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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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Predators and Protectors in Spicy Collaboration

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, August 24, 2015

A Dangerous Dance that Works for All

Before your pungent oregano reaches your spice rack, the plant may have played a role in an inter-species drama of life, death, treachery and transformation that scientists have only recently begun to unravel.

The Large Blue, an endangered butterfly once widespread in Europe, lays its eggs on the wild oregano plant. The caterpillar feeds on the plant’s dainty flowers for about two weeks. Then it drops to the ground, where it tricks a red ant known as Myrmica into taking it into the Myrmica’s underground nest. There it spends the next 10 months cannibalizing its faux siblings in the ant colony until it swells to 50 times its original weight, turns into a pupa and emerges as a Large Blue butterfly.

A New York Time story by Nicholas Wade describes this bizarre inter-species interaction.  How does the caterpillar deceive the ant into thinking it’s one of the ant’s own lost grubs? Its first tactic is timing, Wade explains.  It falls from the oregano plant at night, just when the Myrmica comes out of its nest to forage.  It adopts the physical posture of the Myrmica grub and even exudes a scent that mimics the grub, so the deceived ant takes it home.  Once inside, the imposter mimics the little sounds made by the ants’ queen, positioning itself to start feasting on ant larvae. Wade writes that ants eat their own larvae in hard times, so the adoptee’s behavior may not seem unduly odd.

Scientists have known about the association between the Large Blue and the Myrmica for a century, but researchers have only recently figured out how the Large Blue knows to lay its eggs in proximity of the underground nests of the only ant specie that will adopt its caterpillars. Dario Patricelli and Emelio Balletto at the University of Turin in Italy and Jeremy Thomas at the University of Oxford have developed evidence that the oregano plant brings the butterfly and ant together chemically.  In Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researches explain that oregano exudes insecticide fumes to keep ants and other pests away. The Myrmica evolved to detoxify the oregano’s insecticide, called carvacrol,  which allows it to flourish without other competitors. As the underground ants nip at the oreganos roots, the irritated plant doubles its carvacrol output, which signals the butterfly about the presence of its flowers and the location the Myrmica ants.

Despite its deadly ramifications, the system works well for ant, plant and butterfly, the researchers say. The oregano sacrifices some of its flowers, but benefits because the caterpillar will wipe out many of the ants that disturb its roots.  The Myrmica ant loses some of its colonies, but the oregano’s emissions provide it safe space free of rival ants. The Large Blue gets a safe underground nursery for its offspring.

When Large Blue and other butterflies were nearing extinction in England, Jeremy Thomas, the Oxford ecologist, discovered one reason: changing land use was destroying the Myrmica ant habitat.  These particular ants are sensitive to temperature, he found, and need warm soil just below the surface for their colonies. When farmers stopped grazing their animals on hillsides with poor soil, longer grass made the soil cooler. Thomas figured short turf in the butterfly’s habitat would aid its survival, but he found human habits hard to change.  “To persuade people to change the management of nature’s reserves, and then see the results, took many years,” Thomas told the Times. “By the time I had got people to turn things around, the butterfly was gone.”  Undeterred, Thomas introduced a nearly identical variety of Large Blue from Sweden, and now the Large Blue flourishes in 30 sites in Britain.  Read the Times story here and the Proceedings article here.

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How Successful Entrepreneurs Think: Constantly, Curiously

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Bringing Creative and Operational Talents Together 

How do self-make billionaires differ from the rest of us? It’s more than money. Successful entrepreneurs  look at the world differently. They envision how ideas can become great businesses, they think and act in ways that generate creativity and effective leadership, and they have patience. They also tend to team with others with the skills to manage, organize and optimize human endeavor.

Researchers looked at the 2012 Forbes list of the world’s billionaires, and identified those who had made their own fortunes rather than inheriting them.  They selected 120 they thought mirrored the geography and industries represented in the larger sample, and set about learning everything they could about them. John Sviolka, who heads Global Thought Leadership at PricewatehouseCoopers LLP and Mitch Cohen, vice chairman at PwC, describe their research in stories in Business + Strategy. They expected to find many like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, who had deep understanding of technology and markets in a fast moving sector of the economy, but they didn’t. They were surprised to find many were serial entrepreneurs, who made fortunes on second, third and even fourth businesses in an established market.

They found five habits of mind common to all the successful entrepreneurs they researched.

Empathetic imagination, they write, combines knowledge of a field, awareness of critical trends, and underexploited customer need, and creative empathy with the customer. As one example, they cite Judith Faulkner, who as a grad student in computer science founded Epic Systems, one of the world’s leading vendors of electronic heath record systems. She knew patients needed continuity in treatment and doctors needed efficiency, the authors say, and her empathy for both enabled her to design for both needs. Another entrepreneur with empathetic imagination, they say, is Lynda Resnick, who with her husband Stewart, developed a way to juice and market pomegranates just when people were looking for foods with antioxidant power. Her POMWonderful reached $165 million in annual sales five years after it was launched.   

A trait the authors call “patient urgency” enables entrepreneurs to recognize that good ideas may take time, and that they can be building toward their goal while waiting for the right time in the marketplace.  In a podcast posted on the Strategy + Business site, they talk about how the real estate developer Stephen  Ross envisioned a redeveloped Columbus Circle in New York well before it became upscale.

Inventive execution, the authors say, is the ability to bring creative and operational departments together. Doing this means applying design principles to all facets of a business, not just the publicly visible. For instance, Tim Brown in a Harvard Business Review article, explains how Thomas Edison realized success of his newly invented light bulb needed power generation and transmission systems, so he designed and created those too.  

Sviolka and Cohen say entrepreneurs take a balanced view of risk. They look at the benefits of taking or not taking a chance along with consequences of missed opportunities. The authors describe how Cheung Yan  came to the U.S.  from China and started a company that within 10 years became the leading exporter of paper. She bet her life’s savings, but she also realized the U.S. had better resources, including reams of recycled office paper, and less official corruption.  

Most of the highly successful entrepreneurs, they found, teamed with others who knew how to optimize advantages. They describe people who have the creative vision as producers, and those who know how to execute as performers. In their article on Two Types of High Potential Talent, they emphasize successful organizations need both. They say most success doesn’t come from solitary genius. In their podcast, they vice the opinion that solo albums by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were awful, but “together they magic.”

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In Memory of John Holland: Complexity Science Pioneer

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Grand Intellectual Legacy from a Complexity Science Pioneer

 John Holland Explored “Ideas at the Interface of Disciplines” 

John Holland, pioneering scholar of complexity science and a professor who taught computer science, engineering and psychology, died August 9, 2015, at the age of 86. He devoted decades of scholarship to the examination of complex adaptive systems and formulated what became known as genetic algorithms. He was a long-time science advisor to Plexus Institute.

Dr. Holland was a professor at the University of Michigan, where he founded and led the Center for the Study of Complex Systems.  He was also a professor and member of the executive committee of the board of trustees at the Santa Fe Institute. His honors included a MacArthur "genius" fellowship in 1992.

His books included Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems (1975), Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity (1995), Emergence: From Chaos to Order (1998), Signals and Boundaries: Building Blocks for Complex Adaptive Systems (2012), and Complexity: A Very Short Introduction (2014).

His groundbreaking 1975 book has been cited more than 50,000 times and has been published in several languages. Intended to be the foundation for a general theory of adaptation, this book introduced genetic algorithms as a mathematical idealization that Dr. Holland used to develop his theory of schemata in adaptive systems. Later, genetic algorithms became widely used as an optimization and search method in computer science. Most optimization textbooks now include a chapter on such evolutionary algorithms, and his insights led to the field of evolutionary computation.

A tribute from the National Center for Science Education says Holland's work was inspired by the work of the evolutionary biologist R. A. Fisher. According to Kevin Kelly's Out of Control (2009), he regarded Fisher's The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930) as opening "a new world of human knowledge by subjugating nature's most potent force — evolution — with humankind's most potent tool — mathematics," and accordingly "began the job of trying to code evolution into a machine." The interaction between evolution and computation in Dr. Holland's work was bidirectional.

In the Santa Fe institute's memorial notice, David Krakauer, the president of the institute, commented that Holland was "unique in that he took ideas from evolutionary biology in order to transform search and optimization in computer science, and then he took what he discovered in computer science and allowed us to rethink evolutionary dynamics. This kid of rigorous communication between two communities of thought is a characteristic of very deep minds. And John’s ideas at the interface of disciplines continues to have a lasting impact on the culture and research at SFI.”

 In a 2007 Q&A session with NOVA, Dr. Holland noted that complex behavior emerges naturally from genetic algorithms that model evolution, adding, "Such concrete illustrations of emergence give little comfort to those advocating intelligent design." 

Holland was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on February 2, 1929. He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received his B.S. in physics in 1950, and the University of Michigan, where he received his M.A. in mathematics in 1954 and his Ph.D. in communication sciences in 1959. At the University of Michigan, he was a professor of computer science and engineering from 1967 onward and a professor of psychology from 1988 onward.

In 1994, Holland gave the first SFI Stanislaw Ulam Community Lectures in Santa Fe, an annual series that continues to this day. (Read about Holland's Ulam lectures in theWinter 1994 issue of theSFI Bulletin.)

"For those of us who knew him personally, John's enthusiasm for ideas was contagious,"says SFI External Professor Stephanie Forrest, one of his PhD students at Michigan in the 1980s. "He leaves us not only with a grand intellectual legacy, but with memories of the pure joy he brought to his research, cheerful disregard of academic dogma, and a great sense of fun and mischievousness."





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Cultural Adaptation: Baseball in Japan and America

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Sport that Combines Stardom and Teamwork

Americans were shocked when a Japanese team won the 1984 Olympic Gold Medal for Baseball. Sports  historians say the victory highlighted not only rapidly increasing skill in an imported game but some similarities in distinctively different Japanese and American societies that made baseball a harmonious fit for both.

John Thorn is an author, cultural commentator and the official historian of Major League Baseball. In a recent blog Thorn reflected on a new book about Masanori Murakami, a pitcher who signed with the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and was the first Japanese player in Major League Baseball. Thinking about  achievements of Murakami and others who followed led Thorn to recall an essay by Merritt Clifton, What Baseball Means to Japan and Humanity—Where the Twain Shall Meet.” Thorn says the essay is as insightful today as it was when it was written 30 years ago.

Clifton believed baseball fills a cultural role in Japan and America that other sports don’t. In distinguishing baseball’s essential difference from other sports, Clifton cited a 1977 doctoral thesis by a University of California sociologist Ken Hogarty, who maintained that the primary conflict in baseball represents both the tension between the individual and society and the harmony of teamwork. Immigrants to America came to prefer baseball to the European-style sports they’d known at home, cricket, rugby and rounders, which took less space and equipment, Clifton suggested, because many immigrants arrived in America after rebelling against some oppressive authority elsewhere.  

In football, basketball, hockey, soccer, tennis and even chess, Clifton wrote, the model is war and the object is for competing sides to capture territory or treasure. Individualism is subordinate to the group. Clifton theorized that those sports survive because we “retain our tribal instincts, expressed as nationalism and political partisanship.”

On defense, baseball teammates need cooperation. But each player has to emerge briefly from his team and perform as an individual. The batter has only his own skill and speed to hit the ball and get on base. Americans already viewed individualism as separate from mere selfishness, Clifton observed. So the game’s balance of social and individual responsibility must have appealed to young men who wanted to make the most of their own abilities and belong in a new society.

Professional baseball took root in Japan in the 1930s, when other foreign imports were viewed with suspicion amid the tensions that would culminate in World War II, Clifton wrote.  Japanese baseball promoters fostered a nationalistic attitude toward the game, which continued after the war as the sport grew.  Clifton thought the prominent focus on the man at bat encouraged the game’s Japanese popularity because it let team players shine while making an individual contribution. In addition, he wrote it added to a growing idea of mobility that in Japan and America accompanied increasing industrialization. A player could achieve status based on his own skill.

The diffusion scholar Everett Rogers wrote that one condition for innovations to take hold is compatibility with existing values and beliefs. Another is the capacity for reinvention -- for adaptations that suit local circumstances. Americans and Japanese value teamwork and individual skill. And several writers have observed the game has evolved with differences specific to each country. Clifton cites an American historical tendency for rough play, and a Japanese pride in courtesy, which would suggest an apology if a pitcher hit a batter. A USA Today story recounts some observations American and Japanese players in both countries. An American pitcher on a Japanese team, for instance, warns American newcomers to respect extremely rigorous practice drills and not to assume larger stature conveys any superiority. Read Thorn’s piece here and Clifton’s essay here.

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Cancer and the Cells that Cheat

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Rogue Cells Cooperate Only to Help Themselves 

Among the microbes that cooperated to divide responsibilities, share resources and eventually evolve into the multi-cellular creatures that include humans, there have always been cheaters. And those cellular scoff-laws, many scientists say, may help explain the ancient origins of cancer.

In a New York Times science article, George Johnson explains that cooperating communities within multi-cellular organisms are held together “by a delicate web of biological compromises,” in which each cell surrenders some of its autonomy and contributes to the prosperity of the whole. He says cheaters are individual cells that break loose from the constraints of community, multiply selfishly, hog resources and expand their turf.  Johnson cites research suggesting cancer is an inevitable consequence of multi-cellularity. In “Cancer Across the Tree of Life, Cooperating and Cheating in Multicellularity,” in Philosophical Transactions B, researchers at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin report finding cancer and cancer-like conditions in nearly all multi-cellular organisms--fungi, plants, insects, birds, reptiles, fish and corals, as well as in mammals.

The Institute researchers say cancer is a breakdown of cellular cooperation. While healthy cells reproduce only enough for maintenance or modest growth, rogue cells proliferate wildly, consuming too much nutrition and space and can poison their environments. While healthy cells differentiate, taking on specialized functions, such as being cells for skin, bones or nerves, rogue cells abandon specialized roles and behave in ways that only benefit themselves and not the whole organism. The Institute researches say “deregulation of differentiation is a fundamental and universal aspect of carcinogenesis.” Further, while aberrant cells are usually eliminated by apoptosis, or cellular suicide, the rogue cancer causing cells don’t die until their host does.  

Of course, cooperating microbes are capable of extraordinary collective feats, not all of which are good for humans. A Quanta magazine article by Emily Singer notes, for instance, microbes can cooperate to secrete polymers that enable them to form microfilms that utterly thwart antibiotics. Singer cites research showing that some cooperating cellular communities thrive under specific conditions, such as expanding frontiers. Some researchers, she reports, have begun cautious examinations of whether principles that seem to support cellular cooperation may also apply to human populations.

Cooperation and competition can also change and fluctuate. Johnson writes that once cancer cells gain the upper hand, they too can begin cooperating, to the benefit of a tumor and the peril of the host. They can divide and mutate into new differentiated communities with deadly chemical capacities that feed tumors and colonize in remote parts of the body.

“Through a complex chemical dance, cancer cells can even beguile healthy cells into doing their bidding, acting in ways that promote malignancy,” Johnson writes. “It’s a strategy all too familiar in life: cooperate just enough to gain your competitors’ trust them betray them for your own advantage.  In the end, there are no winners. The cancer destroys its own ecosystem and dies with its host.”   


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If You Love the Beat It’s Probably Fractal

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 30, 2015

Fractal Drumming and Pink Noise

Fractals, the extraordinary self-similar patterns in nature and math that repeat at every scale, have been discovered in leaves, trees, clouds, coastlines, seashells, hurricanes, and the swirling gasses in outer space. They’ve also been found in art and music, and recently in rhythms of a musical mind.  


 Physicist Holger Henning and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self Organization in  Gottingen, Gemany, and colleagues decided to analyze the technique of drummer Jeff Porcaro, in the 1980s Michael McDonald song “I Keep Forgettin’.”  For more than a decade Porcaro, who died of a heart attack in 1992,   drummed for the band Toto, and as a session musician he kept time for musical icons including Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Michael Jackson, and Madonna. Porcaro’s technique was chosen for study because one of the researchers, Esa Räsänen of the Tampere University of Technology in Finland, is himself a drummer and admires Porcaro’s work. The scientists’ analysis of the fluctuations and dynamics of drumming in the song is published in PLOS One.  


The research is also described in a Nova Next story by Anna Lieb. The signature rhythm, she writes, comes from Porcaro’s work on a pedal operated cymbal known as a hi-hat. The scientists measured the spacing between the hits and the volume of each hit and found a fractal sound pattern sometimes called “pink noise.” Lieb explains the name comes from the color of the visible light that comes from the frequency spectrum of the sound.

While the listener hears flawlessly steady drumming, Hennig knew that the fractal-like deviations he’d observed in previous studies were imperceptible to the human ear.  Porcaro hit four hi-hats per beat and nearly 1,000 hi-hats by the end of the song. Hennig and his team statistically analyzed the onset times, interbeat intervals, and amplitudes of Porcaro’s sixteenth notes. Both the intervals between sixteenth notes and their volumes wavered throughout the piece, and those variations were similar on time scales, ranging from a few seconds to the length of the entire song, forming a fractal pattern.  “It seems that the timekeeper in the brain not only produces fractal timing,” Hennig said, “but likely also fractal intensity or, in this case, loudness.”

The scientists noted the volume and spacing were independent of each there, suggesting Porcaro was controlling each separately.

Hennig plans to continue studying rhythmic patterns found in recorded music and produced by multiple players. Previous research by Hennig and others has shown humans prefer music that exhibit the fractal nature of time and volume patterns produced by individual musicians over computer generated music with the dogged precision of a metronome.  Hennig’s new research may help him hone a computer algorithm he developed to introduce “humanizing” imperfections into computer-generated music.   His software is already being used by electronic musician James Holden and other recording artists.


Hennig doesn’t think his work demystifies art He thinks the study shows how beautiful and mysterious the human brain can be. “I would say that we are totally unpredictable and somewhat predictable at the same time,” he said. “But on top of that, we expect that there’s some Jeff Porcaro magic in there.”


Fractals have been identified in many types of music. Compose and music researcher Dmitri Kormann,  or instance, has analyzed fractal patterns in musical pieces that inlude Igor Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring” and John Cage’s percussion sextet “First Construction.”


Read the PLOS One paper here and the Nova Next story here.

With thanks to Tuyen Tran.

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What Color Is Your Organization?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Future May Be Teal

An evolutionary process that began more than 100,000 years ago has brought us to a threshold from which a new form of organization is emerging, a business theorist and author believes. Frederick Laloux  thinks civilization is outgrowing the common organizational model focused on bottom lines and short-term goals and preparing for “more soulful workplaces” where talents are nurtured and aspirations honored.

Laloux, who describes his thinking in a Strategy + Business story, is the author of Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness.” New York Times business writer Tony Schwartz called it “the most important and inspiring book I’ve ever read.”  Laloux, a business consultant from Belgium, had spent 10 years as a management consultant for McKinsey& Co., and four years on his own when he became sadly disillusioned with big business organizations.  He began researching organizations he thought had characteristics that made them “places of passion and purpose,” not drudgery and dread. He found a dozen that he considered soulful, successful and emphasized the “wholesness” of the human organizational effort. Seven were in the U.S., five we in Europe. Three were nonprofits, nine were for- profit.     

In his Business + Strategy article, he explains a basic concept of organization evolution is that “human societies, like individuals, don’t grow in linear fashion, but in stages of increasing maturity, consciousness and complexity.” He says borrows a descriptive system developed by the philosopher Ken Wilbur, using sequences from the light spectrum, from infrared to ultraviolet, to assign colors to the different stages.

When humanity shifted from small tribes to chiefdoms and proto-empires, he writes, the first real organizations were small conquering armies. They tended to be crude violent groups who focused on authority and power. Wilber labeled them Red. Today’s gangs, terrorists and organized criminals often operate along these lines. Hierarchical organizations, which developed  with formal roles and a static organization chart—such as the Catholic Church—were labeled Amber. Laloux says Amber organizations were a breakthrough in their time: They reduced violence and produced irrigation systems, cathedrals, the Great Wall of China and other remarkable physical and social structures. Laloux says this model is still visible today in the military and many government and educational institutions.

Laloux says the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the early Industrial Revolution led to the Orange organization, where effectiveness was the basis for decision making and the goal was to get ahead and to “play bet with the cards one is dealt.” Innovations of that stage were meritocracy and accountability, and the idea of the organization as a machine.  Laloux says most large, mainstream companies today operate with Orange management practices. Laloux says Green companies are the next evolutionary stage. They emphasize cooperation over competition, and invest in values, coaching, mentoring, and empowerment of employees Southwest Airlines and Starbucks are examples, according to Laloux.  He says the next stage is Teal, and Teal organizations emphasize the whole human person, including aspirations and capacities of employees, and focus on self management of people within their own domains. He says their organizational strategies are based on a sense of evolutionary purpose, and what the world needs from them, rather than on budgets and targets. Paradoxically, he says, by focusing less on the bottom line and shareholder value, they generally do better financially than conventional competitors.

One example is Buurtzord, a Dutch nursing care provider with 9,000 employees, Laloux writes. Nurses work in teams of 10 to 12. Their goal is to help the sick and elderly patients they visit lead rich autonomous lives. The nurses decide which patients to serve, where to locate offices, which hospitals, doctors and pharmacies they will work with, and they monitor their own performance. Management tasks are spread across all team members, and leaders emerge as situations demand, based on expertise, interest and willingness.  Two of the U.S. companies Laloux considers Teal are Patagonia, a $540 million California based manufacturer of climbing wear and outdoor apparel, with a mission of aiding the natural environment, and Morning Star, a tomato processing company with 400 to 2,400 employees depending on the season. Read about Laloux’s research and his full list of Teal companies here.


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Spontaneous Self-Organization in Disasters

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, July 10, 2015
Disaster Victims are the True First Responders

When disaster strikes, volunteers often act with individual bravery and many of the people spontaneously assembled self-organize into emergent groups that meet specific needs.

 After an earthquake struck Mexico City in 1985  an ad hoc citizen group developed system for transporting food and other necessities to stricken areas. In addition, most of the 500 people pulled from rubble were rescued by volunteers. In a Tansgshan earthquake in 1976, more than 200,000 people trapped in rubble managed to crawl out on their own and go on to rescue others.  During recovery from  tornados in central Florida in 1998 a group of volunteer agencies combined efforts to create a disaster relief center and arrange bus transportation so victim of the damage to get to it. These are among the disaster responses described in a Journal of Emergency Management article by Lauren Fernandez and colleagues.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, telecommunication workers and companies quickly joined in creating a system and process to identify the location of the mobile phones of missing persons to aid in search and rescue efforts in the rubble of the World Trade Centers. More organizations throughout the country joined the newly created Wireless Emergency Response Team, and WERT aided in t he 2005 rescue operations in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Duke University behavioral economics professor Daniel Ariely has observed that people tend to feel altruistic immediately after crises, because the chaotic conditions of disaster emphasize how interdependent people are. Further, he suggests, helpful behavior tends to be contagious—people see those around them helping each other and that becomes the norm.

Fernandez and colleagues stress that survival in disasters relies on volunteers and local people in the stricken community as well as professionally trained first responders. Disaster scholar Kathleen Tierney is a sociology professor and director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. She has studied individual and societal responses to a range of calamities including hurricanes, floods,  tornados, earthquakes, fires, terrorist attacks and technological disruptions. Tierney has suggested that since 9/11 official governmental emergency response efforts have overemphasized military and law enforcement strategies and undervalued the role of spontaneous volunteers. She also examined the impact of race, education and economic status on surviving and withstanding hazards of disaster. Tierney says research has consistently shown community residents are the real first responders. She recommends grass root and community-based organizations be involved in planning for extreme events.   

Such extreme weather events as tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts and tornadoes, and disasters such as earthquakes, wildfires, terror attacks and contagious disease outbreaks regularly occupy headlines. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will heighten temperatures over most and masses and other changes in ocean movement and temperature that influence weather have been documented. While scientists rarely relate a particular weather event to climate change, experts say overall trends raise the risk of more intense storms, higher wind speeds and more drought and flooding. Social scientists cite a growing need to build resilient communities and adaptive responses to preparedness and emergency response.  

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This Simple Solution Has Cultural Resonance

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 02, 2015

A Little Fish Fights a Big Problem

Christopher Charles, a Canadian epidemiologist, saw the disheartening impact of widespread iron deficiency in large segments of a population when he lived in Cambodia in 2008.  Iron deficiency means there aren’t enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body, and that can cause fatigue, lethargy, dizziness and other ills. Iron deficiency in children can impair long-term physical and mental development.

Anemia is a multifaceted global health problem with dietary and non-dietary components, but iron deficiency is major cause.  Dr. Charles’s research on anemia in Cambodia suggested more than half the population suffered from iron deficiency, with even higher rates among women and children. Iron supplements were too costly for large scale use and their side effects would spur resistance.

The Lucky Iron Fish is a small piece of utilitarian art that fits in your hand. It has reduced anemia by half in places where it’s been used, and a Wired magazine story by Margaret Rhodes reports more than 5,000 are in use in Cambodia now with thousands more on the way.  It took several iterations for Dr. Charles and colleagues to come up with this inexpensive, low tech innovation to address a complex health problem.  

Dr. Charles knew a chunk of iron in a pot of cooking food would release 60 to 300 milligrams of iron into heated food or water, enough for about 75 percent of a family’s daily nutritional needs. But the rectangular chunks first distributed to people were ugly. As a Slate story by Kristin Hohenadel notes, people used them for door stops and props for furniture legs.  The next step was to round corners so they wouldn’t scratch cooking pots, but people still found them unappetizing. Then promoters molded iron into the shape of a little lotus flower, a spiritual symbol in Cambodia. But that didn’t catch on for meal prep either.  Dr. Charles, Gavin Armstrong and others who formed the Lucky Iron Fish project, began seeking clues in Cambodian culture that might help adoption. They discovered that the kantrop fish, a staple in the diet, was also considered a symbol of hope and good fortune. The Slate story says Dr. Charles and colleagues distributed a newly designed iron kantrop fish replica to 400 people in five test communities and were delighted to find 90 percent were complying with daily use. Later blood tests have confirmed improved health among users.

Surprisingly, the best source of available iron turned out to be used auto parts, according to Armstrong, who explains that all materials used are carefully screened to prevent any contaminants in the finished iron fish. Watch Armstrong’s video presentation here.  Watch Dr. Charles describing his work here.

The fish won this year’s Cannes Lion Grand Prix award in product design. The Wired story notes that’s an impressive achievement for a lump of molded metal competing in a category filled with such high tech entries as a DNA sequencing food testing kit and a gamified studio cycling bike. Despite a later dustup over whether the entry should have been submitted by the Lucky Iron Fish organization or its marketing partner, there has been no question about the health benefits of the little iron fish.

Dr. Charles told The Atlantic that the genius of the Lucky Iron Fish is that it does not have to be shaped like a fish. “If we were to go to sub-Saharan Africa,” he said, “or a dry area where fish is not an important part of the diet, we could very easily change it to a different symbol of luck.”




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Organizational Succession Should Be a Process, Not an Event

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, June 26, 2015
Updated: Friday, June 26, 2015

It Helps to Have Friends When a Firm Loses a Leader


David Goldberg, the CEO who had built Survey Monkey into a company valued at $2 billion, died of an accidental injury while vacationing in Mexico in May.  He was 47 years old, and the company had no succession plan in place.

A week after Goldberg died, the company announced that Zander Lurie, one of Goldberg’s long time close friends, and an executive of the sports camera company GoPro, would step in as interim executive chairman while a new CEO is being sought both inside and outside the organization.  

A New York Times story by Quentin Hardy describes some of the unusual steps Survey Monkey leadership has taken to navigate the search, keep the company running and pay attention to the morale of its 500 employees. The Times and other publications mentioned the personal popularity and professional respect in Silicon Valley and elsewhere for Goldberg, who was married to Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook.  Goldberg’s friend Donald E. Graham, former owner of the Washington Post, addressed the Survey Monkey staff about managing loss and described the experience of his own mother when she took over the newspaper after her husband’s suicide. The Times reports that 18 other executives including the leaders of LinkedIn, GoPro and Twitter, agreed to be paired with senior employees of Survey Monkey for a few hours of mentoring. Recruitment calls from rivals seeking to poach Survey Monkey talent augmented stress. The company management began regular surveys of its own employees to see how they were coping, and complied with their requests for more communication with more updates about the CEO search, customer growth and product milestones.  

Goldberg had led Survey Monkey since 2009 and was board chair as well as CEO, so both employees and board members faced unexpected transition. Lurie, who was a Survey Monkey board member before the interim appointment, has said he is not a candidate for CEO.

Business theoreticians and scholars emphasize the need for succession planning.  Walter Frisk,  senior associate editor at Harvard Business Review (HBR), writes that while interim CEOs are quite common, firms that appoint an interim CEO as part of their succession process generally don’t do as well as those that appoint a permanent CEO immediately. However, he writes, an interim CEO may help avoid old biases in the CEO search.

In another HBR article Joseph L. Bower writes that the most successful transitions happen when those involved realize that succession is an ongoing process, not an event.  Insiders and outsiders begin with strengths and weaknesses, he observes. Insiders know the company but may be blind to the need for change. Outsiders see need for change, but may not be able to foster it because they don’t know the company.  Bower suggests organizations need to nurture development of what he calls inside-outsiders—internal candidates who have an outside perspective. He also suggests individuals can develop themselves as inside-outsiders by careful review of what their company offers in training, mentorship and experience, examining their own performance, and broadening their knowledge. He thinks community involvement and getting to know people with different backgrounds can aid future leadership skills. Read Bower’s piece here and the Times story here.

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