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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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Art's Influence: Empathy, Tolerance, Critical Thinking

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 28, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, December 03, 2013

A national survey by the American Association of School Administrators showed that 30 percent of nation's schools eliminated planned field trips in the 2010-2011 school year and 43 percent planned to eliminate trips in the 2012- 2013 year. What are our future citizens losing? It may be quite a lot. Recent research showed a mere half day's exposure to art produced a wide range of desirable intellectual and emotional effects.

Brian Kisida, Jay P. Greene, and Daniel H. Bowen, in their New York Times essay "Art Makes You Smart" describe a controlled study that involved nearly 11,000 students and 500 teachers from 23 schools. Half of the students were selected by lottery to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened in November 2011 in Bentonville, Arkansas. The museum, founded by Alice Walton, whose father Sam Walton founded Walmart, has more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space and an endowment of $800 million. The youngsters, in grades 3-12, were divided into anonymous pairs, based on grade level and demographic similarities. One member of each pair toured the museum, and the other paired partners had tours that were deferred until after the study. Students whose visits were deferred were the control group.

The Box
Kids who visited the museum saw and discussed five paintings, and some got to wander around looking at things on their own. All the youngsters were asked to write a short essay on a painting they had not previously seen, Bo Bartlett's The Box.
They were asked what's happening in the picture, and why do you think that? Mary Anne Janco, writing in The Inquirer, says Bartlett painted The Box after 9/11. It shows his son, Eliot, and a young girl who also modeled for his paintings, dressing up from military garb found in a box.

The student essays were stripped of identity information and measured for critical thinking using a rubric developed by researchers at the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston. The children who had visited the museum turned in higher performances on critical thinking, as well as showing greater historical empathy, tolerance, and sustained interest in art. The surveys were conducted between three and eight weeks after the museum visits, and results showed children remembered a great deal of the factual information about the art they saw, even though they hadn't been tested or required to memorize anything. Children who took the tour also observed and described more details in the images. Research results are also published in the Educational Researcher.

Ploughing It Under

In a story in, the three researchers describe how the assessments were done and the value for the kids. During the museum tour, children saw and discussed Eastman Johnson's painting At the Camp-Spinning Yarns and Whittling, depicting abolitionists making maple syrup to undermine the sugar industry, which relied on slave labor. And 88 percent of the youngsters remembered details of the pantingand its meaning. Nearly as many remembered the artist and meaning of Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter, showing the importance of women in the work force during World War II; Thomas Hart Benton's Ploughing it Under, showing a farmer destroying his crops as part of a Depression era price support program, and Romare Bearden's painting Sacrifice, part of the Harlem Renaissance art movement. While all the youngsters who had the museum experience demonstrated enhanced skills, students from rural and high poverty schools seemed to benefit the most.

Tags:  art  buscell  complexity matters  education 

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African Rural University: Systems Thinking to Become "Creators of Circumstance"

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 21, 2013

Rose Asiimwe wanted to help families in her rural Ugandan village keep their children in school, so she mobilized students, parents and community leaders into a group that formed a new primary school. The school is functioning, fewer kids drop out, and the school has initiated some income-generating projects to support the poorest students. She also sparked formation of a women's development group that focuses on sanitation and hygiene. Rose Asiimwe is a sophomore at the African Rural University (ARU), an unusual institution that encourages students to bring their academically acquired technological and entrepreneurial skills back home.

ARU is a women-only institution with a vision of its graduates as change agents who can help people of Uganda and beyond make their own communities better places to live and thrive. The ARU website explains the school's core beliefs. Among them: "Lasting change comes only when people shift from reacting or adapting to events and circumstances and become creators of events and circumstances." Another core belief is that when people share a common vision they can transcend barriers caused by tribal, religious, political and gender differences.

Patricia Seybold, a consultant and CEO of her own consulting group, has written a story of the university’s founding and achievements. ARU is part of a continuum of educational institutions from primary school through college. The Uganda Rural Development and Training Programme (URDT), founded in 1987, in Kagadi, had taught children and adults of both sexes, as well as entrepreneurs and farmers, and had started a girls' school. All the students had academic grades, but primary and secondary students in the Girls School were also graded on their ability to get their families to improve living conditions while their daughters were away studying. The URDT Girls School graduated its first high school class in 2007, and those young women were already community leaders. Read an article by Robert Fritz on URDT emphasis on processes and system dynamics emphasis

Mwalimu Musheshe, named an Ashoka Fellow in 2001, founded ARU with URDT. Ashoka considered his concept of the school a system changing idea. The country's first all-women's university would create a core of visionary women leaders and role models, aid gender parity in education, and reduce infant mortality.

ARU began in September 2006 with 29 researcher students in a five year pilot program with three years of study and two years of field work in a dozen communities where they performed as "rural transformation specialists." Students visited hundreds of households in their communities, creating a baseline survey on such matters as income, health, sanitation and nutrition. That information helped identify projects people wanted, and students used their training and access to expertise to help people carry them out. ARU and its feeder schools emphasized creative processes, community learning, entrepreneurship, sustainable development and creating social capital. ARU rural transformation courses draw on science and humanities, Seybold writes, and inspiration from "traditional wisdom specialists," old men and women who know and share traditional knowledge.

Part of ARU's goal was to foster systems thinking in every part of the curriculum. As Seybold writes, it wasn’t the students' job to fix the system, but to understand it thoroughly enough so that they could help community members identify and collaborate on their shared vision. Some resulting projects have included new roads, schools, savings societies, market places and farmers' co-ops. Students also worked on how to measure impact of their work—what information to collect, how to establish data bases, and how to get feedback from community members, who were asked to play a key role in evaluating projects.

The teamwork of school and community were in play when ARU needed its own library as a condition for certification as a university. There were national standards for space and academic content, Seybold says, but planners wanted a deep understanding of who the library should serve and how. A group of students, staff, faculty, librarians and media personnel explored ARU's expectation that the new facility would be a magnet for scholars, government officials, the local community and a broader region of 10 million subsistence farmers with low literacy. They planed data bases that would be used by all, and a rich collection of agricultural samples on seeds, plants, soil and access to successful agricultural practices. Read Seybold's article here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  education  leaders 

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Health, Education, Poverty and New Jersey's "Apartheid Schools"

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, November 14, 2013
Good health and educational achievement are closely entwined, poverty erodes both, and researchers are discovering more about the connections. Ruth E. Perry, MD, who heads the Trenton Health Team, underscores an observation of Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who says "Our Zip code may be more important to our health than our genetic code." Dr. Perry also cites reports on the overarching impact of health disparities and two recent studies that say nearly 100,000 minority New Jersey children live in isolated poverty and attend schools more segregated than any in the Deep South.

In a column for the Newark Star Ledger, Dr. Perry, a physician who comes from a family of educators, notes some of the research linking poverty, health and education. She quotes James Heckman, a University of Chicago professor and Nobel Laureate in Economics: "Children raised in disadvantaged environments are not only much less likely to succeed in school or society but are also much less likely to be healthy adults." In a New York Times Column Heckman writes that whether a person finishes college is largely the result of what has happened before kindergarten, and kids who lose the lottery at birth sometimes never get a chance to catch up. As an example of the value of counteracting early disadvantage, he describes the Carolina Abecedarian Project, in which a group of children received cognitive and social stimulation from infancy through age five while their parents got skills training. The children also got regular check ups and health care. Their progress was monitored at ages 12, 15, 21 and 30, Heckman writes, and the program showed lasting impact on IQ scores; in addition, those treated had higher educational attainment and more skilled employment than peers in control groups.

But most dramatic, Heckman writes, is the life-long health impact: 30 years later adults who were in the program now have lower blood pressure, less abdominal fat, and lower likelihood of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease than untreated peers. Read his column here.

The Trenton Health Team (THT) is a partnership made up of the city’s two hospitals, a health clinic, the city of Trenton, the N.J. Department of Health and Human Services and many community organizations. THT recently completed a community health needs assessment that uncovered discouraging educational statistics. In Trenton’s six Zip codes, the high school graduation rate ranges from 53 percent to 74 percent, and college graduation rates range from a dismal 6 percent to 17 percent.

Segregation in New Jersey schools is analyzed in studies by Paul Trachtenberg at the Rutgers Institute on Education Law and Policy (IELP) and Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. The reports say nearly half of the black and Hispanic students in 2010-2011 were enrolled in schools where fewer than 10 percent of the students were white. The IELP report describes 191 N.J. schools in which one percent or fewer of the students are non-minority as "apartheid schools." Most of those are in Newark, Camden, Paterson and Jersey City. The report says 26 percent of black student and 13 percent of Latino students attend apartheid schools, and across the U.S. only Detroit and Chicago have more extreme school segregation. Trenton schools, where the poverty level is 70 percent and nearly 96 percent of the students are black and Hispanic, are among schools described as "intensely segregated." That's a category in which 90 percent of more of the enrollment is minority. Nearly 30 percent of Latino students and 22 percent of black students in N.J. attend intensely segregated schools. The landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling of 1954 bans segregation by law, but not segregation by circumstance. The IELP report says while litigation has successfully brought more money to poor urban districts, "New Jersey's uniquely strong state law regarding racial balance in the schools has not been seriously implemented for the past 40 years." The report emphasizes half a century of research has documented diminished opportunities and less fortunate outcomes for kids in highly segregated schools where students come from impoverished families.

Dr. Perry says researchers from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins found more than 30 percent of direct medical costs of minority populations in the US results from health inequities-an amount that totaled $230 billion from 2003-2006. Indirect costs of those disparities, which include lost productivity, lost wages, absenteeism, and premature death over the same period, brings the total to $1.24 trillion. "Clearly," Dr. Perry writes, "reducing education and health disparities is in our best interest both for social and economic reasons." Read Dr. Perry's column here and the Rutgers IELP report here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  education  healthcare 

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Wild Apples Evolving With Us

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, November 08, 2013

Thousands of varieties of apples flourished in America in centuries past. Apples were something people drank, and the extraordinary varieties of red, green, yellow and purplish fruits, many of them sour, bitter, and unappetizing by themselves, made excellent hard cider and hog feed.

Rowan Jacobsen, in his Mother Jones story "Why Your Supermarket Only Sells 5 Kinds of Apples," writes about the biological evolution of the American apple and the political and social forces that shaped it. He also tells the story of John Bunker, known in Maine as The Apple Guy, whose decades-long mission has been to identify and preserve as many varieties as possible.

One of the interesting things about apples is that if a tree is grown from seed, its apples won’t be anything like apples of its parent tree. Individual seeds in each apple contain genetic instructions for a totally new apple. As Jacobson explains, "An apple fruit is a disposable womb of the mother tree, each containing a unique combination of genes from the mother tree, and the mystery dad, whose contribution arrived in a pollen packet inadvertently carried by a springtime bee.”

The Plant Genetic Resource Unit, in Geneva, New York now maintains 2,500 varieties of apple trees collected from all over the world. While the ancient fruit originated in the mountains of Kazakhstan, Michael Pollan suggests in his book the Botany of Desire, a Plant’s Eye View of the World, that the apple as it dispersed became quintessentially American. It was hardy, grew anywhere, could thrive with no maintenance, and was almost mystically democratic. In the early 1800s when Johnny Appleseed was planting his trees, Pollan writes, "they were a blooming fruiting meritocracy in which every apple seed roots in the same soil and has an equal chance of greatness.” Further, Pollan says, hard cider was the buzz of choice in early America, because while the Bible warned against the dangers of the grape, apples even when fermented were considered more innocent. But that view, too, evolved.

Pollan and Jacobsen write that many apple varieties disappeared during Prohibition when trees bearing the best cider apples were chopped down. More diversity was lost with the increasing industrialization of agriculture. To consistently produce sweet, tasty, bright colored apples, farmers had to take a cutting from a tree that produced fruit with the desired trait, and graft it onto living stock. Every McIntosh, Red Delicious and Granny Smith comes from grafting. As industrialization of agriculture increased, so did focus on a few commercially appealing varieties that would withstand long shipment.

The loss of biodiversity puts plants at risk for pests and disease, and today’s apples are vulnerable to both. Apples require more pesticides than any other crop, and are hard to grow organically. Bunker studies apples growing in towns, forests and on neighbors’ lands, and tries to save rare apples, some of which have blight resistant genetic traits. He estimates he has rescued 80 to 100 varieties, growing grafted trees at his Fedco Nursery, and selling vintage plants through Fedco Trees, a mail order company he founded 30 year ago. Bunker fears our diverse agricultural heritage is in danger not only because of the dwindling number of varieties being commercially grown, but because many new apples like the Sweet Tango are the intellectual property of those who bred them.

He keeps looking for lost specimens he’s heard about from distant visitors and local lore, or read about in old books and farm catalogs. His search for the Fletcher Sweet led him to an elderly resident in the town of Lincolnville who knew of a gnarled ancient tree that grew apples he ate as a child. Bunker cut shoots from what little life was left in the tree, and his new grafted trees produced a juicy green flavorful apple. So he has given some young Fletcher Sweet trees back to Lincolnville. Read the Mother Jones story here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature  resilience 

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Samba School Lessons for Leaders

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 31, 2013

Business leaders can learn valuable lessons from the exuberant four day Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo and other big Brazilian cities, according to a scholar who has studied how people in samba schools prepare the elaborate floats and present imaginative themes and fabulous performances in music and dance.

Carnival, with its festivals, costumes and parades coming just before Lent, the 40 days preceding Easter, has been celebrated in Brazil for centuries. Samba schools, which compete for prestigious rankings of their Carnival entries, aren't teaching institutions as the name might imply. The Rio Service Carnival Travel and Tourism website explains that samba schools are more like social clubs, community organizations, and sometimes political groups, that also spend months of every year preparing for Carnival. They got started in the 1920s, the website says, among people from the Bahia state in eastern Brazil who came to the cities bringing the music and dance of their Candomble religion. Today's samba schools are big, complex organizations, and Alfredo Behrens, a professor of Global Leadership at Faculdade FIA de Administracao e Negocios in Sao Paolo, believes big corporations should pay heed to how they operate.

Behrens, whose most recent book is Shooting Heroes and Rewarding Cowards: A Sure Path Towards Organizational Disaster, studied Mocidade Alegre, a samba school that won first place in the Sao Paolo parade in 2012 and 2013. He interviewed people throughout the organization, including dancers, who have no managerial authority, members of a 250-man percussion orchestra known as a bateria, many directors and the school's president. He writes about his findings in his Harvard Business Review blog. He explains that referees judge the samba schools wins and rankings based on 10 criteria similar to key performance indicators (KPIs) used in the corporate world.

While many samba school participants hold corporate day jobs, they put in long unpaid hours for Carnival preparation. Behrens says Mocidade members feel like family. He quotes Daniel Sena, the schools' director general of harmony, as saying winning is important, but the core of the school business is treating people nicely. "That's what makes people come back for the renewed challenges even after losing a parade," he told Behrens. Sena, who works in finance, thinks niceness is undervalued in the business world. A corporate mediator and samba coordinator told Berhens she'd seen "corporations discarding people as if they were garbage when they are past their prime" while samba schools "recycle" and respect their "oldies." Behrens says Mocidade is a closely-knit community with strong focus and great teamwork. It has more than 30 directors, who have considerable autonomy in their own projects. The president is a woman, newcomers are welcome, and the organization doesn't rely on conventional discriminatory ethnic and social hierarchies. Behrens thinks businesses in Brazil and elsewhere can be more successful if they learn how to build community and practice in ways that make people want to engage and work together. Read Behrens blog here. And see some fabulous photos in the Daily Mail.

Tags:  art  buscell  community  complexity matters  leaders  music 

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What Lights Up Our Brains as We Learn and Work

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, October 25, 2013

When people say their hearts are broken and their feelings are hurt, their expressions may be more than metaphor. Scientists have discovered that social pain is just as real as physical pain, and in fact can be eased by painkillers.

Researchers have found that cruel words and social rejection registers in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the same brain region where physical pain is processed. For Matthew Lieberman, PhD, a professor of psychology and director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at UCLA, that's a strong indication that our need for social connection is ancient and hard-wired.

"The existence of social pain is a sign that evolution has treated social connection like a necessity, not a luxury," he says. In a Scientific American interview with Gareth Cook, Lieberman emphasizes that because of the way social pain and pleasure are "wired into our operating systems," the need to connect with others is urgent and compelling. Studies of mammals, from small rodents to humans, show that social connections shape us and that we suffer seriously when our social bonds are threatened or broken.

Brain research has direct implications for the way we structure organizations, institutions, and businesses, and the way we raise and educate children, Lieberman says.

He says fMRI studies show the brain has two distinct networks that support social and non social thinking. They operate like a neural seesaw, he explains, with one network quieting down as the other intensifies. When we finish with a non-social thought process, such as solving a math problem, the social thinking network is instantly reactivated as a default. That's the network operating when we're trying to understand the thoughts, feelings and goals of other people, and not just their actions.

Lieberman observes business leaders should realize that praise and an environment free from physical threats are powerful incentives just as money and material benefits are. "It is social comfort that allows us to make the most of our environment," he says: when we care, we work harder, complement each other's strengths and weaknesses more, and use our natural capacities better.

Brain science also offers new clues for education, Lieberman says. As he explains in a webinar on the Social Brain and Its Superpowers, experiments have shown that affirmation and rejection have profound consequences. When two groups of participants experienced either affirmation or rejection and then took IQ and GRE tests, those rejected had dramatically lower scores. Some 40 percent of kids say they have endured bullying-physical, verbal or cyber-he observes, and the impact can linger. "A kid who broke his leg on the playground wouldn't be expected to return to class and do math," he says, "but a kid who has been bullied is expected to be able to set that feeling aside." He thinks mindfulness training, and learning how to engage the brain's self control mechanisms, may build resilience to social pain.

Work at the Lieberman Lab shows that we learn best with the social parts of our brains, not with the parts activated to memorize, he says. The social brain network is in play when we take in new information, and some research has shown that our brains light up when we absorb information that we think will interest others. As he puts it, we like to be Information DJs. Lieberman wants more research on the use of learning in order to teach. "We ought to be doing much more peer learning," he told Scientific American. "My ideal situation would be a 14-year-old who has trouble in the classroom being assigned to teach a 12-year-old. The teacher then becomes a coach helping to teach the 12-year-old and the 14-year-old will reap the benefits of pro-social learning." Lieberman is the author of the book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. Access his webinar and the Scientific American story here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  neuroscience 

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Messy Big Data Needs New Math

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 17, 2013

Huge quantities of complex, messy, multi-dimensional data gathered from biological and human social systems, collections that lack the formal structure that might have existed had data been accumulated to examine a specific question, are challenging to analyze. And such data sets are burgeoning in multiple fields, from medical records, genomic sequencing, and neural networks in the brain and to the social networks in human life.

A story by Jennifer Ouellette in Quanta Magazine explains that today’s big data is "noisy, unstructured and dynamic,” sometimes corrupted and sometimes incomplete, and that a wide range of mathematical tools and techniques are needed to make sense of it. Yale mathematician Ronald Coifman asserts that we need a "big data equivalent of a Newtonian revolution, on a par with the seventeenth century invention of calculus.” He believes new techniques developing in modern math will help identify and make visible the underlying structures of big data sets.

In an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Simon DeDeo, a research fellow in applied mathematics and complex systems at the Santa Fe Institute, suggests that the computer revolution is aiding the discovery of some universal principles hidden in massive data. For example, he says, the mathematical models that describe the conflict and cooperating in editing contentious Wikipedia entries and are remarkably similar to models based on the outbreak and resolution of wars among ancient Greek city states. He and colleagues are now looking at the U.S. government shut down to determine whether that conflict can be modeled using the same math.

The Quanta story tells how DeDeo analyzed 300 years worth of data from the archives of Old Bailey, the criminal court of England and Wales. He used spreadsheets to record information from nearly 200,000 trials, which included charge, verdict and sentence, and transcripts containing 10 million words. Using text recognition, he sifted through the words, grouping them unto 1,000 categories. "Now you’re turned the trial into a 1,000 dimensional space that tells you how much the trial is about friendship, or trust, or clothing,” he told Quanta.

In his New Mexican article, DeDeo writes that he and collaborators saw ideals of modern justice and fairness evolving from a harsh medieval world. In the 1600s, he writes, "incorrigible pickpockets” were sentenced to die; in the 1700s people convicted of violent and nonviolent crimes met similar fates and were described in similar language. Over the next 150 years, data shows growing recognition that murder and rape differ from petty theft and fraud and should be treated differently, a dramatically important social shift.

Gunnar Carlsson, a mathematician at Stanford University, studies cumbersome complex data using topological data analysis (TDA). Carlsson says TDA is a way of getting structured data out of unstructured data, so that machine learning, a set of techniques to construct and study systems that can learn from data, will work on it. Watch Carlsson’s short YouTube lecture. The seeds of TDA and modern network theory go back to the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg, a math problem popular in the eighteenth century, Ouellette writes. The challenge asks whether a person can travel to and from each of four separate land areas, crossing each of seven connecting bridges only once. The mathematician Leonhard Euler realized distances and positions didn’t matter, but the number of land masses-the nodes-and how the bridges connected them-the links or edges-did.

Map of Konigsberg in Euler's time showing the actual layout of the seven bridges,
highlighting the river Pregel. Wikipedia 

Carlsson says huge, raw data sets with many dimensions can be mathematically compressed into lower-dimension structures that show primary regions and how they are connected.

Carlsson developed technology, which he offers through his company Ayasdi that can produce maps visualizing compressed representations of huge data sets. For instance, the Quanta story says, data from a breast cancer study was initially recorded on spreadsheets with 1,500 columns and 272 rows representing differing genomic samples from patients. When the data was transformed by TDA into a network, the map took the shape of a Y. Patients who died were clustered on the left branch, and a smaller number who survived were on the right branch, allowing geneticists to study factors that influence survival. Read the Quanta story here and DeDeo’s article here. Read Ouellette’s Quanta piece on quantum computers, machine learning and big data, in Wired Magazine, here.

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Soccer Soap Operas for Peace

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Soap operas about soccer are being broadcast on radio and TV in 17 countries around the world to promote understanding, create dialogue, and reduce conflict among people from different religious, ethnic and economic groups. Each story about "The Team," is crafted to address issues in the country where it is presented. In Kenya, the members of the team come from different tribes; in Morocco, they're both urban and rural, rich and poor. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the players on an all-girls team are all having problems related to sexual violence.

The productions are the work of Search for Common Ground, a nonprofit based in Washington, DC that was founded 30 years ago and now has offices in 30 countries, works with more than a thousand partner organizations and has a staff of 600. A story in The Christian Science Monitor by Gregory Lamb says Search for Common Ground has become the biggest conflict-resolution and peace building organization in the world. In addition to the soap opera stories, the organization uses youth mediation training, back channel diplomacy, music videos and call in radio shows, and community initiative such as shared farming projects, soccer matches and participatory theater.

John Marks, president and cofounder of the organization, explains in the story that "We’re retaining about 25 percent of the Congolese army in respecting the rights of women.” Women in the DNC still struggle for economic and social equality with men, and there are also serious threats to their well-being and safety.

Common ground has programs in several volatile regions including Pakistan, Tunisia, Yemen, and Jerusalem and is beginning operations in Libya and Myanmar.

The Monitor reports that Common ground will honor five peacemakers with awards this November, including a posthumous award to Christopher Stevens, the American diplomat and ambassador to Libya who died in an assault on the U.S. consulate.

Other recipients are Ingoma Nshya which translates as "New Era”, is Rwanda’s only female Hutu and Tutsi drumming troupe and is the subject of a new documentary film "Sweet Dreams." Marks explains drumming in Rwanda has been a "man’s thing” that women didn’t do even though it is the national music form. The group provides a place where ethnic hatred can be replaced by a culture of hope respect and reconciliation. An award will also be presented to three leaders from different faiths: Lord George Carey of Clifton, former archbishop of Canterbury; Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the American Society for Muslim Advancement; and Rabbi David Rosen, international director of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. Read the Monitor story here.

Tags:  buscell  community  complexity matters  culture 

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Secrets in Our Sense of Scent

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 03, 2013

Do you smell the roses? Lilacs in spring rain? The alarming odors of things burning or rotting? The answer may be more important than you think. Scientists are discovering that an impaired sense of smell is one of the earliest signs of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative diseases.


The Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology has endorsed smell testing as an aid to the diagnoses of these diseases, writes Richard L. Doty, though such testing is still not routinely performed in neurology clinics. In an article in The Scientist, Doty, director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, describes recent research that shows difficulty smelling - a condition called hyposmia - is often an important early warning signal. He cites a pioneering study by Amy Bornstein Graves and colleagues at the University of South Florida who administered smell tests to 1,604 senior citizens who had no symptoms of dementia. Overall, people who had no sense of smell and one genetic risk factor for dementia were five times more likely to develop cognitive decline in the next two years than people whose sense of smell was not impaired. Further, Doty notes, the smell test was more predictive than cognitive test scores.


Doty, who has developed smell and taste tests, writes that olfactory test results can help doctors with diagnosis and treatment. Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases (AD and PD) are often misdiagnosed in patients suffering from other afflictions, including severe depression or supranuclear palsy, which are not accompanied by loss of smell and are not helped by drugs used to treat AD and PD. In some patients with mild AD, he adds, smell tests can indicate responsiveness to a drug that does improve cognitive function in some patients.


Is olfactory dysfunction the result of damage that comes with neurodegenerative diseases, or does loss of smell precede the damage? Can damage to the olfactory system induce disease in those disposed to neurodegenerative disorders? Doty says further research is needed to answer those questions, and further an understanding of the relationship between smell and health. Watch Doty's slide presentation on the sense of smell. He begins it with a picture of a Lady and the Unicorn tapestry showing the lady weaving a garland of carnations to illustrate the sense of smell. Five of the fifteenth century tapestries depict the five senses and a sixth is believe to represent love or understanding. 


Doty's article is one of several in The Scientist issue devoted to examining our sense of smell. Another by Ron Yu discusses pheromones. These elusive molecules, and the scents associated with them, are known to influence mating and other behavior in insects and some mammals. When it comes to human behavior, there's disagreement. If pheromones do exist in humans, the molecular machinery that would make them work is not clear. There is also evidence that smells can leave afterimages in the brain, even after the stimulus is no longer present, that influence memory. Marcel Proust, remembering the madeleines of his childhood, wrote that tastes and smells of the past "remain poised a long time, like souls, ..."


"Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived." Helen Keller

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  neuroscience 

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A Lovers’ Tale in Commerce and Culture

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 26, 2013

When the powerful mandarin discovered his accountant Chang and his beautiful daughter Koong See were in love, he secluded her in a separate apartment behind a fence. He betrothed her to a rich and elderly duke, but the young couple fled before the wedding. Versions of the story vary, but Koong See and Chang were murdered either immediately by the vengeful duke or later by his soldiers. The gods took pity on the lovers and transformed them into a pair of doves that hover forever over the willow tree that once shaded their secret meetings.

The famous tale is depicted in the elaborate Blue Willow design, one of the best known patterns for tableware. Each piece has the familiar palace, trees, the restrictive fence, distant people crossing a bridge, a boat, and two birds in the sky. The story actually has nothing to do with ancient Chinese lives or legends. It is of English origin, invented to sell dishes. It is often attributed to Thomas Minton, an English potter who engraved copper plates around 1780 with his own adaptation of earlier landscape patterns common on blue and white porcelain imported from China to England in the eighteenth century.

The story and the popularity of the pattern spread together. The website of Stokes on Trent, a city famous for its pottery and china, explains Blue Willow has been manufactured by companies including Spode, Royal Worcester and Wedgewood, and many others for nearly 225 years. The design is available today on paper, plastic, glass, cloth, earthenware, and cookware. The story has been retold and referenced in songs, poems, children's books, a grotesque Disney cartoon, a mystery novel by John P. Marquand, and it’s even been cited politically.

Joseph J, Portanova, PhD, who teaches at New York University, writes that the Blue Willow design is both an imitation of and a distortion of Chinese culture. He says the fact that it was-and sometimes still is-perceived as "quintessentially Chinese" tells much about Western misperceptions of the Far East. His essay "Porcelain, The Willow Pattern, and Chinoiserie," explains that the three million or so pieces of blue and white porcelain imported into Europe in the seventeenth century fueled a fascination with China, then perceived as an exotic place and understood largely through designs on its products. Chinoiserie, he writes, wasn’t about China, but a fantasy image of China that influenced art, design and culture. He cites the pagoda at Kew Gardens, as one architectural example. Portanova also cites literary allusions in which the Willow pattern is used to suggest commonly held uninformed and sometimes derogatory views. For example, he notes that William Churchill, reviewing a history of China in 1914, mistook Blue Willow for a symbol of an unvaried and primitive civilization. Churchill wrote that the willow plate, illustrating a pleasant, simplistic tale in artistic design lacking perspective and shadow, exhibited the "whole difference between the Orient" and a more modern West.


When Chinese craftsmen began copying British Blue Willow tableware and exporting it to Europe and America, the idea that the design was Chinese became entrenched, as did the notion that the story used to market it was an ancient Chinese legend. The appeal of the story helped sell the porcelain, Portanova writes, and mass production of the porcelain increased the appeal of the "legend."

Portanova points out in his extensively researched paper that the story is more European than Chinese, and that its appeal in England and America is partly the result of its rebellious components. The young commoner dares to love the mandarin’s daughter, and the young lovers defy her father and the conventions of a steadfastly patriarchal society. In reality, he suggests, no proper Chinese maiden would have felt free to ignore filial piety. Modern communication, scholarship and globalization have eroded many antiquated views of China, and faulty ideas about the story’s symbolism are outdated. But the graceful Blue Willow design lives on. Blue Willow appears in several lists of the most popular tableware, and it’s number three on a House Beautiful list of patterns that have "stood the test of time." Read Portanova’s piece here

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture 

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