MOOC on complexity


I have enrolled in a MOOC offered by Santa Fe Institute on Complexity. See update of 16 February opposite the middle of the sidebar below.

Introduction to Complexity


About the Course:

In this eleven-week course you’ll learn about the tools used by scientists to understand complex systems. The topics you’ll learn about include dynamics, chaos, fractals, information theory, self-organization, agent-based modeling, and networks. You’ll also get a sense of how these topics fit together to help explain how complexity arises and evolves in nature, society, and technology. There are no prerequisites. You don’t need a science or math background to take this introductory course; it simply requires an interest in the field and the willingness to participate in a hands-on approach to the subject.

About the Instructor:

Melanie Mitchell is Professor of Computer Science at Portland State University, and External Professor and Member of the Science Board at the Santa Fe Institute. She is the author or editor of five books and over 70 scholarly papers in the fields of artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and complex systems. Her most recent book, Complexity: A Guided Tour, published in 2009 by Oxford University Press, won the 2010 Phi Beta Kappa Science Book Award. It was also named by as one of the ten best science books of 2009, and was long-listed for the Royal Society’s 2010 book prize.


Lecture units (approximate 1 per week):

  1. What is Complexity?
  2. Dynamics, Chaos, and Fractals
  3. Information, Order, and Randomness
  4. Cellular Automata
  5. Genetic Algorithms
  6. Self-Organization in Nature
  7. Modeling Social Systems
  8. Networks
  9. Scaling
  10. Cities as Complex Systems
  11. Virtual Field Trip; Final Exam

I’ll keep you posted.




We begin with talking head video.

Melanie Mitchell
Melanie Mitchell

schedHere’s lesson #1:

Ants, cities, human brain, the economy, etc.

Common properties:

  1. simple components (or agents) relative to entire system
  2. components react in non-linear ways
  3. no central point of control/self-organizing
  4. emergent behaviors — collective outputs of whole systems

I am not accustomed to listening to someone talk without being able to interrupt them. My mind feels like it’s in slow-motion. If we had a real-time twitter feed, I’d feel more engaged. This is more like watching t.v. That often makes me nod off. I just finished 1.3. Break time.

[I will add to this post as the MOOC progresses.]

Update. February 16.

NetLogo is a cool, free, instructive piece of software for analyzing complex models. Grab it at

From the File menu, you can download complexity results from biology or flocking or art or games or math. Or make up your own scenarios.

I am currently running simulations of 50 and 200 ants clearing out three food sources as I vary conditions. Or try to – I am currently stuck, trying to find how to adjust Max Turn Angle and Max Set-size.

NetLogo is simplicity itself. Select your scenario, set the parameters, push Setup and then G0. Count how long it takes. Do it several times to gauge the impact of outcomes.

I am turned on by the model. It’s a blend of Melanie telling me what to do, running me through a practice, then an unmarked quiz, and then the real quiz. I get to learn by experimenting; this makes me more confidence I’ll actually learn something. Just having the model makes me feel more clued-in than before; I know I’m going to be pumping scenarios into it on a regular basis.

My relationship with Melanie might be tighter. Granted, she’s a young science geek teaching in Portland, but she also has an appointment at Santa Fe Institute. She’s quite serious and has told us almost nothing about herself. Perhaps this is the best way to do it. In my case, I’d like a few jokes about Portlandia.

Melanie’s voice is clear, but flat. I once talked with the guy at Stanford who gives speech-training to Stanford professors. They all need it but most of them duck it. Here’s some advice for academia: delivery matters. A great speaker with weak knowledge is more effective than a brilliant scientists who can’t speak forcefully. The 25 most popular college courses should all come on DVD with narration by James Earl Jones, Kenneth Branaugh, Bill Clinton, Judy Dench, Emma Thompson, and Lady GaGa.

This is not about Melanie, who is doing a satisfactory job right now. It was one thing to herd a hundred people into a lecture hall to try to make sense of some poor performing professor’s delivery. It’s another to speak to 100,000 people for 5 hours in a MOOC. That’s 250 YEARS of bad lecture. That’s treason to the human race.

ebbinghausWhile unattributed in NetLogo, this optimal illusion (the center circles are the same size) was created by Ebbinghaus, the discoverer of the Forgetting Curve.

Now I’m going to run a simulation of a rebellion.

“This project models the rebellion of a subjugated population against a central authority. The population wanders around randomly. If their level of grievance against the central authority is high enough, and their perception of the risks involved is low enough, they openly rebel. (Prepare for a red flash every now and then.) A separate population of police officers (“cops”), acting on behalf of the central authority, seeks to suppress the rebellion. The cops wander around randomly and arrest people who are actively rebelling.”

I’m starting with 1120 agents and 64 cops. Here’s what transpires when I punch the Go button.