Believe it or not, resolving the issue of the “chippiness” of your chocolate chip ice cream is an exercise in complexity. There’s a variety of ways to approach it: some good, some bad. The optimum outcome is ensured if the testing panel is represented by different, but relevant, points of view.

Scott Page, Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science and Economics at the University of Michigan, explained in an address to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts (RSA) in London today how Ben & Jerry’s determined the volume and size of chips in their chocolate chip brand. Laying out a range of options in a large room, the testers placed tubs of rising chip size along one axis, and tubs with an increasing number of chips along the other axis. The grid produced all the various options in between. From a complexity theorist’s point of view, the resultant scores should look like a rugged landscape, with peaks of preference forming across the matrix pointing to the best combination.

But, as Page said, chippiness was only one way of looking at the problem. Continue reading ‘how “chippy” do you like your ice cream?’

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One of the peculiar features of bias is a tendency to want to have it both ways. Take for example the criticism of Bob Dylan’s agreement with Starbucks for the coffee chain to exclusively sell his Live at the Gaslight 1962 CD, which contains the earliest known recordings of his classics “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Dylan, who has long been an icon of the 1960s despite repeated attempts to disassociate himself from the era, is accused of “selling out” to a multinational. Yet, there’s no criticism, rejection or even mention of Starbucks’ social programs, such as its practice of matching partner and customer volunteer hours with cash contributions to nonprofit organizations and support for ecological coffee growing. It’s a case of ignoring the inconvenient.

At another level, Dylan’s decision along with those by others, such as Ray Charles’ estate, is indicative of the rising power of artists. Dylan doesn’t have to depend any longer on old established outlets to sell his music. He can bypass them. The deal with Starbucks gives him more leverage in deciding how his music should be distributed. This is subversion 21st-century style. The tension between the creative and the commercial frequently goes wrong and the creative often does not win out. However, just this year, Starbucks was credited with helping the New York folk-rock group Antigone Rising achieve a nationwide audience in the US. In 3 weeks, it sold 35,000 of its debut album, “From the Ground Up.”

Similarly, consumers find themselves with a widening range of choice in where they can buy their goods. They can choose the most comfortable environment, whether it is the internet or a cafe. The shopping experience has become as decisive as the purchase itself. A total of 775,000 albums, or some 25% of the sales of Ray Charles’ last album Genius Loves Company were sold at Starbucks.

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