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The Complexity Matters blog features the Thursday Complexity Post as well as other complexity inspired news items.


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Innovations in Organic Transplants

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 04, 2014

Healthy human excrement is becoming a valuable commodity.

OpenBiome, a nonprofit launched by MIT graduate students almost two years ago, is the nation's first stool bank. Its mission is to provide doctors and hospitals with safe fecal material from screened donors for use in the growing number of fecal transplant procedures. Microbiologist Mark Smith, a co-founder, explains in a story by Chelsea Rice that the organization is modeled after the Red Cross, to make a medical commodity available in a standardized way.

Fecal transplants-known as fecal microbiota transplants, or FMT, have been found extraordinarily effective in treating patients with Clostridium difficile infections that afflict half a million patients a year with intestinal pain and disabling diarrhea. Most are hospital patients who have been treated with antibiotics that wipe out healthy gut bacteria along with targeted pathogens. With the microbial competition wiped out, C. diff takes over, producing toxins that can cause severe and sometimes fatal illness. With introduction of donated stool into the patient's intestine or colon, healthy bacteria fight the C. diff and the normal microbial gut community can be reestablished. The Mayo Clinic first used FMT to treat a C. diff patient in 2011 and the Cleveland Clinic called FMT one of the top medical innovations of 2013.

In The New Yorker story "The Excrement Experiment," Emily Eakin traces the past and current understanding of fecal microbiota, describes its potential for treating several autoimmune disorders, and reports on recent research suggesting the mysteries of the gut biome may hold keys to many medical conditions, including obesity and mental health. Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that gut bacteria plays a significant role in obesity in mice. Mice implanted with gut bacteria from a fat human gained weight while those injected with gut bacteria from a thin human stayed slim even when both groups ate the same diet. Research also suggests gut bacteria influences our moods, minds and emotions.

The average human digestive tract hosts at least 100 trillion bacterial, fungal, viral and archaeal organisms that collectively makeup the gut biome. Much of the research focuses on stool, which Eakins explains "remains our best proxy for the brimming universe within." Smith told Eakin part of his inspiration for OpenBiome was a friend who cured his extreme suffering from C. diff by transplanting his room-mate's stool into himself. Transplanting can be done using enemas, colonoscopies or a turkey baster. OpenBiome absorbs the cost of screening donors, whose blood is tested for several diseases, and whose initial stool samples are screened for known harmful pathogens. It is now sending specimens of clinically prepared excrement to dozens of hospitals across the country. reports screened doors are paid $40 a day for their contributions. To lighten a gross topic, donors, who are anonymous to recipients, are given code names such as Winnie the Poo, Poop King, and Vladimir Pootin. Note the graphic.

Meanwhile, for-profit biotech companies are competing to get stool-based therapies through trials and into the market. Scientists are also designing fecal capsules, which some entrepreneurs call "crapsules," that will be more appealing to patients. And the FDA will have to decide what regulatory measures should be in place. The FDA has viewed medically used stool as a drug. Smith and others hope it will be reclassified as a tissue, which has to meet stringent standards but does not have to go through clinical trials required for FDA drug approval. Read the New Yorker story here.

Tags:  bacteria  buscell  complexity matters  health 

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Scientists See Best Case for Planet: Unpleasant, Not Uninhabitable

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Scientists See an Inevitable Tipping Point


A rise in the planet’s atmospheric temperature of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit is the tipping point at which the world will be locked into a near future of drought, food and water shortages, melting glaciers, rising sea levels and world-wide flooding that will harm populations and economies, according to a significant body of scientific research.

As diplomats and policy makers gather in Lima,Peru to draft an agreement designed to halt the rise of greenhouse gases, climate scientists warn it may be impossible to prevent global temperatures from passing the tipping point because of the amount of greenhouse gas already in the atmosphere and the emissions expected to continue before any deal is implemented. Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton professor of geosciences and international affairs and a member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said although he is encouraged by recent U.S. climate agreement with China, large scale transformations in the ecosystem have already taken place. The goal now, he said, is to prevent a 4 to 10 degree rise that would make the planet increasingly uninhabitable for humans. Even if future emissions are curtailed enough to head off worse-case scenarios, scientists say, a relentlessly warming world will be increasingly unpleasant. Read the New York Times story by Coral Davenport.

Tags:  news 

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Wisdom: An Emergent Property Rooted in Biology

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 27, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Economists and psychologists studying human contentment have found a recurrent pattern in countries across the world. People report that life satisfaction declines in the first couple of decades of adulthood, hits bottom around age 50, then rises with age, often above the levels people felt in their 20s. The pattern, which emerges with regularity in large data sets, is called the U-curve of happiness.

Jonathan Rauch, in a provocative article in The Atlantic, describes recent research, interviews the social scientists who conducted it, and presents an intriguing possibility: there may be some underlying pattern of life satisfaction that is independent of economic status, work and career achievement and personal relationships. He says David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick found the U-curve in 55 of 80 countries where people were asked about their general life satisfaction. The nadir was, on average, age 46. Other researchers who conducted surveys in 80 countries found a similar curve and the average age of rock bottom dissatisfaction was 50. Examining statistics from 27 European countries, Blanchflower and Oswald found that antidepressant use peaks in the late 40s, and that being middle aged nearly doubles the likelihood that a person will take antidepressants.

Oswald and four other scientists, including two primatologists, even found a U-curve over time in the state of mind of chimpanzees and orangutans. Zoo keepers, animal researchers and caretakers were surveyed about the well-being of more than 500 captive primates in five countries and reported that well-being was at its lowest in ages that would be comparable to ages 45 to 50 in people. So biology may play some part in middle age doldrums.

The good news is the upswing on the U-curve when studies show people tend to become more optimistic as they age. Rauch points to research by Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen and others who say "the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade." Carstensen told Rauch that as people age, their time horizons get shorter, they focus more on the present, and their goals tend to be more concerned with meaning and savoring the moment. They pay less attention to regrets and unmet desires.

Rauch also interviewed Dilip V. Jeste, a psychiatrist with multiple titles at University of California at San Diego, who has studied the aging brain to find clues for how people age successfully even with the onset of chronic health conditions that might be expected to make them depressed. Jeste explains that as a native of India he grew up in a culture steeped in respect for wisdom, and concepts about wisdom, he says, are remarkably constant across time and geography. The traits of the wise, Rauch summarizes, include empathy, compassion, good social reasoning, tolerance of diverse views, and comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. Jeste sees wisdom as an emergent property of many other functions, with its roots in biology and evolution. Wisdom gives societal function to people who are no longer fertile. He's also looking for clues in neuroscience. While the science of wisdom is in its infancy, Jeste suspects age may change the human brain in ways that make wisdom easier.

So if you're experiencing mid-life distress, take heart in the likelihood that the future will get better.

As Andrew Oswald observes in a New York Times story, "It's a very encouraging fact that we can expect to be happier in our early 80s than we were in our 20s. And it's not being driven predominantly by things that happen in life. It's something very deep and quite human that seems to be driving this." Read Rauch's piece here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  neuroscience 

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Thought-Controlled Gene Expression

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Scientists at ETH Zurich have constructed a networked system in which gene expression can be controlled remotely by human thought, and they hope that eventually thought-controlled brain implants will help combat neurological diseases.

A team of researchers led by Martin Fussenegger implanted a living mouse with designer cells that can be controlled with light. As a story by John Hewett in notes, that's challenging enough, but what they did next is jaw-dropping. Electrical signals from the brain of a human wearing a brain-computer interface (BCI) remotely activated genes in the mouse's brain implant by turning on the light. The mouse implant was wirelessly linked to the human monitor by a Bluetooth device.

A story in The Scientist by Jyoti Madhusoodanan says this achievement is the first time two known technologies, optogenetics, which uses light sensitive protein to control gene expression, and EEG based BCI, which harnesses the brain's electrical potential to create a physical output, have been used this way. Synthetic biologist Timothy Lu at MIT, who was not involved in the research, describes the work as "awesome."

BCIs that capture the electrical neural impulses in the brain have been used in the past to control cursors and prosthetic devices. Fussenegger's team developed a gene-regulation method that enables thought-specific brain waves to control gene expression, which means the conversion of genes into proteins.

A story says one inspiration for the new system was the game Mindflex, in which players wear a sensor on the forehead that records brainwaves that are transferred to the playing environment by EEG. The EEG controls a fan that enables a small ball to be thought-guided through an obstacle course.

Researchers discovered that the state of mind of the human participant regulated the quantity of an experimentally used protein released by the implant into the mouse's blood stream. Human participants were asked play a focused game of Minecraft for 10 minutes, control their brain activity in response to a visual light display, or just relax or meditate. "In all three mental states, the brain produced very specific (electrical) signatures," Fussenegger told The Scientist.

"For the first time, we have been able to tap into human brainwaves, transfer them wirelessly to a gene network, and regulate the expression of a gene depending on the type of thought. Being able to control gene expression via the power of thought is a dream that we've been chasing for over a decade," Fussenegger says in the story.

Eventually, the Extremetech story says, researchers hope the thought controlled implant and the controlling thoughts will exist in one person-or perhaps two appropriately synchronized persons. The idea is that one day someone with a mind-controlled implant might be able to think about something-say you want more adrenaline or more dopamine, or insulin,-- and have the implant dutifully trigger release of whatever chemical is needed.

The extremely complex research that led to this extraordinary breakthrough is described in Nature Communications.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  research  science 

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What’s Deep and What’s Dark on the Web?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Not Everyone Knows Dark from Deep

Andy Greenberg writing at Hacker Lexicon, the Wired explainer series, notes that even the well regarded news program 60 Minutes is confused, having described the Dark Web incorrectly as a "vast, secret, cyber underworld” that accounts for "90% of the Internet."

Greenberg says the Dark Web isn't particularly vast, it's not 90% percent of the Internet, and it's not particularly secret. It's a collection of websites that are publicly visible, yet hide the IP addresses of the servers that run them. So anyone can visit a Dark Web site, but it can be difficult to figure out where they're hosted—or by whom. Most Dark Web sites use the anonymity software Tor, though some use a similar tool called I2P. Both of those systems encrypt web traffic in layers and bounce it through randomly-chosen computers around the world so it's hard to match origin and destination of web traffic. Online marketplaces such as Silk Road2, the illegal drug site recently shut down by federal investigators, and other black market sites selling contraband, are usually part of the Dark Web. Wikileaks created a dark site to accept anonymous leaks.

The Deep Web is a collection of all sites on the web that aren't reachable by a search engine. Those unindexed sites do include some in the Dark Web, but they also include much more mundane content like registration-required web forums and dynamically-created pages like your Gmail account.

Tags:  news 

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New View on Phase Change: It’s Not Simple

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, November 17, 2014

Transition from One State to Another Is Quite Complex

Scientists say new discoveries about phase change require revised thinking about one of the basic building blocks of science and the way students are taught about some basic principles of the behavior of matter.

Researchers at Princeton University, Peking University and New York University examined phase change—the transition of matter from one state to another—at the molecular level and discovered it was far more complex than has previously been known. Their study appears in the journal Science. An NYU press release explains that when researchers used computers to look at metal changing from a solid to a liquid state, they found a complex process in which change can follow multiple pathways.  Mark Tuckerman, a professor of chemistry and applied mathematics at NYU and one of the study's co-authors said that is contrary to previous understandings. "This means the simple theories about phase transitions that we teach in classes are just not right," he said.

The study shows change happens on multiple and competing pathways and involves at least two steps. In a first step, local defects occur on one pathway at a single lattice point in a crystalline solid. In a second step, these defects, which are very mobile, randomly migrate and can form large, "disordered defect clusters." Tuckerman says these clusters grow from the outside in, rather than from the inside out as was previously thought, and over time become large enough to cause transition from solid to liquid. On a different pathway, the defects grow into a thin line of disorder called "dislocations," which also eventually cause transition from solid to liquid. The research, arising from a ten year study of complex behavior in complex systems, is also described in Science Daily and R&D Magazine.

Tags:  news 

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Olympian Mind-Body Workouts for Gamers

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, November 17, 2014

Intense Training for Professional Gamers

As video games morph into a spectator sport complete with viewer stadiums and corporate sponsorship, serious gamers who sit and push buttons train like Olympic athletes, with diets chemically analyzed to provide the right proportions of nutrients, physical workouts, brain mapping, yoga classes, and special exercises to soothe their throbbing wrists.

A New York Times story by Conor Dougherty describes how Matt Haag, a professional videogame player, trains intensively to maintain his prowess playing Call of Duty, a popular war game series in which players try to shoot one another. Haag has 1.5 million YouTube subscribers, a lucrative contract to live-stream his daily game sessions online, and he shares his every move, whether it's smashing buttons or mind-body preparations, on social media.

His training sessions are sponsored by Red Bull, the energy drink. Stories about Haag are featured on the Red Bull website. Watch a Chicago Tribune video in which Haag, who is making a six figure income at age 22, praises the strict upbringing provided by his parents and urges his fans to study hard in school.

Tags:  news 

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Interaction and Networking Vital in Global Business

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 13, 2014

China's Haier Group, an appliance maker with a fast growing global market, interacts with customers to tailor its products to distinctive needs. It makes large washing machines for Pakistani robes, small ones for delicate garments, and a durable one for large hoses for washing vegetables on Chinese farms. It also sells water purifiers designed to remove specific pollutants in each of the 220,000 communities across China.

In an interview with Strategy+Business editor Art Kleiner, Haier CEO Zhang Ruimin explains how he took the top post at the company in 1984, studied business management and philosophy, and used his insights to transform a troubled operation into a leading producer of household goods and services. Kleiner writes that the Academy of Management invitation to Zhang to give the keynote address at its 2013 annual meeting signals that China "had produced its first philosopher-CEO." Zhang says Haier has a culture of continual self-questioning and entrepreneurial spirit.

After the arrival of the Internet Age, Zhang explained, the company eliminated hierarchical structure, got rid of most of middle management, shed 4,000 jobs, and created 2,800 small county organizations with seven or fewer people each. As the company becomes platform based, each part of the organization makes autonomous decisions, reaching out to customers, potential employees and collaborators. He wants to make the operation truly "borderless," and says in his vision the company no longer has an inside and an outside.

"We are using Internet technology to connect everyone," he told Kleiner. "As a Haier executive, my goal is no longer to be a maker of home appliances but to be an agent of interaction and networking among people who might be anywhere."

"In the long run," he said, "there won't be any company employees to speak of-only the Haier platform." His idea is, "Whoever is capable, come and work with us." That could include entrepreneurs, people who want to partner with the company, and customers engaged in the process of product development. As an example, he cites the Air Box, a Haier device that lets people use smart phones to control their environment inside a building by connecting to heating, cooling and air filtering devices. Customer input guided the company in having air conditioning units that test and monitor air cleanliness, and the company brought in Samsung and Apple to help meet user requirements. All Haier products are integrated with the internet and Zhang asserts "If a home appliance can't communicate with the Internet it shouldn't exist."

Zhang said the idea of a company as platform represents a stark contrast from past management practices. "It should allow us to bring in and integrate greater quantities of resources-all contributors will be able to enter unhindered," he said, adding that operating this way, "we at Haier are no longer the ones directing things. We are the glue binding everything together." He describes an interactive water quality platform as an example of how the company can perform that difficult task: it can collect and incorporate insights from water treatment companies around the world and resolve users' individual needs through direct interaction with them.

A Harvard Business Review blog by Mark Bonchek and Sangeet Choudary says in today's networked age, business competition is increasingly about having the best platform. The authors describe elements for successful platform strategies, with examples, and what they call platform thinking.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently told all employees that "At our core, Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world." Read his speech here. Read Kleiner's Strategy+Business piece here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  economy  innovation 

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Better at Getting Better: A Learnable Skill

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 06, 2014
Updated: Thursday, November 13, 2014

Professional athletes used to sell insurance, tend bar and find odd jobs during the off seasons. Today they are likely to spend every off season hour working on their game, often with the aid of science, technology and expert coaching. The idea, according to James Surowiecki, is that no physical skill is a static quality. Skills need ceaseless attention and practice to evolve toward the highest possible level.

While athletes have always worked out, Surowiecki thinks the present obsessions with perfecting every aspect of performance is a growing trend that extends beyond sports. He calls it a performance revolution, aided by scientific knowledge and new technological tools, that has pervaded many organizational and industrial arenas. In a New Yorker article, Surowiecki says there used to be a general attitude that athletes who make it into professional sports already have the skills they need. Today, he says, innate athletic ability is "taken to be the base from which you have to ascend."

Athlete using dynavision board dynavisioninternational

It's not enough to eat right and stay in shape, he says. You need PhDs in several fields examining specific skills and the science behind them. Sprinters need straight line explosive power. Baseball players need rotational power. And all sorts of devices have been developed to measure and improve speed, strength, reaction time, while keeping track of how various bodily functions perform during exertion. For example, the Dynavision D2 consists of a large board with flashing lights that a trainee has to slap as they appear, while also reading vocabulary words or math equations displayed at random. It's advertised for use in rehabilitation, as well as for improving hand eye coordination and reaction time. Basketball players have to learn footwork, positioning, and shooting skills, and the NBA Dallas Mavericks also give players Readibands to monitor how much and how well they are sleeping.

A Smithsonian Magazine story by Erica Henry explains how Olympic athletes and their coaches are using new apps like Ubersense an AMPSports to get real time data on the performance of skiers, bobsledders and other competitors. No more lugging big three ring binders, spreadsheets, or heavy video equipment. Using the new apps, every split second of what an athlete does is recorded. Coaches can pull up video, charts and comparative analysis on smart phones or tablets with the click of a button, pinpoint gaps in strength or skill, then tweak a workout plan and send it right to the athlete's phone. Ubersense co-founder Krishna Rachandran told the Smithsonian that members of elite teams are pushing their limits, and "we are able to take what we have learned from them and make it available to the masses."

Surowiecki cites similar drive in cerebral endeavors. Powerful computer programs allow chess players to practice against the best, and continually review and analyze their strategies. He says training of classical musicians has improved, and because more highly qualified musicians are competing for a shrinking number of jobs, standards for performance are rising higher than ever. He says in the last three or four decades American businesses and organizations have learned to make products better and employees more productive.

The ethos underlying performance revolutions, he writes, is captured by the Japanese concept of kaizen, or continuous improvement, brought about by relentless examination and effort. It requires continuous elimination of waste, correction of error and teamwork. Airline safety and small unit military performance have greatly improved, he says. But some fields have not. Why? Surowiecki says emphasis on speed and volume has actually weakened customer service. He asserts that the performance revolution has had less impact on medicine and education because training of doctors and teachers, for the most part, has not undergone continuous improvement. He says teachers in particular get little help to continuously improve. He thinks the idea of the "natural born teacher," just like the notion of innately talented athlete, needs to be scrapped. Instead, he writes, we need to embrace the idea that teaching skills can be taught, learned and continuously improved. He advocates training techniques used successfully in other countries, where teachers can study their own work and that of colleagues and have opportunities to get better at getting better. Read Surowiecki's article here.

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Environments and Mindsets for Complex Change

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 30, 2014

Balinese farmers have grown rice in paddies irrigated through an intricate network of canals and aqueducts built around hundreds of tiered water temples for more than a thousand years. Priests in the temples and hundreds of grower collectives known as subaks evolved a well orchestrated collaboration to control pests and make sure water was fairly distributed.

In the 1980s, international development organizations introduced chemical fertilizers and re-engineered growing and harvest patterns with the goal of growing more rice. The water temples and subaks were disregarded. Several years into the program, rice yield had plunged and rats and other pests were proliferating. In his extraordinary book Aid on the Edge of Chaos, Ben Ramalingam tells the story of the subaks in Bali and the dynamic self-organization that had allowed growers to cooperate in management of complex issues related to soil quality, pest control, crop yields, and rainfall and to make continual adjustments as local conditions required. The subaks also performed social, legal and spiritual functions.

Researchers from the Santa Fe Institute found that the farmers cooperated on the basis of their own dominant needs. Those upstream were most worried about pests, and those down stream worried about water shortages. Ramalingam explains the researchers used ecological simulation models to show how humans were reshaping the ecosystem, and how cooperative behavior emerged over time. With the water temples as the nodes, he writes, the subak networks were "a particular form of social organization shaped by a process of cooperative agents co-evolving in a changing environment." By 2012, he says, the government of Bali had arranged that the subaks would be preserved in perpetuity as a vital part of the country's unique cultural, social and economic farming system.

Ramalingam believes an understanding of complexity science and complex adaptive systems can help cultivate new mindsets that will enable policy makers and program designers to increase effectiveness as they try to improve health and economic conditions, reverse adverse impacts of climate change, and build peace in war ravaged areas. He provides lucid examples and commentary on the work of many complexity scholars, including John Holland, Stuart Kauffman, Jane Jacobs, Herbert Simon, Joshua Epstein, a scholar of agent based modeling, and Warren Weaver, a mathematician who wrote an influential paper on "Science and Complexity" in 1948. He quotes Friedrich Hayek's 1974 Nobel acceptance speech in which the economist said we can't acquire enough knowledge to master complex events, so we need to use the knowledge we can get to "cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment" for growth the way a gardener does for plants.

Ramalingam cites several innovative development and humanitarian efforts that draw upon the concepts of complexity: they include dealing with epidemic outbreaks in Asia, water sharing in Bhutan, subsistence farming and urban change in East Africa, disaster responses in Southern Africa, and industrial production globally. This informative book is filled with memorable stories, well-turned phrases, extensive research, and a wide-ranging exploration of the insights of complexity science. While the focus is aid, the usefulness extends to just about any field.

In a section on positive deviance, Ramalingam describes the work of Monique Sternin and the late Jerry Sternin in reducing childhood malnutrition in Vietnam. The Sternins pioneered the use of positive deviance (PD) in social and behavioral change. They helped parents living in impoverished villages discover that some of their neighbors had healthier kids despite having no additional resources. The parents of the healthier children were gathering shrimps, crabs and greens that were free but generally considered unsuitable for children, and they had different mealtime practices. Ramalingam also notes the successful use of PD in reducing MRSA rates and in improving business operations. Plexus Institute led an initiative in which several hospitals using PD processes dramatically reduced the incidence of healthcare associated infections. In an interview with Ramalingam, Monique Sternin noted Plexus Institute's role in developing the science and theory behind PD and scaling up the work.

image from wikipedia

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  ecology  environment  organizations 

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