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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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Learning from Sleeping Bears

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 06, 2014

While bears hibernate through bitter cold winters, they don't eat, drink, or excrete, their kidneys shut down, their heart rate falls to a few beats a minute, their oxygen intake and blood flow plunge, and because they're living off their own mighty stores of fat, their cholesterol skyrockets. And when they wake up they're fine. They're not suffering from diabetes, hardening of the arteries or gall stones, and they haven't lost muscle or bone density.

Scientists think the mysteries of bear hibernation may have much to teach us about human health issues ranging from obesity to kidney disease to organ preservation and long distance space travel.

Kevin Corbit, a senior scientist at the biotechnology company Amgen calls hibernation by black bears and grizzly bears an "astonishing feat of evolution." In a New York Times story he explains that when bears halt their renal functions during hibernation, the result is badly scarred kidneys and levels of blood toxin that would kill a human. Yet full function is restored when the bear wakes, and scientists find no lasting damage. Before hibernation, bears eat and drink prodigiously, and quickly gain the weight and fat they'll need for their long sleep, which can last up to seven months. During hibernation, Corbit writes, bears become insulin resistant, making them in effect diabetic. Unlike diabetic humans, however, they maintain normal blood sugar levels. And again, when they wake up, their insulin responsiveness is restored.

At the top seasonal weight, male black bears can weigh up to 900 pounds and females can weigh up to 500 pounds.They may lose up to 30 percent of their body weight during hibernation. See a Nova report and a National Park Service piece on bear hibernation.

"Bears naturally and reversibly succumb to diabetes," Corbit writes. "Since we know when they make this switch, we hope to pinpoint how they do this."

The bears scientists have studied don't handle fat the same way humans do. It doesn't cause tissue inflammation in bears, and Corbit writes that bears store their excess winter weight harmlessly in fat tissue, rather in the liver and muscles as humans do. Corbit's research on bears, supported by his company, is focused on finding innovations in treating obesity. Hibernation itself is an adaptation to seasonal food shortages, extreme cold and snow. Millions of years of evolution has produced genetic adaptations that make fluctuating weight and obesity benign for bears. Corbit figures maybe scientists can figure out how to do that for humans.

A Science article by Sara Reardon says the mysteries of bear metabolism during hibernation could give doctors the ability to slow down the metabolism of accident victims, thereby extending the time when treatment is most effective. Findings could also help extend the preservation of organs for donation. Understanding how bear brains continue to function with low oxygen, and the mechanisms by which sleeping bears conserve their muscle and bone mass during months of inactivity could be useful in managing long term space travel.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  medicine  nature 

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Intuition and Technology: Out of Sync

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

BMW engineers were so successful in creating a silent automotive interior that customers complained. They missed engine roar and road noise. So BMW spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop an audio algorithm to generate engine noises to be played through the car's stereo system. BMW claimed its system accurately replicated engine sounds over the full range of RPMs, operating conditions and speed.

 

David Pizarro, an associate professor of psychology at Cornell, cites BMW's expensive reversal of its initial engineering achievement as an example of what happens when our intuition and our technology are out of sync. In fact, Pizarro argues that our social and moral intuitions increasingly fail us as we are confronted with fast-paced changes in science and technological innovation. In a lecture at Edge.org, Pizarro describes how subjects in an experiment on trustworthiness quickly engaged with a robot called Nexi that had very limited facial features and movements and visible wires. The robot, with its unmistakable mechanical appearance, had been programmed with nonverbal cues experimentally associated with trustworthiness.

 

"Within 30 seconds people were actually talking to Nexi as though she were a human being, in fact saying things that were quite private," Pizarro said. He added that some participants even thought Nexi was a technologically advanced talking robot, "when in reality there was a graduate student behind the curtain, so to speak." Pizarro quoted early psychological research indicating our social intuitions build in intentionality and agency, even when they're not there. During a discussion after the lecture, economist Sendhil Mullainathan, recalled stories in Everett Rogers' book Diffusion of Innovation, describing how people adopt new technologies in ways that are congruent with older intuitions. When Indian farmers started using tractors, for example, they went to the tractor every night and put a blanket over it.

 

We want to kick the vending machine that doesn't deliver the candy bar and bellow at the computer when Windows delivers the blue screen of death. We feel bad if a computer game stops playing with us. When we get those pop-up ads based on an earlier purchase or search, we get a creepy feeling that someone has been watching us and reading our email. And that's even when we know about algorithms that generate personalized ads.

 

"We don't have intuitions for algorithms," Pizarro said. "As technology advances, there is no way in which we can rapidly generate new intuitions. So...when we hear about self-driving cars, we get nervous, even though we're certain that percentage-wise this would reduce the number of traffic accidents. It just doesn't feel right." Pizarro fears some new technologies may be stifled by old intuitions that have evolved from earlier eras. We could end up making erroneous moral judgments about technological advances with the potential to cure diseases and improve lives. By the way, a Car and Driver story by K.W. Colwell explains BMW is not the only auto manufacturer to pipe fake sounds to the drivers.

 

Pizarro believes we have yet to define what constitutes an error in judgment in many areas of emerging technology. For instance, he asks, does the impersonal nature of drones and robots in war constitute an immoral action? Is the problem the lack of human agency? How does one figure out acts of omission vs. acts of commission when technical tools are involved?

 

What about genetically modified humans? The New York Times reports that with mitrochondrial manipulation technology, the nuclear material can be removed from an egg or an embryo of a woman who has an inheritable mitrochondrial disease and inserted into the healthy egg or embryo of a donor whose own nuclear material has been discarded. The resulting child would have the genetic material of three people. The federal Food and Drug Administration is considering the issue.  

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  technology 

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Chaotic Past Gave Us Human Diversity

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 20, 2014

Invading armies, the slave trade, merchant travel on the Silk Road, the flight of refugees and the rise and fall of ancient empires have left indelible traces in the lives of people today. Geneticists using new statistical techniques to unravel the surprising results of the world-wide mixing of human populations over the last 4,000 years have created a human genetic atlas published in the journal Science.


Genes tell stories of humanity's past. The Kalash people of Pakistan today have bits of DNA from an ancient European population. The Kalash and several other groups in the region are the likely descendants of soldiers of Alexander the Great, who invaded India in 326 BCE. The Arab slave trade is the likely source of segments of African origin in the genomes of people who live today in the southern Mediterranean and parts of the Middle East. That trade began in the seventh century, and many slaves were absorbed into host populations. European ancestral genes were probably brought to the Tu people of central China between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries by traders traveling the Silk Road. Scientists say the rise of the Mongol Empire and the invasion of Mongol hoards conquering new territories is one of history's most wide-spread population mixing events. Alterations in the human genome have emerged through centuries of the chaotic events we call history.

A team of scientists led by Simon Myers of Oxford University, Garrett Hellenthal of University College of London, and Daniel Falush of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany sampled genomes round the world and discovered they could identify 95 distinguishable populations.

While all humans have the same set of genes, a New York Times story by Nicholas Wade explains, our genomes are "studded with mutations, which are differences in the sequence of DNA units in the genome." Whole sets of mutations are passed from parent to child, so certain patterns become common in certain populations. When people from different populations marry, their children's genomes have big chunks of DNA from each parent's ancestry. The size of the chunks decreases with each successive generation, as the DNA of the parents' genome is swapped during the chemistry of reproduction. Geneticists looking at the size of the different chunks can calculate how many generations have passed since the introduction a new mutation. That allows them to identify an approximate date when the populations mixed.

The European colonization of America is recorded in the genomes of the Maya and Pima Indians, the story says, and the genomes of Cambodian populations record the invasion Tai people and the fall of the Khmer Empire in the fifteenth century. The English are known to have a rich history of ancestral invaders, but because they were genetically similar to the English, scientists have not yet been able to identify specific mixing events. While scientists who created the genetic atlas did not work with historians, they hope their discoveries will be useful in historical research and discovery. Read the Times story here. Read a Christian Science Monitor story here, an abstract of the Science story here and see an interactive map here.

A man is whole encyclopedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie folded already in the first man. -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  research 

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Leaders Face New Challenges in a Networked World

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 13, 2014

The language of leadership often reflects hierarchy and elaborates distinctions between leaders and followers. The "great man" theory of history proposed by nineteenth century philosopher Thomas Carlisle still offers an appealing view of extraordinary men and women shaping and moving events through their own personal strength and charisma. Scholar and author Mila Baker, PhD, argues one of the most profound social shifts in recent years has been erosion of individual power and the rise of collective power enabled by technology and social media.

"We need a mindset and language of leadership that maintains equilibrium between leading and following-a conception of leadership that is agile and stateless in its composition," she writes in her new book Peer to Peer Leadership: Why the Network is the Leader. "Like the U.S. Constitution guides and influences the nation's trajectory without stifling the rights and freedoms of its populace, organizations' design needs to facilitate leading and following on an equal platform."

Dr. Baker isn't saying CEOs have no role. She is saying today's changing business world requires them to adopt new thinking and behavior. In the architecture of a peer to peer network community, every computer-or electronic device-represents a node. The network connects people and provides instant flow of information. All nodes within the network are equal participants in a larger whole, a concept Dr. Baker calls equipotency. Electronic technology is no longer just a tool in organizations. It changes the way we relate to one another. It enables information to be sent and received among peers working toward a common goal. Everyone leads and everyone follows. Dr. Baker tells of her own experience working in a psychiatric emergency room. Each individual had an equal opportunity to contribute, which was not defined by an individuals' role or position, but the need of the moment. "We shared power and authority-we followed and gave orders as necessary," she writes, all respecting each other's commitment to the wellbeing of patients. "In general, she says, "equipotency blurs the line between leader and follower, and at the same time clarifies the overall purpose within groups and organizations."

The dynamic action needed to respond to a situation, she says, "occurs at the intersection of art and science." That's the relational dynamic that develops within a network when all perspectives are heard, integrated and accounted for. The network becomes the leader, Dr. Baker writes, because actions are based on a consensus of needs.

So what is the paradigm for new leadership? Dr. Baker says leadership can only be demonstrated in the context of a relational dynamic. She describes leadership as a "dyad exchange structure." She says this kind of leadership is shown by "the catalytic action that occurs in the relational dynamic between two individuals working together toward a common goal." In organizations that have successfully evolved away from the Industrial Age individual-centered command and control model, dyad exchange structures will connect nodes-people-for the purpose of resolving polarities and innovating. Dr. Baker says these structures will strengthen the bonds among people, enable the network to do its work, and allow us to embrace technology "as an extension of our capacity to evolve as humans in a connected world." The connected world means we need to move beyond the idea that leadership is limited to individuals, and that information should flow mainly from boss to subordinate. Networked information in organizations means more openness and more agility. Hazards associated with increased openness can be mitigated by technology that quickly uncovers patterns and identifies risks.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  leaders  leadership  networks 

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Discovering Molecules that Influence Behavior

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, February 06, 2014

We humans have more in common with fruit flies than we might realize, and that's why research on these tiny insects can yield valuable clues about human genetics, illnesses and a wide range of social interactions. Researchers have even found that jilted male fruit flies turn to drink.


Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) discovered that when male fruit flies are rejected by female fruit flies they are driven to excessive alcohol consumption and will drink far more than their sexually satisfied peers. They also discovered that a tiny molecule in the fly's brain, called neuropeptide F, governs this behavior. Neuropeptides are a highly diverse class of signal molecules in the brain. The UCSF experiments showed that rejected male lies, whose brain levels of neuropeptide F were lowered, sought alternative rewards by drinking to intoxication when given access to alcoholic and non-alcoholic liquids. Successfully mated male flies, who had higher levels of neuropepetide F in their brains, were less likely to choose the intoxicant.

Ulrike Heberlein, who led the UCSF research and who is now scientific program director at the Janelia Farm research campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute has noted the research found a connection between the flies and mammals for a social behavior influenced by brain chemistry. It turns out that a similar human molecule, neuropeptide Y, may also be associated with social triggers that drive people to abuse alcohol and drugs.

Now scientists studying fruit flies are learning more about the brain activity that underlies male aggression. A New York Times story by James Gorman describes research by David J. Anderson, a California Institute of Technology neuroscientist who is running what the story calls a fruit fly fight club. He and colleague are studying the role of the neuropeptide tachykinin in male aggression. When neurons that produce tachykinin are silenced, researchers were able to decrease aggression in the files. The emergence of tachykinin is very interesting, the story says, because mammals have several different kinds of tachykinin, some of which have been associated with aggression in rodents and may have a variety of roles in human brain function. While the implications for humans is unclear, Dr. Anderson told The Times that "studying aggression in fruit flies can actually teach us something about some of the molecules that control aggression."

Researchers have known for some time that humans and Drosophila fruit flies have many of the same genes and use them in the same way. Many known human diseases have recognizable matches in the genetic code of the fruit fly. A University of Glasgow scientist studying kidney stones produced kidney stones in fruit flies-and noted that unlike humans, the flies didn't seem pained by them. Other researchers have noted that genes and pathways that regulate fruit fly life spans seem closely parallel to the genes that underlie human longevity.

The poet William Blake had all life, even tiny insects, in mind when he wrote "The Fly" in his Songs of Experience, His poem, in part, "Am I not/A fly like thee?/ Or art not thou/ A man like me?/For I dance,/ And drink, and sing,/ Till some blind hand/ Shall brush my wing."

Read The New York Times story here. A UCSF news story explains how scientists discovered the link between fruit fly sex, their altered brain chemistry, and links to a propensity for inebriation.

photo credit

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature  research 

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Researchers Tackle Orphan Genetic Disorders With Patient Powered, Crowd-Funded Science

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, February 03, 2014

Dr. Jimmy Lin has never forgotten one little boy he saw when he began his medical training in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins. The child was 5, developmentally delayed and suffering from inexplicable bouts of agonizing pain. His parents had taken him to top doctors all over the country. Despite test after test, none of them could identify what was wrong. The image of the parents pushing their son's wheelchair down the hall as they walked away remains burned into his memory.

"It was heartbreaking," he recalled, wondering where that family would go next. Dr. Lin had been doing cancer research, and he still does, but he was haunted by families struggling with so many other diseases no one was working on. With all the extraordinary medical advances, resources and sophisticated technology available today, he thought, there has to be a way to help such families. That personal perspective and the recognition of a gaping unmet need led Dr. Lin, a physician, computational geneticist and former faculty member at Washington University in St. Louis, to found the Rare Genomics Institute. It's an unusual organization he hopes will be a catalyst for treatments and cures of rare diseases, and it may also inspire new business models in the life sciences.

Dr. Lin says there are 7,000 rare diseases afflicting some 30 million Americans and 250 million people world-wide, and many are genetically based. "The ultimate dream is that we'd like to see cures for all these diseases," he said in a phone conversation. "The intermediate dream is that we can have research projects created and study all these rare diseases so they are on a path to therapy or cure. We don't want to see loving parents trying to find cures no one is looking for."

The RGI team began with Dr. Lin's appeal to friends and friends of friends who were interested in genetic research and excited about seeing it have impact. "We posted the idea on Facebook, saying I've got this problem to solve," Dr. Lin said. "A lot of scientific researchers don't get to see the results of what they are working on, so this is very attractive to scientists. It appeals to their humanity. I myself have been amazed at how many people-from all over the world-have come aboard." See the RGI team here. Dr. Lin says all the RGI scientists are unpaid volunteers. The organization itself runs on less than $10,000 a year, he says, but produces nearly $1 million a year worth of research because so much of the work is pro bono. See news stories on RGI's work and the children helped here.

The cost of DNA sequencing has dropped dramatically, but is still beyond the means of most families. Dr. Lin spoke with his friend David Lam, who worked at Razoo, one of the largest social networking sites for philanthropy, and they came up with ideas to help patients crowdsource funding for their own genetic research. Volunteers at a consortium of 18 universities analyze RGI patients' DNA looking for abnormalities that potentially cause their disorders. As reported by TED, Dr. Lin tells the story of Maya, a 4-year-old with severe developmental delays. Within six hours of a posting on the RGI site, people from all over the country had contributed small amounts adding up to $3,500, the cost of sequencing Maya's genome and those of her parents. Researchers at Yale then discovered a previously unknown mutation in a gene active in fetal development, and it may be the first crowd-sourced genetic discovery. "People are still working on a treatment for Maya," he told Plexus. "There are only a handful of cases where there would be an immediate cure, and those are amazing. The normal process of discovery is to understand a gene, understand what it does, then figure out if there is a drug that can treat the problem it causes." That can take lifetimes, he adds, but discoveries about genes begins the processes that can lead to treatments.

"We see ourselves as jetpacks for parents," he said. "We make it a little easier for them to connect with the right doctors, to leverage resources." Crowdsourcing funds fosters the democratization of science, in his view, and RGI provides a platform where patient communities can fund research for any disease. Rare diseases are a long tail problem, Dr. Lin says, and that means a bottom up approach with patients and scientists making discoveries is the most workable.

Dr. Lin points out many diseases, such a muscular dystrophy have been identified as genetic, yet not all who have those diseases have the genes known to cause them. More needs to be learned about genes. "We're starting to see more and more that there's not a one to one match of disease to gene," he says. "Often you're dealing with a group of diseases, or many gene mutations. A disease can have a specific label, but many different causes-it may present as one disease but really be a different disease. We can help with that if we can see potentially there is another underlying cause."

Read a Salon story, and a story in Forbes. Other news coverage appears in Bloomberg Businessweek and TIME. Join a PlexusCall from 1-2 PM ET February 28 with Dr. Lin and Trish Silber, president of Aliniad Consulting Partners.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  healthcare  research 

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What Scientific Ideas Should be Scrapped? Brilliant Thinkers Have Some Suggestions

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 23, 2014

Nicholas Christakis suggests we need to get over our obsession with statistical averages.

Christakis is a physician and social scientist who coauthored the book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. He says we've persuaded ourselves that mathematical averages are the most important way to compare things-countries, professions, actions and groups of people. Instead, he says, we need to compare variances, which capture the range or spread of whatever value we're trying to measure.

For instance, he writes, the U.S. and Sweden may have nearly the same average income, but the variance in income-income inequality--is far greater in the U.S. So the variance may have more to do with life in either country than the average. He says a more equal distribution of income might improve the health of the group, and even of individuals within the group, so we might wish for more equality at the expense of wealth. But in some cases, he goes on, inequality might be better. Gathering a crew of 10 sailors, would it be better if they were all equally myopic, or if one had perfect vision and the remaining nine varied in their degree of visual impairment? He says you'd probably choose more inequality in exchange for one with reliable vision.

Christakis is one of the scholars, scientists, thinkers, artist and authors who responded to this year's Edge.org question: What scientific idea is ready for retirement? Cultural impresario John Brockman, who founded Edge, an online salon for provocative ideas and intellectual debate, has been posing an intriguing open-ended annual question since 1998. Last year's question was "What should we be worried about?" Earlier queries have included such challenges as "what would change everything?" and "what do you believe that you can't prove?" The Guardian calls Edge a forum for the world's most brilliant minds, and the 174 essays submitted so far for this year's query offer a dazzling cognitive buffet.

We make social tradeoffs, Christakis says, and examining variance will help us probe such questions as whether we want a richer, less equal society, whether we want educational programs to increase equality of test scores, or average performance, and even whether cancer patients might prefer a drug that extends lives for some but kills others. Other thinkers have proposed that we jettison current notions of infinity, information overload, big data, cause and effect, free will, and truth.

Eldar Shafir, author and psychology professor at Princeton, would scrap the idea that opposites can't both be right. He says sadness and happiness, stupidity and wisdom and goodness and evil can all co-exist, and context matters. He cites a study in which seminary students, immersed in Biblical and ethical learning, were asked to deliver lecture on the parable of the Good Samaritan. Half were told they were comfortably ahead of schedule, and half were told they were late. On their way to the talk, all encountered a presumably injured man slumped in a doorway groaning. Most of those who thought they had time stopped to help. Among those who thought they were late, only 10 percent tried to help, and the rest stepped over the victim and rushed along.

Nicolas G. Carr, author of The Shallows and The Big Switch, thinks we should ditch "anti-anecdotalism" and recognize that life is made up of those little stories. Science that scorns them risks veering away from the actual experience of life, he asserts, adding "The empirical, if it's to provide anything like a full picture, needs to make room for both the statistical and the anecdotal." To W. Daniel Hillis, a computer scientist with the technology company Applied Minds, the concept of cause and effect is just an artifact of our brains' proclivity for storytelling. He'd let that go. Gary Klein, a psychologist with MacroCognition, thinks the idea of evidence-based medicine impedes progress because it discourages exploration of treatments not tested in randomized controlled trials. He notes patients suffer from far more conditions than can be controlled for. Dean Ornish, founder and president of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute, thinks we could sideline large randomized controlled trials. Size doesn't always matter, he says, and a randomized controlled trial "may introduce it own biases." He calls for more creative experimental designs. Click here to view all the essays.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  research  science 

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Soft Traits that Drive Corporate Culture

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 16, 2014

How can business ventures grow and retain the commitment, passion and agility they had when they started? Distilling patterns from interviews with more than 200 CEOs, business writer Adam Bryant identifies six elements he believes every organization needs to foster a culture that encourages innovation and drives results.

In his New York Times article "Management be Nimble" he describes what he calls the main drivers of corporate culture-the things that will have outsize positive or negative impact, depending on whether they are done well or badly. Many business scholars and theoreticians support his views.

To start, leaders need to boil down an organization's priorities into a simple plan that also identifies clear goals and metrics. At the insurance company FM Global, he writes by way of example, the operating framework is profitability, retaining existing clients, and attracting new ones. Of course, not all simplification is that easy. The University of Oregon Holden Leadership Center website offers some goal definition steps that can help aid direction and avoid chaos.

Rules of the road, Bryant writes, involve behavioral guidelines, development of accepted values and a commitment to live by them. When people see a disconnect between stated values and real action, Bryant suggests, the cancer of cynicism can metastasize.

Writers from Goethe to Emerson to Tupac Shakur have weighed on in the concept of respect, and much has been written about office bullying and other unproductive work behavior. Bryant quotes Robin Domeniconi, chief marketing officer at Rue La La, a flash sale site, who uses the expression "M.R.I" to describe her firm's cultural guide. That means "most respectful interpretation" of what a person is saying. David K. Williams, author of The 7 Non-Negotiables of Winning: Tying Soft Traits to Hard Results, writes in Forbes about respect as one of his non-negotiables.

Bryant also writes about the importance of teams, the ability to have difficult conversations and the hazards of email. Despite speed and convenience, email can be a dangerous trap. In "How to Avoid Virtual Miscommunication" a post on his Harvard Business Review blog, Keith Ferrazzi writes that we often convey less information than we think, less clearly than we think, and we make more assumptions than we realize about the recipients of our messages. Ferrazzi inveighs against sloppy presentation and cryptic meaning, and urges we remember that the medium is the message: that we think about whether a text, IM, video, or email is suitable for the content we are sending.

Bryant is the author of Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation. He also writes The Corner Office, a regular New York Times business feature. Read his New York Times essay here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  leadership  organizations 

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Bird Brains and Ram Horns: Clues on Concussions

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 09, 2014

Woodpeckers bang their heads into the hard wood of trees thousands of times a day, and yet there is no evidence they get concussions. Long horn rams bash their heads together in frequent rituals that involve collisions at speeds of 20 to 40 miles an hour, and they don't seem to suffer brain damage either. Do these animals offer clues about protecting the brains of athletes?


The incidence of concussions among high school athletes has grown, and concern about safety has been fueled by continuing revelations from retired professional football players who suffered repeated head injuries before onset of the degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates as many as 3.8 million people a year suffer from sports related traumatic brain injuries.

Materials scientist Ainissa G. Ramirez, PhD, coauthor of Newton's Football: The Science Behind America's Game, quotes materials scientist and MIT Professor Lorna Gibson in a Huffington Post piece about woodpecker brains. Gibson, who has studied woodpeckers, explains, "It's a scaling phenomenon." A woodpecker brain is only about two grams-the mass of two paperclips, compared with a human brain, which averages about 1,400 grams. The lighter the brain, the better it will survive impact, Ramirez writes. She adds by way of explanation that if you drop a cell phone on the floor it will probably not be damaged, but a lap top dropped from the same height may need serious repair. Further, woodpecker brains are oriented at a 90 degree angle so that head-on force is widely distributed, and they fit snugly inside the skull with little room to slosh around.

LiveScience writer Stephanie Pappas gives even more detail. Researchers have found woodpeckers have thick neck muscles that diffuse blows, and a third inner eyelid that prevents the birds' eyes from popping out during repetitious hammering. The thick spongy bone surrounding the woodpecker brain has tiny projections that form a mineral mesh, Pappas writes, suggesting a microstructure that may act as armor for the brain. And she reports Chinese researchers have found the woodpecker's beak may have a microstructure designed to absorb impact rather than transferring it toward the brain.


Rams are big animals with big brains. What makes their head butting benign? Ramirez got some clues from Dr. Andrew Farke, a paleontologist who has studied dinosaurs. Ram's horn is porous bone covered with keratin, an elastic protein material that allows horns to give a little under impact. In addition to distributing the impact of the force, the flexible horn also lengthens the duration of the impact, which lessens the force. Writing in The New York Times, Gregory D. Meyer, PhD, director of Sports Medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, says big horn sheep also have mechanisms that slow the return of blood from the head to the body, increasing the blood volume that fills their brains' vascular tree. In effect, both woodpeckers and rams have brains protected by the physiological equivalent of Bubble Wrap.

Our brains don't fill our skulls, we risk concussions when our brains smack up against our skulls during sudden stops, starts and the collisions of contact sports. Meyers writes that football helmets have reduced fractured skulls, but haven't prevented concussions, because they don't protect what happens inside the skull. Ramirez suggests more research on how materials absorb force could make helmets better. Temperature studies also suggest new possibilities.

Meyers and colleagues at the Colorado School of Public Health found that high school football players who played at higher altitudes had 30 percent fewer concussions. The researchers studied records of athletes in multiple sports from 497 high schools where altitude ranged from seven feet to 6,903 feet, and found all athletes who played at altitudes over 600 feet had 31 percent fewer concussions. "We hypothesize that higher altitude increased the volume of the cerebral venous system, a natural Bubble Wrap that surrounds the brain," and gives it a tighter fit inside the skull, Meyers wrote in The Times. While athletes can't play every game in Denver, he wrote, improved brain safety may come from more research on the biomechanics animals already have in use.

Photo credits: Sid Hamm and National Wildlife Federation

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature  neuroscience  research  resilience 

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Empathy, Ingenuity, Innovation

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 02, 2014

Kevin Plank, founder of the performance apparel maker Under Armour has a new product-a running shoe that fits like a brassiere and he plans to launch it in Shanghai, an emerging market where few have heard of his products. He predicts the new footwear will change the way people all over the world think about shoes.

Initially, Under Armour was a guy product. Plank hated the cotton T shirt he wore under his University of Maryland football uniform. It felt awful when soaked with sweat. He began experimenting in his grandmother's basement to make an undershirt with the same fabrics used for women's lingerie-fabrics that wicked moisture away from the body and kept the wearer cool and dry. The Hub magazine tells the story of Under Armour's dramatic growth from that basement more than 16 years ago to a $2 million a year company with 6,000 employees. And as brand chief Steve Battista explains, at Under Armour, innovation isn't a department, it's a life style. Among other things, the company has produced a sweatshirt that sheds water like a duck, and a shirt that monitors heart rate. Even the company name reflects diligent contrivance: the 800 phone numbers Plank first used had too many digits to spell out Under Armor so he added a "u." Always the entrepreneur, seed money for Under Armour came from Plank’s earlier venture selling Valentine's Day roses.

The Hub story says early advertising avoided mentioning feminine fabrics and began with what it calls "the testosterone-drenched question 'Will You Protect This House' and the emphatic, now-iconic response 'I Will!'"

Protecting the house resonated well with sports teams defending their home turf, but wasn't necessarily a universal rallying cry. In Shanghai, Plank and his team focused on the "I Will!" While people in Shanghai tend to work out regularly they don't consider themselves athletes, they reasoned, so the "I Will" slogan provides inspiration for men and women who aren't necessarily playing on sports teams any more, and it suggests a commitment to achieve no matter the challenge.

The company's pitch to athletes involved nuance. Rather than showing trophies after a win, ads featured the click of the football cleats on the concrete walkway onto the field, the last thing players heard just before the game. The pitch to a broader audience was equally engaging. The Hub reports that in 2013 when the company launched its Armour 39, a digital performance monitor, advertising focused on the idea that future performance wear will feature touch screens in the fabric that will let the wearer set temperature, choose music and change color with a finger-swipe. A woman called "Future Girl" demonstrates. The idea, according to Plank and Battista, is to tell the story of Under Armor's inventiveness and fuel the expectation "that we're doing some amazing stuff" in conjunction with an emotional message that will make people want to get up and work out.

In "Empathetic Innovation," another article in the same issue of The Hub, Tom Kelley and David Kelley, both of Ideo, describe how products and projects change when providers and manufacturers see and experience what users and customers are doing. For instance, they say, in 2007 banks were making more than $30 million a year in overdraft fees. But after interviewing people in the 20 to 35 age range they wanted as new customers, PNC Financial Services realized people in this group needed help managing their money. So they created Virtual Wallet, a product that lets customers plan savings as well as viewing their balance, pay deposits, bills due and highlights "danger days" when there's high risk of writing a rubber check. New customer deposits made up what they lost in overdraft fees. Sometimes observing can be more fruitful than asking the right questions, the Ideo executives say. Working with a house wares company, an Ideo team observed customers using an ice cream scoop. Many absent mindedly licked the scoop after using it. So the team designed a "mouth friendly" scoop, with no sharp edges or moveable parts that would hurt the tongue. Had people been asked about using the scoop, they probably wouldn’t have mentioned licking it, the authors of this piece say, and they might even have denied it. Read The Hub stories here.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  innovation 

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