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Pathogens, Pork, and Drinking Water

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, March 16, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
"Pathogens in Our Pork,” a March 15 op ed piece by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, raises another alarm about the agricultural use of antibiotics to promote the rapid growth of livestock and control disease in the pens where they are crammed together. Animals raised for food get 70 percent of all the antibiotics dispensed in the US, and scientists say that is a major contributor to the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria. Kristof writes specifically about MRSA, methicillin resistant Staphylopcoccus aureus, and a new strain called ST 398, for which modern hog farms seem to be providing a reservoir. Several studies have identified MRSA and other pathogens in the meat we buy.

Controlled Animal Feeding Operations also produce huge quantities of manure, and Kristof notes that antibiotic resistant bacteria from hog farms has been found in ground water. But don’t get to comfortable just because you don’t live near a hog farm. Scientists have been worrying about antibiotic-resistant pathogens in drinking water for decades, and the presence of antibiotics in water has grown. And it's not surprising. An Associated Press investigative team did a five month study of drinking water supplies in 24 major metropolitan areas and found dozens of pharmaceutical products in the water. Just to get an idea, look at the drugs found in the drinking water in Philadelphia.

It’s sobering to think the water we drink has been has been drunk before, by fellow creatures with two legs and four. It has passed through bodily systems and been excreted, carrying with it a vast assortment of antibiotics and other medicines. We’re assured these are all trace elements below the threshold that would harm human health. But more study might be instructive. The International Dose Response Society studies the concept of hormesis, which holds the warning that a little bit of a bad thing may have a bigger and more unpredictable impact than one might expect.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  health  MRSA 

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People, Pigs and MRSA

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, March 14, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
When a family physician in a small town in Indiana started seeing scores of patients with MRSA infections, he began to wonder whether nearby hog farms were incubating and spreading the disease.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, writes about that doctor, Tom Anderson, and the pathogen, in his March 12 Op-Ed page column "Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health.” Dr. Anderson died of a heart attack or aneurism shortly before his scheduled meeting with Kristof. The columnist notes that Dr. Anderson had three bouts with MRSA himself, and that swine-carried MRSA has been linked to human heart inflammation. Dr. Anderson’s widow says her husband had treated more than 50 people with MRSA infections in a town with a population of about 500.

The most commonly known strain of MRSA, or methicilllin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, kills some 18,000 US hospital patients a year, and sickens thousands more, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But there’s another strain, ST 398, that has been identified as the predominant strain among swine in Canada and the Netherlands. Researchers say same strain accounts for 30 percent of staphylococcus found in humans in the Netherlands. Now, for the first time, the same strain ST 398 has been found in pigs and humans in the US. Tara Smith, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Iowa, is the lead author of a study published recently in the online Public Library of Science journal, PloS One. She and colleagues sampled nares of 299 swine and 20 workers in hog "production systems” in Iowa and Illinois. They found 49 percent of the sampled swine and 45 percent of the sampled workers were carriers of MRSA ST 398. They conclude MRSA is common among swine, suggesting agricultural animals could become an important reservoir of the bacterium.

A story about the research by Maryn McKenna in The Scientific American notes both the hospital acquired MRSA and ST 398, which is considered a community strain, are potentially deadly. Ms. McKenna’s story quotes a professor of microbiology and infection control from the Netherlands as saying the unpredictability created by adding a novel strain to the evolving US MRSA epidemic is worrisome. "Strains change. They pick up new virulence, new resistance factors,” says the professor, Andreas Voss, who uncovered the first Netherlands MRSA case in 2004. "I believe it is a potential bombshell that it is here.”

A Dutch study has also found MRSA in several meat products. It is not clear that the presence of the bacteria in meat presents a danger of transmissions to humans. Kristof notes there is no proven case of a human getting MRSA from eating pork. "I still offer my kids BLTs,” Kristof writes in his Times column. "but I’ll scrub my hands carefully after handling raw pork.”

Kristof plans to write more on this. Watch for his column in The New York Times Sunday.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  health  MRSA 

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MRSA in Pigs and Colony Collapse Disorder: Parables of Unsustainability

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, March 13, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Researchers in Canada and Europe have found Methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in pigs and the farmers who care for them, and Michael Pollan suggests that discovery holds an important warning about dangerous modern agricultural practices.

Michael Pollan wrote The Botany of Desire,The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and his newest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. When Pollan writes, it’s worth reading, and his 12-16-07 essay "Our Decrepit Food Factories” in the New York Times, is thoughtful and disturbing. He fears sustainability has become a trendy term that has lost its impact while unrealistic expectations of consumers and the extreme measures of modern industry create destructive practices that foreshadow to systemic breakdowns.

We want cheap meat, Pollan writes, so we raise vast numbers of pigs, chickens and cattle crammed in pens where feed containing antibiotics promotes rapid growth and prevents death from contageous disease. "Without these pharmaceuticals, meat production practiced on the scale and with the intensity we practice it could not be sustained for months, let alone decades,” he writes.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated in 2001 that pigs, cows and poultry in the US received more that eight times the amount of antibiotics in their feed and water than humans got for treatment of diseases. No recent data indicates a reduction since then. Dutch researchers found Community Acquired MRSA in pig farmers and their families, Michael Smith writes at MedPage today. It’s not clear how the animals acquired the bacteria, he writes, but it has been shown to be resistant to tetracycline, an antibiotic commonly used in animal feeds.

Much has been written about how over-use of antibiotics creates anti-biotic resistant strains of bacteria. Drugs kill off most of the microbes, but a few with some genetic differences survive, evolve and multiply into a drug-resistant super-race. The MRSA that emerged in hospitals 40 years ago differs from the community acquired MRSA that is afflicting people outside of healthcare environments today. In theOmnivore’s DilemmaPollan describes how our demand for cheap beef results in a bizarre perversion of bovine digestion. Corn is the cheapest feed to fatten cattle fast. But their stomachs aren’t designed for it. It makes them susceptible to near fatal bloating, liver disease, and it weakens their immune systems so they are vulnerable to a vast array of feedlot diseases, including pneumonia. Activists who oppose using antibiotics to make healthy animals grow faster don’t object to treating sick animals with drugs. But Pollan says that distinction is meaningless with cattle because the way we feed them makes them sick.

The National Pork Producers Council says Dutch research suggests MRSA in food animals is not a food safety hazard. But Pollan argues human health is inextricably linked to the health of animals we eat through the web of relationships that create our environment.

MRSA and colony collapse disorder among bees may both point to systemic breakdowns in modern agriculture. To serve 600,000 acres of almond orchards in California, Pollan writes by way of example, bees are transported from all over the US and Australia. Bees dormant in Minnesota’s frigid winter are perked up with pollen patties that include high fructose corn syrup and flower pollen imported from China.

He says we can’t keep trying to make natural systems and living organisms function like machines. He writes in The Times piece: We’re asking too much of our bees and pigs. By maximizing production and keeping food cheap, we push natural systems and organisms to their limit. When bees or pigs remind us they are not machines we invent ingenious "solutions” such as antibiotics to keep pigs healthy or foreign bees to pollinate the domestic almonds. But this year’s solutions become next year’s problems. That is, they're not "sustainable.”

From this perspective, the Colony Collapse Disorder and drug-resistant staph are both parables about the vulnerabilities monocultures. When we try to rearrange natural systems to operate like machines we lose biological resilience and the brittle systems we create are prone to breaking down. The questions is whether we can learn enough about sustainability to prevent even bigger crises and collapses.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  health  MRSA 

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Mathematics, Culture and the Elegance at the Intersection

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
When he came across an article about the relationship between housing patterns and women’s autonomy in Tanzania, Ron Eglash was intrigued.

Eglash is a mathematician whose interests are technical, philosophical and cultural. He found that traditional settlements in West and Central Africa are self-organized, bottom-up developments with self-similar structures that seemed to foster greater social influence for women. Modernization brought more rigidly structured Cartesian grids to village and housing design, and social control for women diminished.

That got Eglash thinking about the contrasts between designs based on fractals and those based on Euclidian geometry. He got a Fulbright scholarship to study fractals in African architecture, and by 1988 he was studying aerial photographs of traditional villages. Thatched-roof huts were organized in circular clusters within circular clusters, which Eglash immediately recognized as fractals—self-similar shapes that keep repeating whether the scale is minimized or expanded. He has written a book, African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design, and you can hear his wonderfully engaging short presentation on African fractals at TED.com.

Eglash met with village chiefs and elders, and discovered they knew all about rectangles within rectangles and circles within circles. He learned that the patterns were deliberate, not like the unconsciously constructed fractals found in a termite mound. He also discovered that, in his own words, "social scaling was mapped onto geometric scaling.” For instance, one village of rings of rings contained a tiny ring village where ancestral spirits were said to live. Some designs also contained special fractal spaces designated as sacred, approached by pathways imbued with progressively changing behavioral expectations.

Eglash went on to document the use of fractal geometry not only in African architecture, but in art, religion, games, weaving, culture, and hair braids. Eglash even discovers binary code in ancient mystical Bamana sand divination. The intricate designs, deliberate craftsmanship and highly sophisticated patterns are leading scholars to reexamine what must have been conscious knowledge in early African mathematics.

To learn more about African fractal patterns visit Ron Elash’s home page
or follow the link to http://www.rpi.edu/~eglash/eglash.htm

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  fractals 

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Bankers' Pay and Bull Elephant Seals

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Why have bankers salaries ballooned? Eduardo Porter, an economics writer and member of the editorial board of the New York Times, addresses this issue with an eye on nature and a biting humor. As he puts it, the biggest bull elephant seals beat out lesser bull elephant seals, winning the harems and passing on their genes to future elephant seal generations. Over time the population gets bigger and fatter, and eventually the big bulls become easier dining for the swifter great white sharks, which are among nature’s greatest predators. So as Wall Street views it, humongous pay packages for top bankers grow from competition among big banks and the most enterprising executives. Read Porter’s March 9 column "On the Origins of Bankers’ Giant Bonuses” to learn why he thinks seals and human society would benefit if bull elephant seal blubber and bankers salaries were trimmed. Click here to learn more about the elephant seals. These extraordinary marine mammals spend most of the year in open ocean and migrate thousands of miles. Despite the seals' greater bulk and slower speed, the great white sharks can’t eat them unless they find them in that vast and deep watery expanse. Elephant seals are no longer endangered, although at onetime they were seriously over-hunted for their oil. Great white sharks are endangered. Bankers are not.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  nature 

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Ancient Plagues, Modern Science, and the Double Lives of Locusts

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, March 9, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
The brain chemical serotonin triggers one of nature’s most astounding transformations, which happens when solitary placid desert locusts converge into terrifying plant-devouring swarms, scientists have found.

When driven by fluctuating environmental cycles and the compulsion to eat, locusts alter not only their behavior, but their size, strength and color as well. In fact, the change in appearance is so dramatic that until the 1920s scientists thought the two phases of locust existence were actually two separate species.

Researchers led by Michael Anstey of Oxford University in the UK studied changes in locust behavior and tested them with a variety of chemicals. They found that when the insects were swarming, they had three times more serotonin in their systems than when they were living alone.

"Up until now, whilst we knew the stimuli that cause locusts' amazing 'Jekyll and Hyde'-style transformation, nobody had been able to identify the changes in the nervous system that turn antisocial locusts into monstrous swarms,”Dr. Anstey explained in an academic press release. "The question of how locusts transform their behavior in this way has puzzled scientists for almost 90 years, now we finally have the evidence to provide an answer.” The researchers found that drugs that block serotonin made locusts shy, even when other factors suggested they congregate, and drugs that boost serotonin made solitary locusts suddenly gregarious. Serotonin, which carries nerve signals in nearly all animals, plays a role in human moods, emotions and desires.

Dr. Anstey, and colleaguesStephen M. Rogers, of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, Swidbert R. Ott, and Malcolm Burrows, of Cambridge and Stephen J. Simpson of the University of Sydney in Australia, reported their findings in a paper published in the January 30 issue of Science magazine.

Dr. Rogers says locusts are finely tuned to adjust to their dry but changeable desert environment. In dry periods, they are fairly antisocial, existing as harmless green grasshoppers. After the occasional rainstorm, locusts gather to follow the newly increased vegetation, heading out from the driest regions into more fertile adjacent lands. As they see, smell or touch other locusts, their behavior and appearance transforms in a matter of hours. Their darker color scares predators, and their stronger muscles and bigger wings let them make long migratory trips, flying 60 miles in five to eight hours.

It’s one of nature’s cruelest tricks, says Dr. Rogers: Farmers rejoice with rain and then see their crops are devoured. Locust swarms affect 20 percent of the earth’s land mass and have occurred periodically in Africa, Asia, Australia and the western US. The Old Testament, describing the Eighth Plague of Egypt, says locusts shall cover the face of the earth, fill every house and eat everything that grows. The prophet Joel also warned of locusts coming in deadly clouds. The researchers suggest in their Science article that the discovery could lead to new pest control strategies.

Darwin’s 200th Birthday and the 150th anniversary of The Origin of the Species: The New York Times carried several articles commemorating Charles Darwin, including Olivia Judson’s thoughtful piece, The Origin of Darwin.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  ecology  nature 

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Forgetting May Help Us Remember

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, December 7, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Our ability to forget may be just as important as our ability to remember.

We may want to forget woes and traumas, but it may be even more useful to unburden ourselves of the trivial—the mental minutia and impedimenta that accumulates in the course of ordinary existence.

Stanford University researchers using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) were able to record visual images of people’s brains as they discarded irrelevant memories in order to focus on the task of learning something new.

Brice Kuhl, a doctoral student working in the Stanford Memory Lab run by Associate Professor Anthony Wagner explains that the brain is very plastic and adaptive and that means that it suppresses or weakens some memories at the same time it strengthens others. "Remembering something actually has a cost for memories that are related but irrelevant,” he explains in a Stanford Report.

Kuhl and Wagner, both neuroscientists, gathered 20 Stanford students between the ages of 18 and 32 and had them view 240 pairs of words in rapid succession while their brains were being scanned. The word list included 40 words printed in capitals. Each of the 40 capitalized word was paired separately with six words printed in lower case letters—for instance ATTIC-junk and ATTIC-dust. So there were six memories created for each main word. After viewing all words, subjects were asked to try to remember selected pairs. The first time they practiced a pair, the story explains, the prefrontal cortex "lit up” as the brain worked to forge a new memory from among the competing pairs. In their second and third memory practices, the frontal lobes became less active. The more the frontal lobe activity decreased, the more likely it was that in later testing the participant would remember the selected pairs and not the irrelevant ones.

Wagner says the prefrontal cortex is the "CEO of the brain,” governing cognition and the purposeful uses of memories. When unimportant memories are suppressed, he says, the brain can devote more of its computational resources to recalling what’s important.

The findings by Kuhl and Wagner were published in the June 3 issue of Nature Neuroscience and are also the subject of a New York Times story by Benedict Carey. Their work may have implication for treating difficulties associated with aging and neurological diseases.

In similar research last year at the University of California at Berkeley, neuroscientists Adam Gazzaley and Mark D’Esposito found that memory losses associated with aging resulted more from distractions than from an inability to focus. These researchers, who also tested their subjects while their heads were in an fMRI scanner, discovered that many older people are able to focus on pertinent information, but that their reduced ability to screen out the distractions and irrelevant information resulted in impaired memory. Their work suggests people with Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related memory problems may benefit more from drugs targeting the suppression of distraction than from drugs that enhance focus.

The poet Robert Pinsky, who has reflected philosophically and lyrically on the power of things lost, remembered and disregarded, reminds us "Forgetting is never perfect, just as recall is never total: the list or the person’s name, or the poem or the phone number may be recalled in every detail, but never with the exact feeling it had. And conversely, the details may be obliterated, but a feeling lingers on. .…memory and forgetting are willful and involuntary, helpless and desperate in mysterious measures. Forgetting is not mere absence. The repressed does not merely return, it transforms and abrogates, rising and plunging like a dolphin or Proteus.” And what about the colorless memories that are merely suppressed? The Times story suggests they may just get lost in a sensory crowd.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  neuroscience 

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Bees and Hornets: Decapitations and Death Balls

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, September 21, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Hornets are nasty predators that chop off the heads of honey bees before devouring them. They also feast on honey bee larvae. Bee stingers can’t penetrate the hornet’s body armor. But don’t think honeybees are defenseless.

Cyprian honeybees will swarm around a threatening hornet and form a tightly packed ball that kills the invader, according to a story in New Scientist by Roxanne Khamsi. Scientists used to think the bee ball generated enough heat to kill the hornet. But a new study suggests the hornet inside the ball is suffocated. The hornet-destruction balls may be composed of as many as 300 bees, the story says, and pity the hornet—the execution by oxygen deprivation takes about an hour. It’s not clear how the bees coordinate their behavior to form the death ball, but bee researcher Alexandros Papachristoforou of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece thinks the bees might use chemical signals known as alarm pheromones to convene a gathering.

A National Geographic article "Hornets from Hell” tells how just one Japanese giant hornet can dispatch 40 European honeybees in one minute, and a handful of them can slaughter 30,000 honeybees in a matter of hours. The Japanese giant hornet has venom powerful enough to "disintegrate human flesh,” the story says. But we also learn that hornets are extraordinarily good parents, who chew their prey into baby food for their larvae. And high-powered hornet saliva has been synthetically replicated in an energy drink popular in Japan. We say a dangerously angry person is "mad as a hornet." We say bees are industrious, but so are hornets. Do bees and hornets experience some mysterious elements of fear, glee or revenge in these life and death encounters? Will we ever know? We can only marvel at what scientists discover on how these amazing creatures with minuscule brains organize their lives, protect their own, coordinate their behavior, and survive in spite of relentless duties and random danger.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  ecology 

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Extemporaneous Exchanges Play Well in Jazz and Medicine

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, September 17, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
"Man you don’t have to play a whole lot of notes. You just have to play the pretty notes”.
Trumpeter Miles Davis

Paul Haidet, a physician, former disc jockey and amateur jazz historian who has studied doctor-patient communication, marvels at the parallels between jazz and medicine. Gary Onady, a physician and jazz trumpeter who composes and arranges music, uses musical metaphor to describe patient-clinician interactions.

In his article Jazz and the ‘Art’ of Medicine: Improvisation in the Medical Encounter, Dr. Haidet writes that good communication results in fewer medical errors and a variety of good social, psychological, and biological outcomes. Further, he suggests jazz improvisation is a guide to the kinds of moment-to-moment decisions a doctor must make—what to say next, how to structure a question, when to let the patient keep talking, when to move on—that bring about high quality communication. Dr. Haidet’s story is instructive because he cites the artists and musical selections with the sounds that open new ways of examining the subtle, contextual and subjective experiences that are woven together when people try to share knowledge and meaning.

Dr. Onady, who has an academic career in medicine and pediatrics, is a member of the Eddie Brookshire Quintet, which just released the CD Base Notes: The Heart Beat of Jazz. He has developed a workshop that includes an introductory lecture on Jazz Improvisation and Physician-Patient Communication. He uses the "minimal structure theory” of jazz along with jazz improvisational tools for solving patient problems in a turbulent medical environment.

Consider what Dr. Haidet calls the communicative act of creating space. "I have found the act of providing communicative space to the patient to be one of the one of the most powerful yet underused skills by physicians,” he writes. We have a cultural inclination to be uncomfortable with silence and pauses, he observes, so the ability to create space in our encounters takes discipline and practice. Dr. Haidet, an internist at the Michael DeBakey VA Medical Center who also teaches at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX, says when he is with a patient, he often thinks of how Miles Davis used his intuitive sense of space and time in his music. Davis was also exquisitely attuned to his surroundings. "We play what the day recommends,” he once remarked.

"He conserves notes, plays at a relaxed pace, plays on the ‘back end’ of the beat, and drops musical hints that allow listeners to use their imaginations to fill in the phrases,” Dr. Haidet writes of Davis. The result, he continues, is that the listener hears not only the solo, but what the rest of the band is playing. If you listen to a piece like his All Blues, you will see what he means.

Dr. Onady, in a written response to Dr. Haidet’s article, recalls using the concept of musical space in his own medical practice to help evaluate a patient who had received several conflicting diagnoses. "Giving the patient space to provide her own descriptive phrases, accented by arm and hand gestures much as a conductor uses to conduct an orchestra, the cause of her illness became obvious…”he wrote.

Like jazz musicians, Dr. Haidet writes, doctors need to develop their own improvisational voice. He notes the evolution of saxophonist John Coltrane’s"sheets of sound”, the high speed arpeggios so wide ranging and densely packed that the notes run together. In similar fashion, physicians need to master the basics of patient-centered interviewing to develop a personal style that honors their own humanity as well as that of their patients. It’s the kind of skill, he says, that enables the physician to "show up” in encounters where bad news is delivered. For the kind of respect and sharing that is critical for physician understanding of a patient’s illness perspective and the patient’s understanding of the biomedical processes the illness involves, Dr.Haidet turns to ensemble improvisation. As an example, he suggests Waltz for Debbie, by pianist Bill Evans and bassist Scott LeFaro, an intricate flowing musical conversation. Just as musicians "talk to” each other with their instrumental skill and personal style, cultivating ensemble in medicine means doctors need to go far beyond collecting data when they encounter patients.

Dr. Haidet’s article appeared in the March/April 2007 issue of the Annals of Family Medicine. Click here for the supplemental appendix where you can hear the music Dr. Haidet suggests. The Eddie Brookshire Quintet’s new CD, soon available for purchase on CD Baby, contains song Surrendered Life, written by Eddie Brookshire with Dr. Onady on flugelhorn.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  medicine  music 

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The Starfish and the Spider

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 6, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Of Apaches and e-Bay, Mary Poppins and Bill W.

It would be easy to miss the metaphysical connection between Napster, the pioneer of electronic file sharing, and the Apache Indians of the American West.

For Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, the kinship between peer to peer internet services and the relational structures among Apache tribes is a central insight into the extraordinary power of open systems. Their book, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, is the result of five years of research on decentralized organizations that achieved dramatic successes without rigid hierarchies or control by bosses and managers. Every major organ of a starfish is replicated in each of its five arms, so if an arm of starfish is severed, the arm grows a new starfish. By contrast, a spider that loses a leg is impaired and a spider that loses its head is dead. And an organization committed to strict top-down management, even when it is big and powerful, is increasingly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of cultural climate change and roiling waves of innovative competition.

Starfish-like organizations can wreak havoc on rivals. The authors see common elements that helped Wikipedia, the Internet, e-Bay, Alcoholic Anonymous and al Qaedaflourish. And they see common challenges that have beset Fortune 500 companies, and 16th Century Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and the modern entertainment industry. What is the difference between Montezuma and Geronimo? Montezuma II was the Aztec leader who presided over an advanced civilization of 15 million people from a grand palace in the capital city of Tenochtitlanin what is now Mexico. When the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes attacked, Montezuma was killed, and Cortes’s armies swarmed over roads and aqueducts. Not long afterwards, the city’s 240,000 inhabitants were wiped out by disease and starvation, and within two years the Aztec empire collapsed.The Incas of Peru met the same fate when another Spanish army invaded a decade later, beginning Spanish dominance over South America.

While the Spanish overwhelmed centralized civilizations, Brafman and Beckstrom argue, they were never able to conquer the decentralized Apaches, who had no palaces, temples, cities, or accumulated wealth. The authors learned from an anthropologist who studied them that instead of a chief the Apaches had a Nant’an, a spiritual leader who led by example rather than force. The most famous Nant’an, they write, was Geronimo, whose people followed him because they wanted to, and who fended off adversaries for decades.

People used Napster, the brainchild of an 18-year-old college freshman, by logging into a central server and sharing music files with people all over the world. The big music labels sued, and Napster closed. But people like free music, and Napster had increasingly decentralized successors—Kazaa, Grokster, e-Donkey—with elusive owners who avoided central servers and obvious business addresses. Every time the labels conquered one such company, another emerged. Even though court rulings favored the big companies, E-Mule and other little per-to-peer file sharing ventures are beyond lawyers’ reach. As the authors explain it, their decentralization is unlike anything the entertainment industry has ever seen. "The software is a completely open source solution. No owner. No Montezuma. Who started e-Mule? No one knows,” Brafman and Beckstrom write. "They simply can’t be found.”

Alcoholics Anonymous has a purpose and ideology that has drawn massive membership distributed in small geographically separate circles. Its catalyst Bill W. let go when he saw AA was growing. Consider al Qaeda, with its rapid succession of mercurial leaders. How can governments fight terrorist organizations, and how can businesses compete with energetic nontraditional rivals?

Brafman and Beckstrom return to the starfish. In the late 1990s, they write, the coral of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia was threatened by an explosion of starfish. Divers with knives cut the starfish in half to kill them. But the starfish just multiplied. Scientists then realized pollution and rising water temperature were spurring the burgeoning starfish population. So only environmental change would stop them. To tame the power of decentralized organizations, ideology has to change. Micro loans and small businesses help change ideologies in slums, where hopelessness helps attracts recruits to terrorist cells. The authors also describe a brick-by-brick community rebuilding effort in Afghanistan, with no money or outside support, where people worked together to recover from the harsh rule and destruction of the Taliban.

Some organizations, they say, succeed by becoming hybrids. E-Bay for instance, is pure starfish. It hosts sellers and buyers who deal with each other directly and safeguard trust through a user rating system. But e-Bay’s PayPal subsidiary is based on rigid controls and secure transactions and "trust” isn’t a philosophical value. IBM bowed to decentralization by supporting Linux, the open source operating system, and designed Linux-compatible hardware and software. By doing so, the authors observe, "IBM is harnessing the collective skill of thousands of engineers working collaboratively world wide, and at no cost to IBM.” Oprah Winfrey’s production company is centralized, but she added a decentralized element with her book club, which has grown exponentially.

This is a collection of provocative, surprising and well-told stories about the social and organizational revolutions going on around us and some of the powerful forces driving the change. The examples are consistently engaging and memorable. In discussing the differences between traditional business leaders and catalysts who spark creation of organizational starfish, the authors cite the lead characters in The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. In Sound of Music, Maria enters a dysfunctional family and helps everyone get along better. But when the movie ends, it’s clear she will stay and remain in charge. Mary Poppins, however, comes to smooth out family turbulence so its members can thrive on their own. A CEO settles in, a catalyst knows when it’s time to move on. "Once she accomplishes her goal,” Brafman and Beckstrom write, "(Mary Poppins) rides her umbrella into the sunset.”

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  organizations 

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