"You can't get lost in Venice" or How an 8 mile run became a half marathon

"You can't get lost in Venice," one of the guides told us, "It's an island!" While that may be true, you can still take a lot of detours, and discover numerous dead ends!

I'd set out to run this course, an 8 mile jog around Venice. Unfortunately, with no internet access to zoom in and see street names, I could only go on memory. "No matter," I thought, "I know the main points I need to visit, I'm sure I'll figure it out". That turned out to be mostly wishful thinking: once you're in the maze of Venetian canals and streets, it's really easy to take a wrong turn. The worst mistake I made was in the north east corner of the city where I had to retrace my steps considerably.

I did have some good luck though. Just after Piazza San Marco (the main tourist attraction) I ran into our landlord (pun intended) as he was walking to work. Carlo was very helpful and gave me directions to the bridge that would take me to the southern part of Venice. There I made my second big mistake. I ran so far west that I came to a road... with cars! Which was worrying... There aren't any roads and cars in Venice. Turns out I was in the port. Oops! :-) Fortunately a busload of friendly polizia set me on the right path again. 

In the end none of this mattered: It was a great run and I got to see more of beautiful Venice than I ever could have otherwise.

Aston Martin, Ferrari, Lotus, MG... Oh my!

We spent the last few days with friends in Tours. They have a beautiful house... and an impressive collection of cars. My favorite is the Aston Martin Vantage: elegant and powerful, it was fun to drive. The  Ferrari California was gorgeous. The Lotus Elise is Thomas' favorite: a souped-up racing kart, it just sticks to the road. The old MG reminded us of times gone by.

John Cleese's Principles of Creativity

Highlights from a presentation by John Cleese on creativity. He lays out a few principles for achieving it

  1. Got a problem? Sleep on it. Let your unconscious mind find the solution
  2. Another way to leverage your unconscious: it will keep working on tasks you've completed. When you revisit them, you'll find improvements waiting for you
  3. Avoid interruptions, they destroy flow
  4. Ideas "don't come from laptops", they come from thinking. You won't be creative if you're "running around all day, keeping balls in the air"
  5. To foster creativity you need to establish:
    1. Boundaries of space: a place where you can think without being interrupted
    2. Boundaries of time: a clear timespan during which you will think (though he doesn't explicitly say this, I've found the constraint of a deadline is a good spur to creativity)
None of this is new, but it's a good set of principles nonetheless. Here's the video.

Diseases make you Dumber... and Smarter?

Couple of articles in The Economist caught my eye recently. The first on the effects of toxoplasmosis and human behavior, the second on the link between disease and intelligence.

Toxoplasma gondii is a parasite whose lifecycle alternates between rodents and cats. When it infects rats and mice it lodges itself in their brains and causes them to behave in an erratic, risk tolerant, manner. It may even make them attracted to the smell of cats. Once the infected rodent is eaten by a cat, the parasite eventually ends up in its feces, to be ingested by a rat. Repeat ad infinitum...

It turns out toxoplasma has this effect by producing dopamine which then acts on their hosts' nervous systems. What then is its impact on humans? Some studies show a correlation between toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia. Others, a higher level of road accidents in infected drivers (there's that increase in risk tolerance again). But "some researchers go further and propose that entire societies are being altered by Toxoplasma".

"In 2006 Kevin Lafferty of the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a paper noting a correlation between levels of neuroticism established by national surveys in various countries and the level of Toxoplasma infection recorded in pregnant women (a group who are tested routinely). The places he looked at ranged from phlegmatic Britain, with a neuroticism score of -0.8 and a Toxoplasma  infection rate of 6.6%, to hot-blooded France, which scored 1.8 and had an infection rate of 45%. […]

To repeat, correlation is not causation, and a lot more work would need to be done to prove the point. But it is just possible that a parasite’s desire to get eaten by a cat is shaping the cultures of the world."

The second article reviews a study comparing national IQ and a country's disease burden, i.e. the "disability-adjusted life years lost caused by 28 infectious diseases". They found a 67% correlation between the two and though they tried to find other causes, they kept coming back to the impact of disease on IQ.

The article is worth reading in its entirety. As with the case of toxoplasmosis, correlation is not causation, but if true, it's a key finding.

"If [the researchers] are right, it suggests that the control of such diseases is crucial to a country’s development in a way that had not been appreciated before. Places that harbour a lot of parasites and pathogens not only suffer the debilitating effects of disease on their workforces, but also have their human capital eroded, child by child, from birth."

So if we have evidence of diseases' deleterious effect on humans, couldn't other diseases make you smarter, stronger, or healthier? Wouldn't this give them a better chance at long term survival? 

In May of this year, scientists presented evidence of just such a effect: a bacteria linked to increases in learning behavior.

The researchers found that that mice fed live Mycobacterium vaccae "navigated the maze twice as fast and with less demonstrated anxiety behaviors as control mice" and speculated that "that creating learning environments in schools that include time in the outdoors where M. vaccae is present may decrease anxiety and improve the ability to learn new tasks."

All this makes me wonder how prevalent such effects are in our lives. Could it be that these little symbionts have shaped our evolution unbeknownst to us? And how would we know?

Here's one way: let's see if our collective IQ decreases as we all use increasing amounts of anti-bacterial soap! :-)

iPad AntennaGate

There's been a lot of talk on the net about AntennaGate over the past few weeks: if you hold an iPhone4 the wrong way, it loses signal strength and drops calls. Apple called attention to the fact that other cell phones also suffer from this (much to the annoyance of the other phone makers :-) though the iPhone4 seems to be the worst affected.

But where, in all this, is the iPad? The iPad 3G has an antenna. Does it also suffer from signal attenuation if you hold it "wrong"? No one dared ask the question...

Until now! :-)

In case you're wondering...
- Yes, I know I messed up pronouncing "fanboy", we only did a single ad lib take
- The footage shot on a properly held iPhone4 (thanks Aron!)
- No iPads were harmed in the making of this video

Gliding in the Swiss Alps

Got some great pictures of gliders while hiking. They swoop in overhead, almost silent, skimming the mountain sides. I've always admired glider pilots: they have so little margin of error when landing. In the Cessna I rent, it's easy to use power to compensate for any issues with the approach, wind variations, unexpected traffic, etc. You don't have that luxury in a glider! Must be a real rush to fly one of these in the mountains. Gotta get an intro flight next time I'm here.

If ever someone googles their glider's tail number: this one is HB-3427. Contact me if you want the full size pictures.

Useful innovation framework: 7 Levels of Change

In April I attended a seminar given by Rolf Smith, innovation guru and author of the 7 Levels of Change. We covered a lot of ground in a single day but the part that resonated most for me was the one that focused on those seven levels.

(Yes, he spelled "Diffferently" that way on purpose!)

The seven levels describe the various stages you go through as you walk up the "innovation" ladder. Here's Rolf with the list.

Here's how his model works:
  1. Do the right things: Rolf defines innovation to include implementation so level 1 focuses on clarifying what key tasks to carry out
  2. Do things right: Next up is basic execution. Block and tackle
  3. Do things better: Now we're up to continuous improvement
  4. Do away with things: This is the pivotal level. Once you reach this point, you're likely saturated. All your time is allocated to carrying out those tasks and trying to get better at them. If you want to keep progressing, you need to make time. This means applying Pareto to focus on the 20% of tasks that generate 80% of the value and ruthlessly cutting out the rest. This gives you time back to explore higher levels
  5. Do things other people are doing: Look around you for great ideas and copy, extend, and incorporate them
  6. Do things no one else is doing: Here you're truly creating something new, or "diffferent" as Rolf would put it
  7. Do things that can't be done: Do the impossible! Break the mold!

While it seems simple at first blush, I've shared the model with co-workers and it's given us a very useful vocabulary around key areas of focus:
  • "We're spending all our time at level 3 here"
  • "I don't think we're past level 1 for this project, we really need to understand it better"
  • "Yup, that's level 6 alright, now... how do we do it?"

You can apply this model to individuals, teams, and even corporations. Some people are more convergent, i.e. execution/solution focused, and they tend to inhabit levels 1 to 3. Others are divergent, i.e. creative / idea generators, and they like to live at levels 5 to 7. What about you?

I've come to think of this model as more of a seesaw with levels 1-3 on one side, 4 at the pivot point, and 5-7 on the other side. While individuals may favor one side or another, really successful organizations are able, in fact need, to balance both.

(Execution or idea heavy? :-) Source)

For example:
  • I'd peg Apple as a level 6-7 company but they wouldn't be successful without their excellent ability to execute on those ideas
  • Microsoft? Mostly level 3 I think though parts are level 5 (e.g. Windows 7 Phone), and level 6 (e.g. Project Natal / Kinect for Xbox 360). The famous quip of it taking Microsoft three releases to get a product right may be due to moving from level 1 to 3 :-)
  • Google? Again it varies by team but a good deal of levels 5, 6, and even 7 once in a while
  • Dell, HP, Lenovo? Solid at levels 2 to 3, some level 5 happening
  • Toyota? The Prius was a huge level 6 success but given recent quality problems it seems they neglected levels 2 and 3
  • GE? Pioneers of level 3 6-sigma but innovation is far down the list when you think of this company

How can you use these levels? Here are some ideas:
  • Reflect on your own natural level. Are you operating at the right level to solve the problems you're working on?
  • Dip into level 4 and change / replace / eliminate some of your habits, esp. the most ingrained ones. Does this free you up to move up or down the levels?
  • Next time you're brainstorming, ask people for ideas at each level to force them to think across the change spectrum

Rolf's book is full of tools and ideas of how to get the most out of each level.
His site also offers a fuller explanation of the levels.

Tombraider Remembered

I have very fond memories of Tombraider. It came out in 1996 and was a very refreshing change from the Doom franchise popular at the time. It was 3rd person, focused on exploration just as much as killing monsters, the main character had a much larger range of motion than we were previously used to, and (of course) you got to play a pretty and capable female version of Indiana Jones named Lara Croft. What more could you want? :-)

Giving in to nostalgia, I recently played the Tombraider demo via the excellent DOSBox on my Macbook Pro. 

As far as I can tell the game ran flawlessly but, well, sometimes things are best left in the past. The graphics that I remembered so fondly haven't aged well. And even on a powerful new MBP with DOSBox claiming 0 frameskips, the refreshes still left a lot to be desired and sometimes seemed to roll down the screen. I also tried it inside a Parallels VM with the same results.

Still, it was fun to revive Tombraider. If nothing else it enabled me to give my sons a glimpse of the game that inspired many of the ones they play today. Wish someone would refresh the first game, the subsequent versions never measured up to that initial burst of creativity.