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A Crude Look at the Whole: The Science of Complex Systems in Business, Life, and Society

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A top expert explains why a social and economic understanding of complex systems will help society to anticipate and confront our biggest challenges Imagine trying to understand a stained glass window by breaking it into pieces and examining it one shard at a time. While you could probably learn a lot about each piece, you would have no idea about what the entire picture l A top expert explains why a social and economic understanding of complex systems will help society to anticipate and confront our biggest challenges Imagine trying to understand a stained glass window by breaking it into pieces and examining it one shard at a time. While you could probably learn a lot about each piece, you would have no idea about what the entire picture looks like. This is reductionism -- the idea that to understand the world we only need to study its pieces -- and it is how most social scientists approach their work. In A Crude Look at the Whole, social scientist and economist John H. Miller shows why we need to start looking at whole pictures. For one thing, whether we are talking about stock markets, computer networks, or biological organisms, individual parts only make sense when we remember that they are part of larger wholes. And perhaps more importantly, those wholes can take on behaviors that are strikingly different from that of their pieces. Miller, a leading expert in the computational study of complex adaptive systems, reveals astounding global patterns linking the organization of otherwise radically different structures: It might seem crude, but a beehive's temperature control system can help predict market fluctuations and a mammal's heartbeat can help us understand the "heartbeat" of a city and adapt urban planning accordingly. From enduring racial segregation to sudden stock market disasters, once we start drawing links between complex systems, we can start solving what otherwise might be totally intractable problems. Thanks to this revolutionary perspective, we can finally transcend the limits of reductionism and discover crucial new ideas. Scientifically founded and beautifully written, A Crude Look at the Whole is a powerful exploration of the challenges that we face as a society. As it reveals, taking the crude look might be the only way to truly see.


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A top expert explains why a social and economic understanding of complex systems will help society to anticipate and confront our biggest challenges Imagine trying to understand a stained glass window by breaking it into pieces and examining it one shard at a time. While you could probably learn a lot about each piece, you would have no idea about what the entire picture l A top expert explains why a social and economic understanding of complex systems will help society to anticipate and confront our biggest challenges Imagine trying to understand a stained glass window by breaking it into pieces and examining it one shard at a time. While you could probably learn a lot about each piece, you would have no idea about what the entire picture looks like. This is reductionism -- the idea that to understand the world we only need to study its pieces -- and it is how most social scientists approach their work. In A Crude Look at the Whole, social scientist and economist John H. Miller shows why we need to start looking at whole pictures. For one thing, whether we are talking about stock markets, computer networks, or biological organisms, individual parts only make sense when we remember that they are part of larger wholes. And perhaps more importantly, those wholes can take on behaviors that are strikingly different from that of their pieces. Miller, a leading expert in the computational study of complex adaptive systems, reveals astounding global patterns linking the organization of otherwise radically different structures: It might seem crude, but a beehive's temperature control system can help predict market fluctuations and a mammal's heartbeat can help us understand the "heartbeat" of a city and adapt urban planning accordingly. From enduring racial segregation to sudden stock market disasters, once we start drawing links between complex systems, we can start solving what otherwise might be totally intractable problems. Thanks to this revolutionary perspective, we can finally transcend the limits of reductionism and discover crucial new ideas. Scientifically founded and beautifully written, A Crude Look at the Whole is a powerful exploration of the challenges that we face as a society. As it reveals, taking the crude look might be the only way to truly see.

30 review for A Crude Look at the Whole: The Science of Complex Systems in Business, Life, and Society

  1. 4 out of 5

    Santiago Ortiz

    In truth, a book with this title should have more than 500 pages. Complexity Sciences being so rich, nurtured by so many contributions coming from all sciences –including social– it feels like the book presents a too narrow perspective. The author manages, nonetheless, to give an overview of diverse systems –none of them having neurons– that behave following similar principles and rules and that, the reader will be convinced, think and make decisions. It really makes a case for the central preten In truth, a book with this title should have more than 500 pages. Complexity Sciences being so rich, nurtured by so many contributions coming from all sciences –including social– it feels like the book presents a too narrow perspective. The author manages, nonetheless, to give an overview of diverse systems –none of them having neurons– that behave following similar principles and rules and that, the reader will be convinced, think and make decisions. It really makes a case for the central pretension of complex sciences, which is that leaving aside idiosyncratic aspects of a system, one can find truths also valid in multiple other systems, regardless of their differences in molecular composition (they could even be immaterial) or scale, and that complexity is really the 'study of everything'. Markets, single cells, agents with cooperative dilemas, hives or algorithms finding low energy states in a group of molecules; systems that could be found in nature or culture, artificially set on a laboratory or simulated on a computer; they all run equivalent rules that allow them to explore solution landscapes, plagued with dangerous mediocre local maxima, for which these systems deploy surprisingly similar strategies to escape. Fascinating.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jurgen Appelo

    A nice but rather basic collection of stories and examples. Beehives and sandpiles, I've read the same things many times before. A nice but rather basic collection of stories and examples. Beehives and sandpiles, I've read the same things many times before.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Mangoo

    John Miller and Scott Page wrote "Complex adaptive systems" a few years ago, a book that stands as one of the best introductions to what they describe (the first, theoretical and methodological part about modeling is great and time-standing). More recently, both have followed up on that research and written more washed down texts. "Diversity and complexity" by Page is closely related to his own Coursera MOOC on Model Thinking, while the present book (with title taken from a recurrent expression John Miller and Scott Page wrote "Complex adaptive systems" a few years ago, a book that stands as one of the best introductions to what they describe (the first, theoretical and methodological part about modeling is great and time-standing). More recently, both have followed up on that research and written more washed down texts. "Diversity and complexity" by Page is closely related to his own Coursera MOOC on Model Thinking, while the present book (with title taken from a recurrent expression from Sante Fe Institute's Murray Gell-Mann) serves as a generic intro to the various threads of research and focus that gravitate around the institute. I guess it is admirable that an expert like Miller takes time to pen such an easy to read, clear and broad short text - in fact, this may per se represent a challenge considering the opportunity costs. However, such attempts may also bring water to those who criticize the institute for a sort of "vanilla flavour" approach to complex systems, especially when, as in the present case, there is quite a lot of verbosity, even reiterated, that is only vaguely anchored to facts and eventually referring to something more than metaphors and superficial connections. This does not mean that purported connections among apparently distant domains (biological systems and atoms, for instance) do not exist, they may even underlie common, and generalisable, models, however this text remains always at a rather high level (besides, it mostly lacks references). The last chapter on the core theorem of complex adaptive systems, arising from Metropolis algorithms and Markov chains, is the best and partially redeems the previous ones. There is even an epilogue that summarizes all chapters. This one is for those starters that would like to quickly check whether complex systems are really worth investigating - the answer is yes, though they should prefer "Complexity - A guided tour" by Melanie Mitchell when possible.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Alan Kang

    A good plan, poorly executed. Individual components of the book are quite good, but the book as a whole is not. Maybe the author wanted to make us truely *feel* what is wrong with a reductionism. Each chapter introduces single concept, followed by real world cases. So far so good. The problem is that since the cases are too complicated and requires too much background knowledge or context, the author has to explain too much about the cases themselves. Aren't the cases supposed to help readers unde A good plan, poorly executed. Individual components of the book are quite good, but the book as a whole is not. Maybe the author wanted to make us truely *feel* what is wrong with a reductionism. Each chapter introduces single concept, followed by real world cases. So far so good. The problem is that since the cases are too complicated and requires too much background knowledge or context, the author has to explain too much about the cases themselves. Aren't the cases supposed to help readers understand the subject of the book?

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

    Doesn't really do the job I hoped it would in examining complex systems. One moment, the author delves into some rather arcane methodologies (perhaps he doesn't think so), the next he's winging through the nature of capitalism or the invention of nuclear weapons. Nary a mention of how ethical systems interact with his business/life/society discussions. Doesn't really do the job I hoped it would in examining complex systems. One moment, the author delves into some rather arcane methodologies (perhaps he doesn't think so), the next he's winging through the nature of capitalism or the invention of nuclear weapons. Nary a mention of how ethical systems interact with his business/life/society discussions.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Eric Lawton

    Too simple. Doesn't really tie things together or provide overview of the field. Any intelligent person would be better off with same author's Complex Adaptive Systems. Too simple. Doesn't really tie things together or provide overview of the field. Any intelligent person would be better off with same author's Complex Adaptive Systems.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Dion Schuit

    A good introduction to the world of complex systems which is quite intriguing. The book is well written but I would have expected more real world application to the theory.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Prasanna

    This seems to be an abridged version of John H. Miller and Scott E. Page's "Complex Adaptive Systems" which I have yet to read. This book does a good job of bringing the major points of studying a complex system in any field with references to the experiments conducted. As more and more of social discipline become cross-disciplinary, this thinking is important. While the author talks about reductive nature of current scientific thinking and the need for a broader way of thinking about science ac This seems to be an abridged version of John H. Miller and Scott E. Page's "Complex Adaptive Systems" which I have yet to read. This book does a good job of bringing the major points of studying a complex system in any field with references to the experiments conducted. As more and more of social discipline become cross-disciplinary, this thinking is important. While the author talks about reductive nature of current scientific thinking and the need for a broader way of thinking about science across disciplines, I found the book to be more intent on exploring anecdotes and fairly repetitive examples on beehives and sandpiles. There are certain sections that come across as a little too hand wavy (nuclear weapons for instance) while others seem heavily extrapolated from limited experiments at least in the context of the book. This is still a decent book for introduction to the topic of Complex Adaptive Systems, but too short for the topics that are mentioned here. I'd love to read a more detailed treatment on the topic.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jesse Ofner

    John Millers book provides a sweeping overview of complexity and how the systems that we are building are complex but not unknowable. He deploys easy to understand analogy for the science of complex systems and discusses the emergence of the science of complexity and the study of complex systems. In today's highly networked and interconnected world, having an understanding of how complex systems work and how we can model them is a key skill. From Medicine to Marketing complex systems play a role John Millers book provides a sweeping overview of complexity and how the systems that we are building are complex but not unknowable. He deploys easy to understand analogy for the science of complex systems and discusses the emergence of the science of complexity and the study of complex systems. In today's highly networked and interconnected world, having an understanding of how complex systems work and how we can model them is a key skill. From Medicine to Marketing complex systems play a role in our daily lives and being able to navigate them is important to thriving in the information age. This is really a primer piece, he only briefly touches on the tools like MCMC and Bayesian probability theory (important to AI and ML and predictive analytics) and he doesn't get too much into details of the workings, but it's enough to give anyone an idea of where to look next.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Paul LaFontaine

    Simple interactions can create complex outcomes. A beehive can keep its temperature regulated with each bee reacting to its internal set point. Animals with shells have patterns emerge from simple rulesets. And human brains are not the only form of intelligence. At times thought provoking, mostly basically descriptive, this book took a fascinating concept and presented it in a pretty ordinary way. The author's love of economics and market forces took it in a less than interesting direction for m Simple interactions can create complex outcomes. A beehive can keep its temperature regulated with each bee reacting to its internal set point. Animals with shells have patterns emerge from simple rulesets. And human brains are not the only form of intelligence. At times thought provoking, mostly basically descriptive, this book took a fascinating concept and presented it in a pretty ordinary way. The author's love of economics and market forces took it in a less than interesting direction for much of the early book and in no part were the implications of what he was presenting discussed. Yes, the birds and bees create patterns, but what could that mean for our experience? Where might this all go? This was one of those books I finished with the thought that it could have been so much more. Cautiously recommend.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Carrabis

    Wow what a good read and fun book. I'd place this book on the other side of PopSci as some of the discussions may be much for the casual reader. For me, I could've used a bit more science (mathematic examples). That noted, much of this book was revelatory to me (and I've dogeared it to death to prove it). I'm familiar with the subject matter from my research days and some of his examples were completely new to me in a wonderful, illustrative way. I recognized new concepts for my storytelling and Wow what a good read and fun book. I'd place this book on the other side of PopSci as some of the discussions may be much for the casual reader. For me, I could've used a bit more science (mathematic examples). That noted, much of this book was revelatory to me (and I've dogeared it to death to prove it). I'm familiar with the subject matter from my research days and some of his examples were completely new to me in a wonderful, illustrative way. I recognized new concepts for my storytelling and for my research into how authors can improve their market standings. Good stuff, and a good book. Strongly suggested.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Joni Baboci

    John Miller gives a comprehensive and very readable account of complex systems. With the exception on the chapter on MCMC (Markov chain Monte Carlo) algorithms - all other chapters are easily digestible and offer a general understanding of topics as varied as: emergence, feedback loops, heterogeneity, rugged terrain search, intelligence, distributed decision-making, scales of abstraction, networks, power law scaling, cooperation in game theory, and self-organized criticality. I think it's a rare John Miller gives a comprehensive and very readable account of complex systems. With the exception on the chapter on MCMC (Markov chain Monte Carlo) algorithms - all other chapters are easily digestible and offer a general understanding of topics as varied as: emergence, feedback loops, heterogeneity, rugged terrain search, intelligence, distributed decision-making, scales of abstraction, networks, power law scaling, cooperation in game theory, and self-organized criticality. I think it's a rare book, in that it manages to compress hundreds of fantastic concepts and ideas in less than 300 pages. Highly recommended as a great primer (or a rerun) on the subject of complexity.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Emily

    Thought this was a pretty good intro to a lot of interconnected topics that I’m interested in learning more about recently. It doesn’t get too in depth though, which could be seen as a flaw. I enjoy the structure of this book, each chapter builds up and the epilogue provides a pretty compact summary as a refresher. Going to extract out some of my highlights and notes and try to compress into something useful for me going forward. It made me think a lot about my time as a student at CMU and all o Thought this was a pretty good intro to a lot of interconnected topics that I’m interested in learning more about recently. It doesn’t get too in depth though, which could be seen as a flaw. I enjoy the structure of this book, each chapter builds up and the epilogue provides a pretty compact summary as a refresher. Going to extract out some of my highlights and notes and try to compress into something useful for me going forward. It made me think a lot about my time as a student at CMU and all of the other departments that have so many things going on ‘underneath them’.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Walter Underwood

    This was a book where I already knew the tech for the first half of each chapter, but the last half was interesting. Except the final chapter about Markov Chain Monte Carlo algorithms. Nothing there was surprising, but I hadn't put it together. I'll be using examples from this at my job, because I work on distributed systems. And yes, they behave in unexpected ways. We had one of those this morning. It was resolved, but it was a surprise. This was a book where I already knew the tech for the first half of each chapter, but the last half was interesting. Except the final chapter about Markov Chain Monte Carlo algorithms. Nothing there was surprising, but I hadn't put it together. I'll be using examples from this at my job, because I work on distributed systems. And yes, they behave in unexpected ways. We had one of those this morning. It was resolved, but it was a surprise.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Ogi Ogas

    My ratings of books on Goodreads are solely a crude ranking of their utility to me, and not an evaluation of literary merit, entertainment value, social importance, humor, insightfulness, scientific accuracy, creative vigor, suspensefulness of plot, depth of characters, vitality of theme, excitement of climax, satisfaction of ending, or any other combination of dimensions of value which we are expected to boil down through some fabulous alchemy into a single digit.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Morgan Plume

    Of course john Miller would write a book called A crude look at the whole because is a sexual predator worldshiddeninplainsight.com

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jen Haskell

    Was hoping for something with more data and insight. This is just a collection of thought experiments to understand basics in economic theory.

  18. 5 out of 5

    l9y17

    Interesting read. Miller's book is comprehensive, enjoyed his quotations at the beginning of each chapter. Interesting read. Miller's book is comprehensive, enjoyed his quotations at the beginning of each chapter.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sheppard

    This is an important overview to Complex Adaptive Systems and is a must read for those trying to figure out the basics of how our market system works and how complex systems throughout our world operate. it is not comprehensive nor is it meant to be. This is a perfect introduction to concepts like self segregation, and even its use in bio mechanics. It is a primer for those interested in how the complexity of our world really operates. it is not the first book I have read on this subject but for This is an important overview to Complex Adaptive Systems and is a must read for those trying to figure out the basics of how our market system works and how complex systems throughout our world operate. it is not comprehensive nor is it meant to be. This is a perfect introduction to concepts like self segregation, and even its use in bio mechanics. It is a primer for those interested in how the complexity of our world really operates. it is not the first book I have read on this subject but for those who have little exposure to this discipline it is perfect

  20. 4 out of 5

    Bernd

    I enjoyed how this book put complexity science into life's context, historically, culturally, socially, and business. With lots of real-world example to illustrate patterns of complexity the book was very accessible to a lay reader. One can wish that more people become familiar with the concepts of non-linear systems, as they help understand the causes of many of our societal problems. One way to achieve this broader understanding would be to read this book. With 180 pages it is on the lighter s I enjoyed how this book put complexity science into life's context, historically, culturally, socially, and business. With lots of real-world example to illustrate patterns of complexity the book was very accessible to a lay reader. One can wish that more people become familiar with the concepts of non-linear systems, as they help understand the causes of many of our societal problems. One way to achieve this broader understanding would be to read this book. With 180 pages it is on the lighter side and the accessibility of its prose should make it palatable to a broader audience.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    Very interesting, but not very in depth. While I found myself enjoying the presentation of a lot of new, fascinating ideas, he never really dug into any of them beyond the surface. However, it did make me want to read more on the subject.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Russ

    The title says it all. This is a crude look at complexity theory. I still haven't found a satisfactory book about the theory. He spends a lot of time talking about honey bees, Balinese rice farmers and the stock market. The title says it all. This is a crude look at complexity theory. I still haven't found a satisfactory book about the theory. He spends a lot of time talking about honey bees, Balinese rice farmers and the stock market.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Bart

    For the most part, a tidy synthesis of what Santa Fe Institute writing preceded this book - though this book's publication is wholly justified by its behive-as-brain metaphor. For the most part, a tidy synthesis of what Santa Fe Institute writing preceded this book - though this book's publication is wholly justified by its behive-as-brain metaphor.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    003 M6486 2015

  25. 4 out of 5

    Adam Rod

    Should be regarded as a introductory book to complex systems, it does not go to deep into the issue rathers portraits overall picture.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Gary

    Very basic, the text is kept dry and stylistically lacking flow. Intro books should captivate and leave you wanting more. Not this one.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Hamilton Carvalho

    A nice complement to Melanie Mitchel's "Complexity" book. A nice complement to Melanie Mitchel's "Complexity" book.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jason

  29. 4 out of 5

    Christian

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jordan Bramble

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