader but shallower knowledge. Take, for ex-
ample, the laboratory headed by Robert S. Langer, an engineering
professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is
one of the most productive inventors alive today (as measured by
U.S. patents). Langer’s own expertise is in chemical engineering,
and he has staffed his lab with PhDs from a range of disciplines.
The result is a veritable innovation factory that has been respon-
sible for nearly 800 papers, 500 patents and a dozen very
successful start-ups.
What’s the Role of Science?
Most inventors search locally, in the sense that they typically
alter only one part of a system at a time, either replacing it or
reconfiguring it relative to other components.
16
Such strategies
can be very successful because they rely on accumulated knowl-
edge and previous successes. The downside, however, is that
searching locally typically generates only incremental improve-
ments and few breakthroughs. Furthermore, the process breaks
down completely when the components are interdependent,
that is, when a small change in one part can lead to a huge dif-
ference in the overall system. In that way, technology is like a
landscape in which systems of interdependent components cre-
ate a complex and rugged terrain where local search or simple
“hill-climbing” algorithms quickly become trapped on local
maxima (that is, incremental innovations) instead of global
peaks (that is, breakthroughs).
17
Interdependent components might be difficult to work with,
but they are also the stuff of many breakthroughs.
18
With semi-
conductors, minute impurities of dopant (in parts per million)
can result in either a transistor — the basic building block of
the information revolution — or a relatively useless resistor. As
components become more interdependent, though, people be-
come less effective in struggling with the increasing complexity,
and they have greater difficulty predicting how their inventions
will work. Thus the overall effect of complex interdependence is
similar to that of collaborative diversity: The typical outcome is
less fruitful, but the possibility of a breakthrough increases.
So, then, what’s the role of science? My fieldwork, research and
experience suggest that the scientific method and knowledge help
provide a useful map of the technology landscape.
19
Armed with
such information, inventors can more efficiently find the optimal
combinations of components. By explaining why phenomena
occur, science enables (1) predictions of how certain combina-
tions will work; (2) insights into which combinatorial spaces can
be winnowed because they lack potential; (3) simulations of fer-
tile possibilities; and (4) theoretical encouragement in the face of
empirical failure. As such, the application of science is particu-
larly powerful when an inventor is working with interdependent
components for which little empirical knowledge has been devel-
oped (and, indeed, for which the development of empirical
knowledge would be prohibitively expensive).
In essence, the application of scientific knowledge helps in-
ventors exploit the interdependencies among technological
components. Such interdependencies provide the potential for
breakthroughs, but they can substantially complicate the search
FALL 2007 MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW 73
A company’s output of innovations is affected by the presence
of inventors who work alone, the type of collaboration among
those inventors who work in teams, the amount of team diver-
sity and the degree to which inventors apply science in the
innovation process. Each of these levers has a different impact
on the three measures of inventive success: shots on goal (the
total number of inventions), average score (the mean value of
those inventions) and maximum scores (the number of break-
through inventions). Greater team diversity, for instance, will
lead to a lower average score (as indicated by the minus sign)
but a higher number of shots on goal and increased maximum
scores (as indicated by the plus signs).
The Levers of Invention
Shots
on Goal
Average
Score
Maximum
Scores
Presence of Lone Inventors
Brokered Collaboration
Diversity of Teams
Application of Science
SLOANREVIEW.MIT.EDU
74 MIT SLOAN MANAGEMENT REVIEW FALL 2007
I NNOVAT I ON
process. In effect, scientific methods make the process of inven-
tion less random, enabling inventors to make fewer but better
shots on goal. On the other hand, science by itself will also de-
crease the variability of outcomes because it often discourages the
pursuit of unconventional ideas that lead to technological dead
ends as well as novel discoveries. But when science is applied to
complex and interdependent components, it can unlock the po-
tential for breakthroughs.
Managers should be aware that science facilitates the diffu-
sion of an invention
20
and hence makes it more difficult for
companies to capture the full economic fruits of their invest-
ments. Moreover, developing scientific capabilities is neither
cheap nor easy. It requires a long-term investment, the motiva-
tion of professionals (who often owe greater allegiance to their
professions and communities than to their companies) and a
conscious effort to generate a financial return from an activity
and institution not originally designed with pecuniary goals.
Furthermore, companies should remember that science gener-
ates the greatest benefits when it is closely integrated with other
activities within the organization.
Managerial Challenges
Different factors can dramatically affect a company’s inventive
output, with each having a different impact on the three mea-
sures of inventive success: shots on goal, average score and
maximum scores (see “The Levers of Invention,” p. 73). Conse-
quently, companies first need to identify how they want to
improve their innovation process and then take the appropriate
measures. If an organization has an adequate number of shots on
goal but a poor average score, for example, it might do well to
consider a substantial investment in science and basic research. If,
on the other hand, the primary problem is a paucity of shots on
goal, the company might be better off focusing on cultivating
technology brokers and increasing the diversity in its labs.
Of course, the creativity process always will rely to some de-
gree on serendipity — the chance meeting between two
researchers that sparks some creative leap in thinking. The crucial
thing to remember, though, is that companies do have tremen-
dous control over their innovation processes, enabling them to
address deficiencies in certain areas. Indeed, by understanding
the histogram of inventive creativity and managing the factors
that shape that distribution, a firm can greatly improve its capac-
ity to innovate in specific ways that make the best sense for the
organization as a whole.
REFERENCES
1. M. Trajtenberg, “A Penny for Your Quotes: Patent Citations and the
Value of Innovations,” RAND Journal of Economics 21 (1990): 172-187.
2. D.K. Simonton, “Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives On
Creativity” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
3. F.M. Scherer and D. Harhoff, “Technology Policy for a World of Skew-
Distributed Outcomes,” Research Policy 29 (2000): 559-566.
4. L. Fleming, S. Mingo and D. Chen, “Brokerage and Collaborative
Creativity,” Administration Science Quarterly, forthcoming.
5. A. Taylor and H.R. Greve, “Superman or the Fantastic Four? Knowl-
edge Combination and Experience in Innovative Teams,” Academy of
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6. See L. Fleming, “Lone Inventors As Sources of Breakthroughs: Myth
or Reality?” Harvard Business School Working Paper (2006); and K.
Dahlin, M.R. Taylor and M. Fichman, “Today’s Edisons or Weekend
Hobbyists: Technical Merit and Success of Inventions By Independent
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setts: MIT Press, 1977).
8. This measure is conservative, based on the consideration of non-
overlapping three-year periods in the careers of all U.S. inventors. For
that data, almost 20% of corporate inventors worked completely alone
(see Fleming, “Lone Inventors”).
9. L. Fleming, S. Mingo and D. Chen, “Brokerage”; see also R.S. Burt,
“Structural Holes and Good Ideas,” American Journal of Sociology 110
(2004): 349-399.
10. R. Katz and T.J. Allen, “Investigating the Not Invented Here (NIH)
Syndrome: A Look at the Performance, Tenure and Communication
Patterns of 50 R&D Project Groups,” R&D Management 12 (1982):
7-20.
11. Gatekeepers are also known as “boundary spanners.” See T.J. Allen,
“Managing the Flow”; and M.L. Tushman, “Special Boundary Roles in
the Innovation Process,” Administrative Science Quarterly 22, no. 4
(1977): 587-605.
12. L. Fleming and M. Marx, “Managing Creativity in Small Worlds,”
California Management Review 48, no. 4 (summer 2006): 6-27.
13. O. Sorenson, J.W. Rivkin and L. Fleming, “Complexity, Networks and
Knowledge Flow,” Research Policy 35 (2006): 994-1017.
14. A. Hargadon, “How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth
About How Companies Innovate” (Boston: Harvard Business School
Press, 2003); and D. Leonard and W. Swap, “When Sparks Fly: Igniting
Creativity in Groups” (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1999).
15. L. Fleming, “Recombinant Uncertainty in Technological Search,”
Management Science 47, no. 1 (2001): 117-132.
16. J.G. March and H.A. Simon, “Organizations” (Cambridge, Massachu-
setts: Blackwell Publishers, 1958); R.R. Nelson and S.G. Winter, “An
Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change” (Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Belknap Press, 1982); and T.E. Stuart and J.M. Podolny, “Local Search
and the Evolution of Technological Capabilities,” Strategic Management
Journal 17 (summer 1996): 21-38.
17. L. Fleming and O. Sorenson, “Navigating the Technology Landscape
of Innovation,” MIT Sloan Management Review 44, no. 2 (winter 2003):
15-23.
18. George Whitesides refers to complex systems as the “natural home
of big surprises”; see G.M. Whitesides and G.W. Crabtree, “Don’t Forget
Long-Term Fundamental Research in Energy,” Science, February 9,
2007, 796-798.
19. L. Fleming and O. Sorenson, “Science As a Map in Technological
Search,” Strategic Management Journal 25 (2004): 909-928.
20. O. Sorenson and L. Fleming, “Science and the Diffusion of Knowl-
edge,” Research Policy 33, no. 10 (2004): 1615-1634.
Reprint 49114.
Copyright © Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007. All rights reserved.
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