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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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Lion and Calf, Dog and Cheetah, Tiger and Bear: If They Can Get Along, Can We?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Scientists Examine Interspecies Interactions

The tender togetherness of the 100 year old tortoise and the baby hippo captures the imagination. A Budweiser commercial showing friendship between a Clydesdale horse and a Labrador puppy got more than 55 million views on YouTube. What makes some animals able to form relationships with animals from other species? How can some creatures adopt behavior of other species and even learn to understand  how to communicate with others? Scientists studying interspecies interaction hope to learn more about animal behavior and perhaps find new insights about humans. Read the New York Times story by Erica Goode "Learning from Animal Friendships."

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Nature Editorial: Science and Satire Flourish Together

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Fanaticism Stifles Satire, Free Speech and Science

The heritage of the eighteenth century French writer Voltaire and the Enlightenment help explain why four million people poured into the streets of France after terrorists murdered 17 people, including eight staff members of the weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, an editorial in Nature asserts. Crowds in Paris surpassed the size of the demonstrations welcoming allied troops that liberated the city in World War II. The Nature editorial says freedom of speech and satire are crucial in challenging the authoritarianism and dogma that undermine science and scientific inquiry. The editorial also calls for social science research to understand origins of violent fanaticism so that terrorism can be addressed by long term policies and initiatives without relying solely on repressive measures. Read the editorial here. Huffington Post writer Lex Paulson summarizes Voltaire’s message: Tolerate others, think for yourself.

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Ebola in Liberia: Death by Distrust

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, December 12, 2014

Public Health Campaign Foiled by Rumors

More than 2,800 Liberians have died from Ebola, more than twice the number of deaths in Sierra Leone and Guinea. More than 6,000 Liberians have been infected, ten times the number infected in any previous Ebola epidemic. Armand Sprecher, an Ebola expert with Doctors without Borders, said the staggering number of Ebola deaths in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, was unlike anything medical experts had seen before.

Helen Epstein, biologist, health researcher and author, went to Liberia to learn what was different. She concludes that while poor health infrastructure and many economic, social and cultural factors played a part in the Ebola tragedy in all impacted countries, the problem in Liberia was fundamentally political. "When the epidemic occurred, "she writes in The New York Review of Books, "many ordinary Liberians were so profoundly estranged from their government that they assumed it was lying to them and actively disbelieved the warnings that (Liberian public health official Tolbert) Nyenswah and others were desperately broadcasting to the nation and the world." The distrust, built on decades of upheaval and official corruption, was so deep, Epstein writes, that many citizens thought nurses trying to help were agents of the government who intended to poison them to create the illusion of an epidemic that would bring in international money. Read this thoughtful and disturbing story here.

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Texas Saves Money Treating More, Incarcerating Fewer

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Prison Reform Is Big in Texas

The United States, with five percent of the world’s population, has 25% of the world’s prisoners. And one tenth of the U.S. prisoners are incarcerated in Texas, a state that has executed 268 people since 2000. Tough on crime talk is politically popular inTexas. But the state has reduced its prison population, pared recidivism rates and saved money with a collection of reforms that fund programs rather than prisons.

Washington Post story by Reid Wilson reports the prison population in 2014 was 168,000, down from 173,000 in 2010. Instead of anticipating more inmates and planning new prisons, Tony Fabelo, a 20-year veteran of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council and two state legislators designed a system with hundreds of new beds in drug treatment programs for substance abusing parole violators, and intermediate and outpatient facilities for criminal sentenced to probation. Pre-trial diversion programs were created for those suffering from mental illness. A Daily Beast story by Olivia Nuzzi explains the bipartisan push for the combined initiatives that save money and reduce incarceration.

A recent study by the Sentencing Project, a research group that advocates alternatives to incarceration showed no strong relationship between imprisonment and crime. However, its statistics show that crime rates declined more in 30 states with the lowest increases in prison populations than in 20 states with higher increases in prison populations. Analysts are watching for future impact of prison policy changes in Texas. A report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that by the end of 2013 Texas had a modest increase in prison admissions—1.5 percent—and a drop of nearly 10 percent in prison releases.

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Scientists See Best Case for Planet: Unpleasant, Not Uninhabitable

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Scientists See an Inevitable Tipping Point


A rise in the planet’s atmospheric temperature of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit is the tipping point at which the world will be locked into a near future of drought, food and water shortages, melting glaciers, rising sea levels and world-wide flooding that will harm populations and economies, according to a significant body of scientific research.

As diplomats and policy makers gather in Lima,Peru to draft an agreement designed to halt the rise of greenhouse gases, climate scientists warn it may be impossible to prevent global temperatures from passing the tipping point because of the amount of greenhouse gas already in the atmosphere and the emissions expected to continue before any deal is implemented. Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton professor of geosciences and international affairs and a member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said although he is encouraged by recent U.S. climate agreement with China, large scale transformations in the ecosystem have already taken place. The goal now, he said, is to prevent a 4 to 10 degree rise that would make the planet increasingly uninhabitable for humans. Even if future emissions are curtailed enough to head off worse-case scenarios, scientists say, a relentlessly warming world will be increasingly unpleasant. Read the New York Times story by Coral Davenport.

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What’s Deep and What’s Dark on the Web?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Not Everyone Knows Dark from Deep

Andy Greenberg writing at Hacker Lexicon, the Wired explainer series, notes that even the well regarded news program 60 Minutes is confused, having described the Dark Web incorrectly as a "vast, secret, cyber underworld” that accounts for "90% of the Internet."

Greenberg says the Dark Web isn't particularly vast, it's not 90% percent of the Internet, and it's not particularly secret. It's a collection of websites that are publicly visible, yet hide the IP addresses of the servers that run them. So anyone can visit a Dark Web site, but it can be difficult to figure out where they're hosted—or by whom. Most Dark Web sites use the anonymity software Tor, though some use a similar tool called I2P. Both of those systems encrypt web traffic in layers and bounce it through randomly-chosen computers around the world so it's hard to match origin and destination of web traffic. Online marketplaces such as Silk Road2, the illegal drug site recently shut down by federal investigators, and other black market sites selling contraband, are usually part of the Dark Web. Wikileaks created a dark site to accept anonymous leaks.

The Deep Web is a collection of all sites on the web that aren't reachable by a search engine. Those unindexed sites do include some in the Dark Web, but they also include much more mundane content like registration-required web forums and dynamically-created pages like your Gmail account.

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New View on Phase Change: It’s Not Simple

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, November 17, 2014

Transition from One State to Another Is Quite Complex

Scientists say new discoveries about phase change require revised thinking about one of the basic building blocks of science and the way students are taught about some basic principles of the behavior of matter.

Researchers at Princeton University, Peking University and New York University examined phase change—the transition of matter from one state to another—at the molecular level and discovered it was far more complex than has previously been known. Their study appears in the journal Science. An NYU press release explains that when researchers used computers to look at metal changing from a solid to a liquid state, they found a complex process in which change can follow multiple pathways.  Mark Tuckerman, a professor of chemistry and applied mathematics at NYU and one of the study's co-authors said that is contrary to previous understandings. "This means the simple theories about phase transitions that we teach in classes are just not right," he said.

The study shows change happens on multiple and competing pathways and involves at least two steps. In a first step, local defects occur on one pathway at a single lattice point in a crystalline solid. In a second step, these defects, which are very mobile, randomly migrate and can form large, "disordered defect clusters." Tuckerman says these clusters grow from the outside in, rather than from the inside out as was previously thought, and over time become large enough to cause transition from solid to liquid. On a different pathway, the defects grow into a thin line of disorder called "dislocations," which also eventually cause transition from solid to liquid. The research, arising from a ten year study of complex behavior in complex systems, is also described in Science Daily and R&D Magazine.

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Olympian Mind-Body Workouts for Gamers

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, November 17, 2014

Intense Training for Professional Gamers

As video games morph into a spectator sport complete with viewer stadiums and corporate sponsorship, serious gamers who sit and push buttons train like Olympic athletes, with diets chemically analyzed to provide the right proportions of nutrients, physical workouts, brain mapping, yoga classes, and special exercises to soothe their throbbing wrists.

A New York Times story by Conor Dougherty describes how Matt Haag, a professional videogame player, trains intensively to maintain his prowess playing Call of Duty, a popular war game series in which players try to shoot one another. Haag has 1.5 million YouTube subscribers, a lucrative contract to live-stream his daily game sessions online, and he shares his every move, whether it's smashing buttons or mind-body preparations, on social media.

His training sessions are sponsored by Red Bull, the energy drink. Stories about Haag are featured on the Red Bull website. Watch a Chicago Tribune video in which Haag, who is making a six figure income at age 22, praises the strict upbringing provided by his parents and urges his fans to study hard in school.

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Disruptive Innovation Debate

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 3, 2014
Updated: Friday, July 4, 2014
Clayton Christensen, the business scholar who developed the concept of disruptive innovation, and historian Jill Lepore are Harvard faculty colleagues. The two professors don't agree on much, and Lepore's sharply written assault on Christensen's theory has ignited an uproar in academic and business circles.

In his 1997 book the Innovator's Dilemma, Christensen lays out his theory of disruptive innovation, which holds that products or services that begin simply and inexpensively at the bottom of market, often using new technology, can eventually displace those of established companies that seem to be doing all the right things to maintain their success.

The Thinkers50, a biennial ranking of the world's most influential management theorists, last year for the second time named Christensen the top "thought leader" in the world, and disruptive innovation has been one of the most widely celebrated ideas in modern business.

According to Lepore, the theory's celebration is one of its problems: she thinks it has escaped critical examination and been carelessly applied to explain too much. In her New Yorker article "The Disruption Machine," Lepore analyzes how we understand innovation and disruption. Every age has its theory of history, she writes. The eighteenth century had the idea of progress, the nineteenth had evolution, and the twentieth had growth and innovation. "Our era has disruption," she writes, "which despite its futurism is atavistic. It's a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation and shaky evidence." 

Innovation used to have negative connotations, she says, but the idea was redeemed by its use to describe bringing new products to market. Still, she writes, "The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspiration of enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the 20th century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt and you will be saved."

In his book, Christensen supports his theory with industrial case histories. Mainframe computer manufacturers were disrupted when they missed the market for personal computers. Mini steel mills disrupted the operations of big steel companies, and a healthy department store industry—the number of stores in U.S. plunged from 316 to fewer than 10—was disrupted by growth of discount stores. Lepore asserts that Christensen handpicked his examples, and she introduces evidence to challenge or complicate his much of his analysis. She notes, for instance, that companies and divisions that dominated the disc drive industry in the 1980s dominate today, despite facing disruption Christensen describes from makers of smaller hard drives .She also points out a high failure rate among would-be disruptive start ups.

In an interview with Drake Bennett at Bloomberg Business Week, Christensen agrees with Lepore that the word disruption has become a cliché. But agreement ends there. He calls her story "a criminal act of dishonesty." Slate's technology writer Will Oremus says that’s overstating his case, which is what he accuses Lepore of doing. Oremus concludes that Lepore's cherry picked examples don't overthrow Christensen's theory any more than Christensen's cherry-picked examples definitely prove it. In a piece in Forbes, Clark Gilbert, chief executive of the Deseret News and Deseret Digital Media, vigorously defends Christensen’s theory and the scholarship behind it, as does business consultant John Hegel in his blog.

Salon's Andrew Leonard, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, and New York Magazine's Kevin Roose, sympathize with Lepore's views with some caveats. Richard Feloni at Business Insider reviewed reactions, including tweets from Steven Sinofsky, the former president of Microsoft's Windows division, who suggests that both professors are right. He says disruptive innovation has plenty of exceptions but it's still a useful theory.

What do disruptive innovation theory and its critique look like through a complexity lens? If you have thoughts on that, we’d love to hear from you.


Thank you Peter Jones, David Hurst and John Kenagy for your thoughts on disruption and innovation!

Peter Jones, PhD, of OCAD University in Toronto, addresses the issues raised by Jill Lepore and Clayton Christensen in his blog post Reproduction of Disruption, How Innovation Regimes Reproduce Culture.

Reproduction of Disruption  

Business consultant and author David K. Hurst, BA, MBA  has written two parts of a three part post interpreting disruption from an ecological perspective. He comments, "With the continual emergence of antibiotic-resistant bugs threatening to disrupt healthcare, it seems to me that the ecological/complex systems view is essential."

Disrupting Disruption Theory [Part I]: Storm in a Modernist Teacup

Disrupting Disruption Theory [Part II]: Ecological Transformation

See commentary of John Kenagy, MD, MBA, ScD, FACS  "Fireworks: The Disruption of Disruptive Innovation" at his m2s2 e club site.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  disruptive  innovation  news 

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Unclean hospitals are a danger

Posted By Susan Doherty, Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Updated: Thursday, June 6, 2013
Originally in the NY Daily News by Betsy McCaughey, here are a couple excerpts from "After the gunfire: infections can kill: Unclean hospitals are a danger to patients nationwide"

According to her doctors, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is breathing on her own and has been upgraded from critical to serious condition. Now, her major risk is infection, they report. Nationwide, an estimated 25% to 33% of patients in intensive care contract hospital infections.

Imagine surviving a gunshot, then having to fear a deadly germ lurking on your bedrail. Hospital infections kill an estimated 100,000 people in theU.S.each year, more than the combined death toll from highway fatalities, breast cancer and AIDS.

And also: 

When researchers at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center trained cleaners to drench surfaces, rather than spraying and quickly wiping, and to clean commonly overlooked objects, the spread of VRE to patients was reduced by two-thirds.

Robert Orenstein, an infectious disease expert at the Mayo Clinic, showed that cleaning frequently touched surfaces with a bleach-saturated wipe daily reduced the risk of the deadly infection Clostridium difficile by 33%.

Hospitals need to translate all this research into action. Converting to single rooms may not be feasible, but at the very least medical facilities should focus on thoroughly cleaning surfaces around a patient's bed and testing surfaces to be sure the cleaning is done. Hospitals did such testing routinely until the 1990s, when antibiotics replaced attention to hygiene.

Tags:  news  stopMRSA 

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