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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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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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Do you believe your lying eyes?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, August 27, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
What You See Isn’t Always What You Just Saw

Nearly 175 years ago a Swiss crystallographer named Albert Louis Necker discovered that the line drawing of a cube could jump back and forth in our vision depending on how we look at it. In other words, our brains can suddenly discover a new way of seeing the same thing.

Mark Newbold’s Animated Necker Cube is an entertaining example of how this works. Optical illusions are fun, and if you want to see the case of the mysterious disappearing purple dots, go to the Sandlot Science Illusion of the Month. The Sandlot Science website has a collection of engaging illusions presented in a "guided tour”, and students of complexity science will especially enjoy the graphic that shows dramatically how a minor movement makes a major difference.

There is even an interesting personality experiment developed by Dr. Peter Naish, a lecturer in psychology at the Open University, the largest university in the United Kingdom, presented in conjunction with the BBC. The test, which takes about five minutes, relates certain personality traits to the way the observer sees and interprets the ambiguous and illusive Necker Cube. The results may surprise you.

For a more in-depth consideration of optical puzzles and cognitive response, an article on "Inconsistent Images” by Peter Quigley, of the philosophy department of the University of Adelaide, offers analysis of Necker cubes, Escher drawings and the challenging idea of "impossible pictures” and pictures that are oddly incomplete. He uses still and animated illustrations in his discussion. Impossible pictures can be described mathematically only when using the tools of inconsistent mathematics and paraconsistent logic, he writes. That means advanced math and advanced logic that is tolerant of inconsistencies is needed to describe such pictures. Our brains, however, can find ways to reconcile inconsistent images. Basically, we find ways to impose consistency on our world even when our imposition isn’t completely justified by the evidence.

For more explanations, Michael Bach, a professor at the University of Frieberg in Germany, has written a brief primer on Optical Illusions. The professor has also assembled an interesting collection of 72 Optical Illusions and Visual Phenomena

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  illusions 

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You think communication is complex? Try Taarof

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, August 27, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Finely Crafted Discourse, or Yo Dude?
Linguistic Form Anticipates Substance

In an ancient culture where poetry is revered and people have resisted centuries of oppression, artfully selected words and phrases come with invisible webs of mysteriously moored strings.

The persianmirror.com, a site devoted to Persian culture and community explains, "Taarof has deep roots in the Iranian tradition of treating your guests better than your own family, and being gracious hosts. Taarof is a verbal dance between an offerer and an acceptor until one of them agrees. It is a cultural phenomenon that consists of refusing something even though you might want it, out of politeness. On the giving end, it is offering something…to be polite…but not really wanting to give it away.”

An August 6, 2006 New York Times story by Michael Slackman describes the Iranian social principle of taarof, a complex interactive ritual of manners, pretense, and polite expectations. Americans accustomed to short declarative sentences and no frill facts might consider it lying. But taarof is a time-honored element of Iranian communication that linguists and diplomats say Americans need to learn.

As Nasser Hadian, a political science professor at the University of Tehran tells theTimes,"You have to guess if people are sincere, and you are never sure. Symbolism and vagueness are inherent in our language.”

Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian social scientist who lived in England and the US for many years before returning home a decade ago, explains in the same story, "Speech has a different function than it does in the West. In the West, 80 percent of language is denotive. In Iran, 80 percent is connotative.” Even Iranians are kept guessing, but perpetually ambiguity is indelibly worked into the texture of life. Says Tajbakhsh, "This creates a rich, poetic linguistic culture. It creates a multidimensional culture where people are adept at picking up on nuances.”

As the Persian Mirroradvises, even if you would like a second helping of a tasty dish, you can’t accept unless it has been urged upon you several times. If your host says don’t taarof, that can be dicey too, because the host herself may be taarofing. Should you eat and appear gluttonous, or refuse and risk insulting her cooking? This custom is perilous for foreigners. If you ask a shopkeeper the price of an item, he may say it’s nothing, be my guest. If you take him literally, you’ll be in trouble and you'll be pursued as a thief. The shopkeeper’s elocution is really a polite way of approaching the indelicate matter of price. The same principle applies in other interactions. An invitation to someone’s home may be a courteous expression, not an actual desire for a visit. Body language and signs need to be considered as well. The bilakh is a one-thumb up gesture that has a terribly rude meaning in Iran. To Westerners, thumbs up has positive connotations, so misinterpretations are inevitable.

If taarof challenges the social skills of individuals, imagine how it can confound foreign diplomats and politicians. What did President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really mean in the 18-page letter about religion, values and history that he sent to President Bush? In centuries of occupation by Arab, Mongol, French and British forces, Iranians learned to express themselves with elaborate caution. In fact, an ancient practice called takiya, or al-takeyya, allowed Muslims minorities to avoid persecution and preserve their lives and and honor by holding their true beliefs in private while using subterfuge to disguise them in public.

And then there is the cultural love art, literature and poetry. The beautiful Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was written more than a thousand year ago by a Persian who was both scientist and poet. It is still read throughout the world. Americans who have traveled to neighboring Afghanistan report that there too, poetic expression infuses commerce and social transactions. Trying to hurry a negotiation risks failure. A Wall Street Journal piece Afghan Poetry Groups in DC Fight a War of Words on Their Art by Masood Favirar tells the captivating story of two Afghan cab drivers in Washington whose poetry clubs have differing commitments to their traditions. As the story point out, the passion for poetry extends to everyday modern life: "Afghans pepper their conversation with snippets of poetry and engage in poetic duels in which each side recites a line of verse that begins with a letter than ends the opposing side’s line.”

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture 

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Hormesis

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 23, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
If it doesn’t kill you, it might help

Is it possible to have too little of a bad thing? Maybe, if that means none.

The concept is hormesis, and the term comes from the Greek word horme, which means to excite. A German pharmacologist named Hugo Schultz noticed in 1888 that a small mount of poison seemed to stimulate the growth of yeast. Some 60 years ago, Chester Southam, a graduate student in the University of Idaho School of Forestry and his advisor John Ehrlich used to term hormesis to describe another unexpected phenomenon: a toxic red cedar extract stimulated the growth of various species of fungus.

In recent years scientists have recognized that living things do not respond to stimuli, good or bad, in a linear way. Many types of stress—chemical, environmental and behavioral—can actually stimulate cellular repair and maintenance. Some toxins that do harm in large or moderate quantity, the theory goes, can actually be helpful in small amounts.

The International Hormesis Society based at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is dedicated to research on biological dose-response relationships. Its members want to understand the nature, mechanisms and implications of how living organisms respond to varying low doses of substances that are known to be toxic in quantity. The research is important in dozens of fields—pharmacology, medicine, ecology, biology, environmental science, risk assessment, public policy, neuroscience and immunology, to name a few. The BELLE (Biological Effects of Low Level Exposures) newsletter covers a wide range of articles on current research. For instance, Mark P. Mattson, in his article Hormesis and Disease Resistance, writes that knowledge of hormesis mechanisms will lead to novel approaches in preventing and treating disease. He explains that the proven beneficial effects of exercise and calorie-restricted diets may actually result from hormesis mechanisms. Both are stresses, which can stimulate bodily responses that improve immunity and promote cellular health. When rodents are subjected to calorie restrictions or intermittent fasting, he writes, they increase their resistance to several types of stress, including toxins, heat, cardiovascular stresses, and diseases. Perhaps, he suggests, hormesis research will be the "impetus for reemergence of a Spartan lifestyle.” Other papers review research on possible beneficial effects of very low doses of radiation and toxic chemicals and environmental poisons.

A page for historical figures describes the work of the pharmacologist Hugo Schulz, Chester Southam, an early user of the term, and Fernando Hueppe, another pioneer of hormeses study. The survival or all organisms depends on their ability to adapt to stressful change, and researchers contributing to this society are trying to discover how much of a role hormesis plays in the continuing evolution of viable organisms.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters 

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