Awesome Castle at Martigny, Switzerland

The Chateau de la Batiaz is a small but very well restored 13th century castle and well worth the visit. Our boys loved it... So did we.

The castle is at the nexus of the northern and eastern parts of the Rhone (a major European river) valley. Its strategic importance dates back to ancient times when Martigny was a Roman town, when it was the gateway to one of the only passes into Italy. In fact the amphitheater is still used as an open air cinema. 

The Chateau de la Batiaz withstood a siege by the Count of Savoie in the fourteenth century but a few years later the Duke got his way by moving enough of his men into town and having them vote him Martigny's new protector. The castle soon returned to local control though where it pretty much stayed until it was burned in 1518.

In addition to awesome views and cool battlements the castle has the requisite collection of torture instruments and, best of all, a set of medieval weapons that you can play with (unsupervised!)   

Clash of Exterior Designs: Past and Future

Though a little shocking at first, I think the juxtaposition of modern and traditional facades works pretty well in these two houses from Sion, Switzerland.

I assume that a glass (?) facade might have been a cheaper option than a full-on renovation. Wonder what the neighbors think of it? I do like the color coordinated fire hydrant in the lower left corner. Nice touch :-)

Great Articles on the Beauty of Maths

Earlier this year the New York Times published a great series of articles on mathematics by Cornell math professor Steven Strogatz.

Strogatz does a wonderful job sharing the wonders of maths for the lay person, starting from simple counting and finishing up with more complex topics like integration, probabilities, and some of David Hilbert's work.

Here's a beautiful example from an early column: Rock Groups. The question posed is why is the sum of consecutive odd numbers always a perfect square?
1 + 3 = 4
1 + 3 + 5 = 9
1 + 3 + 5 + 7 = 16
1 + 3 + 5 + 7 + 9 = 25

At first glance this is an interesting observation but hard to understand... Until you look at these equations graphically:

And then it makes perfect sense!

Another favorite focuses on limits and gives an elegant application to finding the area of a circle.

A series well worth reading and, if you have any, sharing with your children.

Italy is truly Scooter Nation

Scooters are everywhere and, given challenging Italian driving conditions, come in very handy when weaving around everything else on the road. As our taxi driver said: "Widda car isa traffic, widda scooter: no traffic!"

This picture was taken in Amalfi, a beautiful costal town a few hours south of Naples.

Golden Scarab, Golden Hair

I love insects. Many are a beautiful blend of art and science: amazing miniaturization packaged as a work of art. This golden scarab is a perfect example. No wonder the Egyptians revered them. Sadly I only got this one shot in Katrine's hair before it flew away.
Unfortunately I have no idea what kind of scarab it is, or even if it qualifies as a scarab instead of a beetle. I think it deserves the name though!

No escaping commercialism... Alpine vending machine!

You're 6,000ft up a mountain in the Swiss Alps. Enjoying spectacular views, wooden glades, the sounds of nature, and suddenly you spot... a Coke vending machine!

Adventure Parks are all the rage here in Switzerland. The one we visited above the village of Vercorin is accessible by cable car. And yes, amidst 400ft long ziplines and arboreal escapades, we really did find this lone Coke machine. I guess you just can't beat the feeling... No matter where you are.

The price of a drink? 4SF or roughly US$3.70.

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.

Tourbillon Castle, Sion, Switzerland

This ruined medieval castle sits high on a hill overlooking Sion, capital of the Swiss canton of the Valais. Originally built in the thirteenth century, it was finally abandoned in 1788 after a fire burned it down. The stones were used for surrounding buildings until the 19th century, when it was declared a historical monument. As far as I know the castle was never captured, which isn't surprising when you see the place: its hillsides are sheer.

The ruins are great fun to explore and one of the rewards for making the steep climb to the summit. Another is the chapel containing medieval area paintings.  But maybe the best rewards are the spectacular views of the Valais, Sion, and the river Rhone.

Note the absence of railings in the last picture... You'd never see that in the US! I love living there but I think Europe in general has a much saner attitude to risk.

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.