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Genetic Escape Artists Offer Clues to Illnesses

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, April 27, 2016

How Did a Lucky 13 Defy an 'Inevitable' Fate?
A very small number of healthy adults over age 30 whose genetic mutations have been thought to guarantee fatal or extremely debilitating childhood illnesses may provide clues for scientists seeking to prevent or treat genetic diseases.
In a study published in Nature Biotechnology, researchers examined genetic data from more than half a million people around the world. Working with 12 previously collected large data sets, they searched for adults who remained healthy even though they carried genetic mutations linked with severe childhood disorders. They focused on diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, that produce severe symptoms in childhood and are caused by mutations on a single gene.    
The idea of the new research was "study the healthy, don't just study the sick," co-author Stephen Friend, MD, PhD, said in a Scientific American story by Live Science writer Agata Blaszczak-Boxe. Dr. Friend, president of the nonprofit Sage Bionetworks and a genomics professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, explained in a press briefing that the findings may be a step in findings therapies that prevent manifestations of the diseases in other people who carry the unlucky mutations.      
A New York Times story by Gina Kolata explains the researchers looked for mutations in 874 genes that are linked to 84 severe diseases, and found 15,597 people who might fit the criteria for resilience. But they discarded nearly all because of errors in the data or because evidence didn't support the idea that the mutation would inevitably cause the disease. They ended up with 13 people whose verifiable mutations were thought to inevitably cause eight serious childhood diseases in the individuals who inherit the mutations.
While the discovery provides a new research tool, scientists can't examine the 13 "genetic superheroes" because when people whose information is in the data bases signed up to have their DNA analyzed an studied, they were promised anonymity. As a result, researchers don't know exactly what protected the 13 against their disease linked mutations. One possibility is the existence of genes that suppress the effect of the mutations.
Dr. Friend and his colleagues Eric Schadt PhD, and Jason Bobe, MSc, of Mount Sinai are beginning the Resilience Project. Their plan is to recruit 100,000 people who agree to have their genomes sequenced and be contacted if they are healthy despite a gene mutation that would have been expected to kill or sicken them.
In addition to cystic fibrosis, which affects the lungs and digestive system, the researchers looked at seven other serious genetic diseases. Pfeiffer syndrome affects the bones of the skull; a skeletal condition called atelosteogeneis, which is usually fatal at birth; familial dysautonomia, which affects nerve cells; epidermolysis bullosa simplex, a severe skin condition; autoimmune polyendrocrinopathy syndrome, a complex autoimmune disorder with many symptoms; Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome, which causes developmental problems, and acampomelic campomelic dysplasia, which is usually fatal to newborns.

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Emergence, Attractors, Tipping Points Complexity Science in Service of Peace

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, April 08, 2016


Math as a Tool to Study Peace: With Equations 'You Can't Fudge'

Did a 19-year-old Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Pricip really detonate the world-shattering conflagration that killed some 80 million people when he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary in June 1914? Some historians and CNN have called him the man who started World War I.  

Were the forces that led to the Crimean War set in motion by a squabble over the keys to the front gate of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem? Historian Trevor -Roper has argued they were. And in his book The Landscape of History, military historian John Lewis Gaddis says that dispute and its consequences exemplify sensitive dependence on initial conditions. Also known as the “butterfly effect,” this sensitive dependence means that in nonlinear systems, such as international relations, small details of initial conditions can be amplified tremendously and unpredictably.

What makes some conflicts bloody and intractable while others can be resolved? Larry Liebovitch and Peter Coleman belong to a team of leading edge scholars and researchers who are trying to understand peace and conflict by applying principles of complexity science. War and violence have been studied more than peace, and Dr. Liebovitch and Dr. Coleman are among the authors of a research paper focusing on the challenge of identifying variables and interactions that would be needed for sustainable world peace.

 Dr. Peter T. Coleman is a professor of psychology and education, a certified mediator, and a scholar who has researched the dynamics of conflict and sustainable peace.   He is the director of the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Teachers College, Columbia University and Executive Director of Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (AC4).

Dr. Larry S. Liebovitch is an astrophysicist, mathematician and multi-disciplinary scholar who has created mathematical models to explore phenomena large and small—on scales that range from the molecular interactions to the dynamics of international politics. He has studied cooperation and competition in small world networks and the dynamics of two people in conflict trying to reach consensus, in marriage, in therapy, and in randomly assigned pairs.

As Dr. Liebovitch explains, math can provide new ideas to approach conflict. For example, he says, looking at conflict in terms of attractors, you find that people keep trying to do different things but wind up in the same place. Math can also suggest new ideas and paradigms for looking at sudden changes in systems, and the elements that preceded the changes.

In a Columbia radio discussion, Dr. Coleman provided an example of roommates who  live together for a while, seem to get along, then suddenly separate in anger. He said research suggests the split may not have been caused by a bad event, but because of something one or both roommates had from the beginning that later emerged as very important.  As Dr. Liebovitch puts it, conflict involves people, their past, the way they have interacted before, the environment, the culture, space, time, emotions and rationality. “So this system has many moving pieces.  How do we need to think of a system like that, and what are its properties?” he reflects. “What I do is make rigorous mathematical models of how people behave and translate assumptions of how people interact into equations, and then use math to see the consequences.”

 Sometimes, he says, the math will show things in the system that were previously imperceptible, and sometimes a metaphor from math can suggest a more precise equation. Not all human behaviors can be quantified, he explained in an interview with Plexus, but it is possible to gain insights from mathematical examination of slices of behaviors—specific actions or feelings and results of those actions or feelings.

“Making anything quantitative forces you to be really clear about what you are stating,” Dr. Liebovitch said. “If you want to operationalize a dyad and examine if one person feels one way, how will the other person feel, and make it quantitative, you have to decide what’s a reasonable function.  If you’re writing an equation, you can’t fudge. You can’t write words you don’t understand or effects you’re just intuiting.”  Dr. Liebovitch and scientists in many fields say understanding the simplest and most basic dynamics is useful in understanding what happens in pairs, small groups, and networks of people. 

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Intergroup Relations, Extremist Leaders and Terrorism

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 07, 2016

Extinction of the "Grey Zone"


Terrorism is all about polarization.  It is about reconfiguring intergroup relationships so that extreme leadership appears to offer the most sensible way of engaging with an extreme world, prominent social scientists say. It is, in effect, a design for co-creation of opposing groups in continuing cycles of contention and peril.

Psychologists S. Alexander Haslam and Stephen D. Reicher, both scholars of radicalization, say while we usually think of terrorists as sadists and psychopaths,  studies show that most are ordinary people driven by group dynamics to commit violence for causes they believe to be just and noble.  Reicher, a professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and Haslam, professor and Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland describe their research in a Scientific American issue on terrorism.  

“Although we tend to think of Islamic extremists and Islamophobes as being diametrically opposed,” they write, “the two are inextricably entwined. And this realization means that solutions to the scourge of terror will lie as much with ‘us’ as with ‘them.’”


Solutions are urgently needed. The According to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index, terror related deaths have increased from 3,329 in 2000 to  32,85 in 2014.  Between 2013 and 2014, deaths from terrorism rose 80 percent.

The authors cite experiments by Stanley Milgram in which subjects inflected apparently painful electric shocks on others, and the Stanford Prison Experiment by Philip Zimbardo, which show that under the right circumstances ordinary people are capable of being quite cruel. They cite more recent social research that explores the impact of marginalization, shared identity, and misrecognition, which they describe as the experience of having others misunderstand or deny a valued identity.      

In studies of how people choose leaders, Haslam and Ilka Gleibs of the London School of Economics, found that people are most likely to support bellicose leaders if their group is in competition with another belligerent group. They say, for example, that ISIS feeds off immoderate attacks from Western politicians just as immoderate Western politicians draw support for themselves with bellicose attacks on ISIS. The real power of terrorism, the researchers say, is that it can be used to provoke other groups into treating one’s own group as dangerous. That helps extremist leaders consolidate their followers with a narrative of their own group’s righteousness threatened by enemies.      

University of Arizona journalism professor Shahiran Fahmy studied volumes of ISIS propaganda and found that most promotes visions of an “idealistic caliphate” in which Muslims live in propriety and harmony. Only five percent showed the gruesome brutality ISIS itself often provides for Western newscasts. 

ISIS puts out a slick magazine called Dabiq, which last year ran an editorialcalled “The Extinction of the Grey Zone.”   In Dabiq’s view, the world should be divided into two opposing camps, an idealistic caliphate and a demonized West of non-believers.  The grey zone that ISIS considers intolerably ambiguous and wants to eliminate has been defined as the places in the Western world where Muslims coexist comfortably and productively with others.  Haslam and Reicher say terrorism is a conscious strategy to promote enmity between polarized groups and help the most confrontational leaders attract more followers into their orbits.  Extreme leaders welcome extreme reactions to their violent acts and heated rhetoric, they say, because it helps them in their work.  The issue also has articles on what social science says about how to defeat of terrorism.      

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Parrots Think Like Little Kids, Storks Like Junk Food

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Parrots’ Abilities Akin to Those of Toddlers

 Storks Like Junk Food, Vultures Avoid North Korea's Scarcity                                

Scientists keep discovering more and more traits in animals that were once considered exclusively human.  So if you hear any dismissive references to bird brains, think about parrots.

A New York Times story by Natalie Angier reports researchers who study parrots report these birds rival great apes and dolphin in intellect and resourcefulness, and may be the only creatures, other than humans, capable of dancing to a beat.  Parrots  belong to the avian order Psittaciformes, which has 360 species including  parakeets, macaws and cockatoos. Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the  Harvard animal cognition scientist and parrot enthusiast, calls the birds “feathered primates.”    Her grey parrot Alex can identify 50 objects in English and numbers one through six,   and has grasped concepts that include bigger and smaller, same and different,   color, and the absence of information.  Pepperberg and others say they have capacities similar to very young children.  

According to Angier’s story, parrots are spontaneously inventive tool makers that produce food-fetching devices as needed.  They have evolved extraordinary nutritional capacities and different populations of parrot communicate with each other using distinct dialects that remain table over time, like human languages.

They ravage fruit trees, devouring seeds, and extracting plant embryos and the nutrients designed to help the embryos develop.  They have even evolved ways to detoxify the chemicals plants evolved to protect themselves against predators that want to eat them. Scientists at the University of California, Davis, discovered that after eating toxic seeds, parrots consume bits of clay from the ground, thereby ingesting chemicals that bind with the poison to flush it out of their bodies. The clay also stimulates a mucous shield in their guts.    

Scientists think their food choices may have influenced their evolution as socially adept communicators.  Fruit trees are an unpredictable resource, so hunting in groups, and being able to convey and receive information on the best finds  was more promising than solitary searching. Angier quotes Leo Joseph, a parrot expert and director of the National Wildlife Collection in Canberra, Australia: group hunting meant “the development of a social system,  as well as the neurological capacity to share information.”  Parrots call to each continuously, over long and short distances.  Scientists have also found that when groups of parrots move to new communities, the youngest parrots, like children, learn new parrot dialect much faster than adult parrots.  

Of course other creatures share traits it with humans, and not all are healthy. While storks that traditionally migrated between Europe and Africa are traveling less and are now more likely to stay year-round in Spain and Portugal. Scientists say the  storks are becoming addicted to the ever present supply “junk  food” they get in garbage dumps and landfills below their traditional flight paths.   They are giving up their usual diet of frogs, beetles and insects, and scientists are studying other changes that may be taking place in stork communities.

Scarcity, as well as plenty, changes bird habits.  Sustenance is so hard to come by in North Korea that the region's vultures no longer bother to stop on their annual migrations in search of a meal. Scientists from South Korea's Ecology Environment Institute have been monitoring Eurasian black vultures winter migratory routes for five years, the JoongAng Daily reported, and have learned that the vultures stock up in north-east China before attempting the transit of North Korea to the relatively plentiful feeding grounds in the southern reaches of the peninsula. "This seems to happen because in North Korea the vultures can barely find animal corpses, which are major food resources for them", Lee Han-su, the head of the institute, said.

The food crisis for wildlife in the North mirrors that of citizens of the reclusive state, with the World Food Programme reporting that 82 percent of  human households do not have acceptable consumption during the lean season.












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Tiny Teams Move Mighty Masses

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, March 25, 2016

Ants Are Model for Tiny Powerful Robots

“Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it’s just that he had the wrong species.” E.O. Wilson

Researchers have developed a team of robot that can apply tiny amounts of force in concert to move objects thousands of times their own weight.  

The team members are six microrobots weighing a mere 3.5 ounces together, and they can pull car that weighs more two tons.  The microrobots, modeled after ants, are so tiny their pieces had to be put together with tweezers. The car is the one that researcher David Christensen uses to commute to the Biomimetics and Dexterous Manipulation Laboratory on the Stanford University campus. Christensen told The New York Times the microrobots’ feat would be the equivalent of six humans moving a weight equal to that of the Eiffel Tower and three Statues of Liberty.

The researchers studied the dynamics of teamwork among ants, the creatures Pulitzer Prize winning biological scientist E. O. Wilson has identified as second only to humans in their social organization despite being individually only one millionth of the size of a human. If ants in a group use three of their six legs simultaneously, the researchers and Wilson observed, their individual force is greatly magnified. Scientists have also found that despite ants’ light weight, the architecture of their necks gives them exceptional individual strength.

In addition to studying group strength, the researchers examined how lessons from the sticky feet of gecko lizards could enable microrobots that can mimic bats and climb vertical surfaces.  Demonstrating how one of the microrobots could carry more than one kilogram vertically up a glass surface. Christensen and colleagues said that would be like a human carrying an elephant up the side of a skyscraper. 

Christensen and Srinivasan Suresh, both graduate students, along with researcher Katie Hahm and mechanical engineering professor  Mark Cutkosky are authors of the paper “Let’s All Pull Together: Principles for Sharing Large Loads in Microrobot Teams,”  which is to be presented in May at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Stockholm.

The microrobots could be used in factories, at construction sites and could have military applications.

“Just what makes that little old ant think he'll move that rubber tree plant
Anyone knows an ant, can't move a rubber tree plant………

….Oops there goes another rubber tree plant.”

From the Frank Sinatra song “High Hopes”  with music written by Jimmy Van Heusen and lyrics by Sammy Cahn.


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Webs of Relationships Aid Troubled Teens

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, March 14, 2016

 Kids Helped for 10 Years By a Committed Group 

Volunteers who believe relationships are the most important of life’s navigational aids are weaving networks of support around impoverished teenagers who face such obstacles as homelessness, hunger, family breakdown, physical and mental illness, bad grades and a dim view of the future.

An organization called Thread has been seeking out troubled students at three Baltimore public high schools and connecting them with teams of five to eight volunteers who commit to helping their students in any way necessary, being available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and sticking with them for 10 years.   So far, the students and their mentors have achieved extraordinary results. And the students didn’t look promising in the beginning. Thread sought kids in the bottom quarter of the academic class, kids who were chronically late, absent, in trouble and in danger of failing or dropping out.   

Thread’s work is described in a Baltimore Sun story by Erica L. Green and a New York Times “Fixes” column by David Bornstein.

The organization was started 12 years ago by Sarah Hemminger, who was then studying biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins Medical School, and her husband, Ryan. She knew how poverty and other adversities could derail young lives. Her husband had plunged into teen-aged despair and academic disaster after a family tragedy and been rescued by a group of teachers who showered him with carefully structured care and guidance. Hemminger believed she could relate to struggling students and she recruited fellow Johns Hopkins students to volunteer. Thread is a nonprofit, supported by grants and donation. It now has 800 volunteers, 175 collaborators who provide expertise and resources, and it serves 225 students and alumni.  .

The idea, Hemminger explained in interviews, is to provide unconditional support and do whatever it takes to help teens develop into adults who can manage fulfilling lives.  That support might mean wake up calls, rides to school, food, clothing, homework help, SAT preparation, child care, legal help, and  assistance with applications for jobs and college. One volunteer might drive the youngster to school, another might pick him up, another might be there to hang out and talk about life. Volunteers take students to restaurants, movies and camping trips and  sometimes provide homes for them.  Students have to agree to join the program, and  their guardians have to agree as well.

“We tell the kids ‘Once you’re in you can’t get out. This is serious, It’s not something you can undo. You’re going to want to undo this, but once it’s happened, it’s happened,’”  Hemminger told The Times.  One of the Thread graduates interviewed by The Times graduated from high school and at 23 is a junior at Towson University. When he enrolled as a ninth grader in 2007, his crack-addicted mother had abandoned him, his father had just gotten out of jail, and he was in the bottom 10 percent of his class. He and his father were homeless for long periods, and for a while he lived in an abandoned house with no heat or running water. He was initially attracted to the program by an offer of free pizza. But the  volunteers were serious and persistent, urging him to get up, go to school, do his work and remember his  hopes and goals. Over the last nine years, his lives and theirs have become entwined, “People outside my race, age range and blood family have become the people closest to me,” he said.

Two powerful innovations by Thread, according to Robert Balfanz, a  leading researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of education, are staying with the kids over time to get them into adulthood,  and having a group of people for each student, so the commitment never becomes overwhelming for one person.   

Abell Foundation President Robert Embry Jr., who has provided support and guidance to Thread, says the organization has “shattered preconceptions” by its successful work with teenagers. A lot of experts, he said, think interventions are useless unless they take place in infancy or early childhood.    

According to the Thread website, 92 percent of students who have been with Thread for five years have graduated from high school and 90 percent have been accepted in college; 80 percent of alumni have completed a four or two year degree or certificate program. Read more stories about Thread here.  

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To Undertand Health Problems, Study Those Who Don't Have Them

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 10, 2016

Insights on Autism from Those Who Don’t Have It


Child prodigies—youngsters not yet in their teens who can perform in a demanding field at an adult professional level—are very rare.  There’s Mozart, the physicist Enrico Fermi, Tristan Pang, who started doing high school math at age two, and a few others.  

Prodigies aren’t to be confused with savants, people capable of extraordinary feats in calculation, math, music or art, who often also have autism spectrum disorder or other profound mental disabilities.  Prodigies don’t usually have autism or the social and communication challenges often associated with autism.  But some characteristics overlap, and scientists think studies of prodigies may yield greater understanding of some of the mysteries of autism.

In a New York Times article Joanne Ruthsatz, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State University and Kimberly Stephens explain that prodigies and the autistic share a nearly insatiable passion for their area of interest. They also tend to have exceptional working memories and the ability to recall and recite lists thing they have been exposed to in their environments. The authors note autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues say an excellent eye for detail is a “universal feature of the autistic brain.”  And Stephens and Dr. Ruthsatz, who wrote the book The Prodigy’s Cousin: The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent,  report that Dr. Ruthsatz found that trait dominant in her 2012 study of prodigies. Dr. Ruthsatz also found that half of the prodigies she studied had a close relative with autism and three prodigies were diagnosed in early childhood with autism they seem to have outgrown.

In a 2015 study published in Hunan Heredity,  Dr. Ruthsatz and colleagues examined DNA of prodigies and their families  and found that both prodigies and their autistic relatives  had a genetic mutation or mutations on Chromosome 1 that their neurotypical relatives did not have.  The sample size was small –five extended prodigy families—but the authors say the results are statistically significant.  The authors say the research suggests prodigies may be children who were at risk for autism but didn’t get it.

Scientists have discovered the existence of resilience genes that seem to protect people high risk for certain diseases from getting the disease. These protective mutations have been found in studies of  people with HIV, heat disease and Type 2 diabetes. Similar research is also being done on early onset Alzheimer’s.     

The National Institute of Mental Health has started the Research Domain Criteria initiative, an effort that focuses on  integrating data from  genetics, cognitive science, behavioral studies and other sources to build a new framework  for brain disorders. The ultimate goal is better diagnosis and treatment of autism in all its many manifestations and other cognitive, behavioral and neurological conditions. 


Leading Organizations to Health- Register Now!

Dear Plexus Friends and Associates,

In a time when healthcare is facing such extraordinary change from every possible direction, you know the tremendous value a complexity perspective brings to leaders of organizational change. By reminding them of the self-organizing nature of human interaction it helps them let go of unrealistic and counterproductive expectations of control and turn instead to curiosity and experimentation. It fosters mindfulness of here-and-now of interpersonal process -- how patterns of thinking and patterns of interacting are being created in each moment and what actions might lead to the emergence of new patterns. And it calls attention to the constraints that might be operative, shaping the possibility space for what kinds of self-organizing patterns are more or less likely to emerge.

You also know from your experience that there’s a big difference between having a useful conceptual perspective and putting that knowledge to work. Effective organizational change requires a deep knowledge of human motivation and behavior, advanced facilitation and communication skills and, underlying all that, an authentic and courageous personal presence to be able to hold the emotional tension of change and help others do likewise.

With co-sponsorship from the Plexus Institute and the University of Rochester, my colleague Diane Rawlins and I conduct an institute on leading organizational change called Leading Organizations to Health that explores and integrates all of these dimensions. It combines complexity with positive psychology, adaptive leadership and other frameworks to offer a uniquely powerful and effective approach to leading change. We’ve recently published an article that describes the program and an outcomes assessment. Our next cohort begins in late April; we’d love to have you join us. Help yourself put your valuable understanding of complexity to its most effective use.

For more information and online registration, please visit or contact me ( you a bright new year of meaning, joy and emergent possibilities!

Tony Suchman
Relationship Centered Health Care


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Paying Tuition by Degrees

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 03, 2016

Should College Tuition be Based on What a Student Studies?

A growing number of elected officials want to lure more students into STEM fields with economic incentives—tuition breaks or subsidies for students studying science, technology, engineering and math. And that could mean punishing humanities majors, and diminishing humanities departments.

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin recently declared that students majoring in French literature shouldn’t get any public funding for their college education. A New York Times story by Patricia Cohen quotes Bevin as saying people are free to study French literature, but “they’re not going to get subsidized by the taxpayers like engineers will be.”

North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory says he doesn’t want any public subsidies for “gender studies.” Presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio has called for more welders and fewer philosophers, and questioned the value of student loans “to study, you know…Roman history? Are there any Romans here?”

Florida Governor Rick Scott has scoffed at anthropology, and a Florida state senator complained about degrees in psychology and political science  “that don’t mean much.” A Florida task force has recommended that public universities charge more for “non-strategic majors,” such as history and English.   

Cohen reports at least 15 states are offering some type of bonuses for certain high demand STEM degrees that are perceived as aligned with job market needs. 

A Hechinger report story by John Marcus says between 2007 and 2012, four year institutions across the country have been dropping liberal arts courses and reducing the number of departments offering art history, English, languages, literature, religion and music.  The Academy of Arts and Sciences reports humanities degrees have declined in recent years, and that the share of bachelor’s degrees in humanities disciplines in 2013, a little over 10 percent, was less than one third of the share of degrees awarded in the natural, social and behavioral sciences that year.

Tuition manipulation by major isn’t new, though before 1980 it was almost unknown. In earlier experiments, students whose majors suggested higher incomes after graduation were charged more.  Kevin Stange from the University of Michigan studied  50 universities that charged higher fees between 2000 and 2008 for nursing, engineering and business majors, on the theory that those degrees had higher economic value.  Degrees in engineering and business dropped within three years of the new price differentials, though nursing degrees gained slightly. Dr. Stange concluded price differential doesn’t seem to be a path for changing the composition of the work force. A Cornell study found that 29 percent of public colleges had differential tuition rates in 2010-11, though some increased costs were the result of lab costs or public funding cuts.

Should higher education emphasize to enriching lives and the quality of citizenship or the demands of the job market? While conservative commentators and officials have been most vocal questioning the value of liberal arts studies, the Times story notes Obama administration has contributed to the debate by proposing that the nation’s 7,000 colleges and universities should compile data on earnings of graduates in all majors they offer in addition to statistics on graduation rates and student debt. Some studies indicate a newly minted engineer might start out at $65.000 a year, about $20,000 more than a new humanities graduate.

Academics in the humanities have pushed back, noting surveys show that businesses want critical thinking, creativity, empathy and collaborative capacities in their employees. The Military Academy at West Point continues to emphasize humanities. The Times story quotes Jeffrey N. Peters, who teaches French literature at the University of Kentucky, as saying students like Governor Bevin, who graduated from the Liberal Arts university Washington and Lee with a Bachelor’s degree in Japanese and East Asian studies, draw on  experiences with language, literature and culture  to begin successful careers in business, international relations and public service. Contributors to the PlosOne Neuroanthropology blog touted the value of anthropology in engineering, business, science, and health care, a field in which Rick Scott experienced economic success before becoming governor.    


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Invisible Leaders Emerge from Complex Networks

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, February 19, 2016

Networks of Echoes”

 Vice President Chester A. Arthur was an undistinguished politician when the assassination of President James Garfield propelled him into the nation’s highest office.  He didn’t know Julia Sand, a young woman who wrote him 32 letters urging compassion, nobility, and adherence to the best in his own nature. But Arthur read the letters, kept them, and some historians think they may have helped him rise above a tawdry past to become a respected leader.      

We’re always had invisible leaders—people who stay in shadow while influencing what happens on stage.  Julia Sand remains little known, and her letters weren’t discovered until 1958. Advocates and ideologues often pursue goals effectively behind the scenes. And as Bruce West and colleagues note, literature is filled with invisible leaders, some of whom were up to no good.  Lady Macbeth goaded her husband into regicide, and Iago’s malevolent insinuations make Othello distrust his wife.  

Bruce West, physicist and senior scientist of mathematics and information science at the U.S. Army Research Office, with colleagues Malgorzata Turalska and Paolo Grigolini, explore the scientific and human consequences of the way information travels through different kinds of networks and the interconnectedness of human and physical networks. Their book Network of Echoes, Imitation, Innovation and Invisible Leaders examines how influence, cooperation, leadership and decisions emerge from interacting elements of networks.  

When people are free to do what they want, the authors write, they imitate each other, but not perfectly.  They do it with uneven variations, and the authors hypothesize that those distortions create an echo response that is a fundamental mode of human behavior. The networks of echoes are the tenuous structures people create through their imperfect imitations of each other, they write, and this imperfect duplication generates a new kind of leadership, one in which leaders are invisible. People who become hubs in networks aren’t always superstars, but their large number of connections signify their capacity as leaders. They might be back room decision makers, the authors write, or protagonists in conspiracies, and “even when they are not identified they are postulated because society doesn’t believe the person out front is the real leader.”

“The thesis of this book and the result of our research is that being a leader is often not voluntary and that the leadership role is always transient,” they write. “Leaders emerge within a complex network, guide its behavior for varying lengths of time and then are silently replaced by other equally invisible leaders.”

Complex networks share four properties, according to the authors: emergence, nonlinearity, uncertainty and adaptation—they grow and evolve in unanticipated ways. The authors also call for a fractal view of human sciences. They have developed a decision making model, which takes those properties into account.  In addition to investigating the emergent properties of networks, the model is useful to analyze how we collect and organize data into patterns to form decisions.

The authors say scientists need knowledge of  the dynamics of complex adaptive networks and the consequences of decisions made by citizens, politicians and soldiers.  The Army’s new network-centric warfare—in which platforms of trucks and tanks are replaced by  a networked military of computers and intelligence gathering social webs—make it vital to understand decision making by networked individuals and groups.  

The author’s research suggests complex networks have intrinsic universal features that are characterized by complexity and independent of the type of network. Phase transition has a fundamental role in the emergent properties of networks. The influence of committed minorities can impact global opinion and change network dynamics. Information can be transferred among complex networks.  And real world events do not conform to simple statistical models.

This book is not hammock reading. You have to sit up straight, put your feet flat on the floor and take notes.   If you’re a scientist you may need to brush up. If you’re not a scientist you will have to skip some parts. But the effort is worthwhile, and the authors cite intriguing reader-friendly examples from literature and life.   

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Odds of Death by Meteorite? Infinitesimal

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, February 12, 2016


“Someone Always Wins the Lottery, but it Probably Won’t be You”

What are the chances of being hit by an asteroid? What is the likelihood of any solid object plunging from outer space and landing on our heads?  

The Wall Street Journal and other news outlets informed us a man in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu suffered fatal injuries February 6 when a meteorite smashed to the ground with explosive force, leaving a four-foot deep crater at the campus of Bharathidasan Engineering College.  Authorities in India reported the man died after being struck by flying debris, and three others were injured. The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said there was no record in modern times of anyone being killed by a meteorite.  Four days later, experts doubted the hole in the ground and the death and injuries had been caused by a meteorite.

What was it? A meteoroid is a small particle from an asteroid or a comet that travels around the sun. When a meteoroid enters the earth’s atmosphere, it burns up and is often seen as the light phenomena we know as a shooting star.  A meteorite is a meteoroid that survived entry into the atmosphere and falls to the earth.  And that’s not all that’s up there.

Derek Sears, a NASA meteorite and asteroid expert, suggested the thing that hit the Indian college might have been an object falling from an aircraft  passing overhead.  According to other experts think  it might have been a bit of space junk that entered the earth’s atmosphere  without completely burning. The U.S. National Research Council estimates that 5,400 tons of man-made rubbish in space have landed back on earth in the last 40 years and there haven’t been report of injuries.

The NRC’s report Defending Planet Earth: Near Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies says about 100 tons of very small objects, mostly in the form of dust, fall to earth every day.   A meteor  about 30 meters across smashed in sparsely populated Siberia in 1908, flattening a forest.  The NRC estimates a one in 200 chance per year of an impact of that magnitude hitting somewhere on earth.  In 2013,  meteor fragments  exploded over Russia’s Ural Mountains, damaging thousands of buildings and injuring hundreds of people. Russian scientists said the meteor was several yards in diameter and weighed about 10 metric tons. Scientists believe a very large asteroid landed on earth and wiped out dinosaurs about 66 million years ago.

NASA’s Near Earth Objects program is tracking more than 837 objects that are more than one kilometer across. (One Kilometer is equal to 0.6214 miles.) A collision between earth and an object with a diameter of more than 3 kilometers (1.86 miles) would be considered catastrophic, scientists say, and that is expected to happen every few million years.

Scientists say the odds of any individuals being hit are really very low. NASA figures an individual would be a target of about one square meter in area, and the earth has a surface area of about 400,000,0000 square  kilometers.  Assuming objects can land anywhere, there would mean a chance of one in 20,000,000,000,000 (that’s 20 trillion) of any particular square meter being hit.

Of course, there’s more than one way to figure odds. Science blogger and author Phil Plait, writing in Discover Magazine, notes we’re more likely to get killed by a meteorite than hit by one, because damage from explosive debris is more likely than direct impact from outer space. He also explains astronomer Alan Harris has calculated that a person’s lifetime odds of being killed by asteroid impact are about one in 700,000. 

“We’re lousy at understanding  low probability events,” Plait writes. “One in 700,000 is a ridiculously low probability but it’s hard to grasp.  As a comparison you’re more likely to die in a fireworks accident. …that’s  a slightly higher chance than being killed by a terrorist. Despite propaganda to the contrary, the odds of any given person being killed by a terrorist attack are incredibly low. While terrorists attacks in the long run are a near certainty, the odds of you getting killed are very low. It’s like the lottery. Someone wins every time, eventually, but chances are it won’t be you.” .



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