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Brenda Zimmerman: Complexity Scholar and Mentor to Many

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 18, 2014
Updated: Thursday, December 18, 2014

Brenda Zimmerman, a renowned scholar of complexity science, author, educator and long-time science advisor to Plexus Institute, died December 16 in an automobile accident in Toronto. She was 58.


Saddened friends and colleagues in the Plexus community are remembering Dr. Zimmerman's wisdom as they try to make sense of the loss. Liz Rykert, president of MetaStrategies in Toronto and a former Plexus trustee, recalled Dr. Zimmerman as a mentor, colleague, and friend. "Brenda was the one who introduced me to the ideas of complexity and to Plexus even before it was Plexus Institute," Rykert said. "She was great fun to be with and she sparkled when she had a new idea or insight. I will miss her deeply and will always be inspired by her ideas and the methods she shared with me to make sense of the messy world around us."

"My heart goes out to her family and friends," Rykert continued. "Their loss is unimaginable. I suspect the paradox will be that somewhere amid all the loss they, and we, will find the threads to begin our sense-making together."

Plexus President Jeffrey Cohn, MD, MHCM, also sought solace in Dr. Zimmerman's wisdom. "Brenda's work strikes me as being both provocative and practical," Dr. Cohn said. "She challenged paradigms while helping to describe ways to create conditions for groups of people to discover and create solutions that work for them. Brenda developed the framework of the wicked question. In that spirit, how can we mourn her tragic loss while/by celebrating the impact of her work?"

Keith McCandless, co-founder of the Social Invention Group and a practitioner of Liberating Structures, was a friend, professional colleague and frequent collaborator with Dr. Zimmerman. "With loving kindness and verve, Brenda 'translated' complexity science concepts into everyday organization life," he recalled. "She stood out as a great learner, a disciplined scholar, and a fabulous teacher."

Dr. Zimmerman was a professor of policy and management at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto and director of the university's Health Industry Management Program. She was the author of dozens of papers and journal articles applying complexity science concepts to organizational strategy and system level change. Her insights from complexity science have been influential in healthcare, hospitals, and educational systems. She studied public policy and social innovation and researched how distributed control in organizations and systems functions and how an understanding of complexity processes can enhance generative potential in public and professional relationships. She received the Teaching Excellence Award in 2009 for Teacher of the Year in Schulich's MBA program.

Dezso J. Horvath, PhD, CM, dean of the Schulich School of Business, called Dr. Zimmerman a brilliant and innovative thinker and one of the school's brightest stars and one of the most inspirational and well-loved faculty members. "To the Schulich community, Brenda was an excellent researcher, teacher, mentor, colleague and friend."

Dr. Zimmerman is co-author of several books, including Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed, which she wrote with Frances Westley and Michael Quinn Patton, and Edgeware: Insights from complexity Science for HealthCare Leaders, which she wrote with Paul Plsek and Curt Lindberg. She wrote the report "Complicated and Complex Systems: What would Successful Reform Medicare Look Like?" with Sholom Glouberman, published in 2002 by the Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada. She also wrote numerous book chapters, including "Generative Relationships: STAR," with Bryan Hayday, in Glenda Eoyang's book Voices from the Field, and she authored two chapters in the book On the Edge: Nursing in the Age of Complexity, by Curt Lindberg, Sue Nash and Claire Lindberg.

Curt Lindberg, a founder and former president of Plexus Institute and another of Dr. Zimmerman's co-authors, called her death a tragic loss. Henri Lipmanowicz, a founder of Plexus and its Board Chairman Emeritus, said, "We were lucky to have known her. She was one of a kind. A beautiful and caring person."

Michael Quinn Patton is an organizational development and evaluation consultant, and complexity scholar. "Without Brenda there would have been no Getting to Maybe book and no subsequent Developmental Evaluation book," Patton said of the book he co-authored with Dr. Zimmerman and the pioneering book on evaluation he later wrote. He noted that Chapter 4 in Developmental Evaluation tells something of Dr. Zimmerman's influence on his own work and on the evaluation field generally.

Dr. Zimmerman earned her bachelor's degree in zoology at the University of Toronto and completed her MBA and PhD degrees at Schulich. She led Schulich's Health Industry Management Program for a decade, developing the curriculum as well as executive education programming. She was program director of the Schulich Executive Education Centre Physician Leadership Development Program for the Ontario Medical Association-Canadian Medical Association. She also served on the Advisory Committee to the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada and was a member of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.

Dr. Zimmerman is survived by her husband, Alan Ellis, and two daughters, Stephanie Zimmerman, and Gillian Kennedy, a Schulich MBA graduate who has also pursued a career in the health industry.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  zimmerman 

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Ebola in Liberia: Death by Distrust

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, December 12, 2014

Public Health Campaign Foiled by Rumors

More than 2,800 Liberians have died from Ebola, more than twice the number of deaths in Sierra Leone and Guinea. More than 6,000 Liberians have been infected, ten times the number infected in any previous Ebola epidemic. Armand Sprecher, an Ebola expert with Doctors without Borders, said the staggering number of Ebola deaths in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, was unlike anything medical experts had seen before.

Helen Epstein, biologist, health researcher and author, went to Liberia to learn what was different. She concludes that while poor health infrastructure and many economic, social and cultural factors played a part in the Ebola tragedy in all impacted countries, the problem in Liberia was fundamentally political. "When the epidemic occurred, "she writes in The New York Review of Books, "many ordinary Liberians were so profoundly estranged from their government that they assumed it was lying to them and actively disbelieved the warnings that (Liberian public health official Tolbert) Nyenswah and others were desperately broadcasting to the nation and the world." The distrust, built on decades of upheaval and official corruption, was so deep, Epstein writes, that many citizens thought nurses trying to help were agents of the government who intended to poison them to create the illusion of an epidemic that would bring in international money. Read this thoughtful and disturbing story here.

Tags:  news 

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Future of Artificial Intelligence: Optimistic or Ominous?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 11, 2014

If computers become smarter than we are, will they just keep us as pets or is civilization doomed? And if artificial intelligence fully surpasses ours, will that change what it means to be human?

Kurt Andersen's Vanity Fair article "Enthusiasts and Skeptics Debate Artificial Intelligence" probes these questions. He starts by asking Siri, the artificial intelligence (AI) app on his iPhone "What is the Singularity? Siri replies, "A technological singularity is a predicted point in the development of a civilization at which technological progress accelerates beyond the ability of present day humans to fully comprehend or predict." Some futurists predict Singularity by 2050. Some brilliant scientists and scholars differ on what that might mean, and possibilities are being explored in popular films.

In the movie "Transcendence," Johnny Depp stars as an AI genius trying to create an omniscient machine that also has a full range of human emotion. Terrorist Luddites poison Depp's character, but his consciousness is uploaded to the cloud leading survivors to wonder whether the disembodied intelligence is really him. The Spike Jonze movie "Her," set in the not too distant future, explores human-machine interaction as a man falls in love with an artificially female and surprisingly fickle computer operating system. Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who founded computer science in the 1930s, is also the subject of a recent movie. "The Imitation Game" is based on Turing's life, his work cracking the Nazis' Engima code, and his fascination with AI. The title is based on Turing's proposal for a test that would provide proof of when computers can pass as humans.

Andersen interviews Ray Kurzweil, who in 2005 wrote The Singularity Is Near, and who is Google's director of engineering, leading a research team trying to create software that would communicate in a fully human way. Kurzweil is also the co-founder, with Peter Diamandis, of Singularity University based at NASA Research Park in Silicon Valley and funded by what Andersen calls a "digital-industrial-complex pantheon: Cisco, Genetech, Nokia, GE, Google." Diamandis is an Ivy League educated entrepreneur whose book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, lays out a utopian future in which technology makes a healthy environment and social harmony possible.

Jaron Lanier, the virtual reality pioneer who now works at Microsoft Research, told Andersen he thinks machines might become convincingly human some time before the end of this century. Philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen wrote in the MIT Technology Review that "The Singularity Isn't Near." Kurzweil disagreed in response. In an interview with Anderson, Allen says neuroscience research shows many complexities of the human brain are still mysterious and the scale and scope of the "known unknowns" remain vast, so he doubts human-capable AI will happen soon. He says the deeper we look into natural systems the more we have to expand our knowledge and theories to characterize their detailed operations, and he calls that the complexity break.

Some scientists worry about technological superiority. Jaan Tallinn, who helped create Kazaa and co-founded Skype, thinks technology may not benefit us if we lose control of its development. Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Motors and founder the space travel company Space X, calls AI "our biggest existential threat." 

Lanier's most recent book, Who Owns the Future, is about politics, power, economics and jobs. He's not afraid smart machines will enslave us. He told Andersen he's worried that machine owners-digital big business-will use technology to impoverish and disempower the middle and working classes. Andersen writes that in Lanier's skeptical view, today's big data and mass market AI "amount to a stupendous con." The crowd sourced digital powerhouses, like Google, YouTube and Facebook, Lanier asserts, "are Tom Sawyer, and we're whitewashing their fences for free because they've bedazzled and tricked us into thinking its fun." Read the provocative Vanity Fair article, with thoughtful interviews and commentary, here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  science  technology 

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Texas Saves Money Treating More, Incarcerating Fewer

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Prison Reform Is Big in Texas

The United States, with five percent of the world’s population, has 25% of the world’s prisoners. And one tenth of the U.S. prisoners are incarcerated in Texas, a state that has executed 268 people since 2000. Tough on crime talk is politically popular inTexas. But the state has reduced its prison population, pared recidivism rates and saved money with a collection of reforms that fund programs rather than prisons.

Washington Post story by Reid Wilson reports the prison population in 2014 was 168,000, down from 173,000 in 2010. Instead of anticipating more inmates and planning new prisons, Tony Fabelo, a 20-year veteran of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council and two state legislators designed a system with hundreds of new beds in drug treatment programs for substance abusing parole violators, and intermediate and outpatient facilities for criminal sentenced to probation. Pre-trial diversion programs were created for those suffering from mental illness. A Daily Beast story by Olivia Nuzzi explains the bipartisan push for the combined initiatives that save money and reduce incarceration.

A recent study by the Sentencing Project, a research group that advocates alternatives to incarceration showed no strong relationship between imprisonment and crime. However, its statistics show that crime rates declined more in 30 states with the lowest increases in prison populations than in 20 states with higher increases in prison populations. Analysts are watching for future impact of prison policy changes in Texas. A report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that by the end of 2013 Texas had a modest increase in prison admissions—1.5 percent—and a drop of nearly 10 percent in prison releases.

Tags:  news 

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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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