Sunday, September 30, 2007

Three Down, One To Go ...

Well, here we are entering the final quarter of the year. Q3 was a hard fought, hard won quarter in which we managed to bring in the business necessary to keep us on plan for the year, but it was close!

Q4 has a couple of large deals that could put us in a very strong position for the year as a whole but we still have work to do to bring those home and so I won't be jinxing us by saying any more than that for now!

Time, too, to plan for '08, but at this point in the year this is a bit like trying to think about what's for dinner when you are still eating lunch: you know it's coming up, you know you'll be up for it when it arrives but right now there's dessert to take care of and it's all so distant somehow.

The picture? Caption competition! Usual prize: all glory, no fortune.

Friday, September 28, 2007

War Is Hell

Alas, can't include it directly into this posting but take a look at this YouTube offering.

Done that? Right. Things you might conclude from this, and by the numbers:

1. Allah is not Chinese, or if He is then He's not playing for the home-team's arms industry.

2. The power of prayer does not, apparently, extend to precluding weapon malfunctions.

3. If Al Quaeda offers you a job, don't check the box for "Artillery Division" or, for that matter, "Videography".

4. Ballistics 101 must be optional at terrorist school, or at the least these happy-campers missed the bit about laying down a repeatable pattern. Repeat after me, "mortars are not hand-guided weapons."

5. When videoing dangerous military operations, splash out for the really long telephoto lens. Your softer, fleshier parts will thank you later-on.

6. If Iran really is supplying these weapons to Iraqi insurgents then we should do everything we can to encourage the expansion of this trade.

Peace out.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

English Eccentrics

Lotus, Eater

Couple of snippets from the Daliy Telegraph I picked up on a BA flight.

In 1776, Augustus Montague Toplady wrote a "batty but oddly compelling article for The Gospel Magazine, in which he compared a rocketing National Debt which could never be paid off, to the extent of human sinfulness." The maths invloved goes something like this: "we sin every second of our sublunary duration", he said, and "our dreadful account stands as follows ... At 10 years old, each of us is chargeable with 315 millions and 720 thousand". Blimey, I may have had a less-than-angelic childhood but no way did I ever clock that tally up. Can't have been trying hard enough. Love the phrase "sublunary duration" though. Have to find a use for that one.

Coming much more up to date and far more down to earth, I noted that John Gardiner just died. He was a well know restorer of rare & classic racing cars; he was also the sort of engineer who would never compromise, and was blessed with the skill and intuition to recreate, from scratch, entire engines just by studying what was left over in some unrecogniseable mess of metallic junk. Apparently, he was contracted by Audi to restore and prepare a pre-war Auto Union. To quote from the Telegraph, "When Audi insisted on manufacturing the V16-cylinder engine crankshaft for these cars, it failed Gardiner's rigorous inspection; and when an Audi committee quibbled endlessly over technical details, Gardiner told them: 'Listen, all you've got to do is to sign the cheques and tell us how big you want the swastikas painted'".


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Limitless Reach?

Interesting rumour today: Google is looking to acquire Sirius, the satellite radio company, if the propsed merger between Sirius and XM doesn't come off.

Yes, there's the obvious aspect to this, namely providing another channel for the Google-takes-over-world-of-advertising play by allowing them to beam directly into you cars, home and ears even when not logged-on, but it also seems that the satellites that would come along with the deal have other capabilities that they could utilise.

At any given time, there are two Sirius satellites covering the U.S. out of the three that sit in varying elliptical orbits around the earth, and in contrast to XM Radio who went the geo-stationary approach. In addition to hundreds of potential radio channels, these satellites themselves can also stream TV programs and other digital content. However, what I hadn't realised was that they are also set up for two-way communications, pushing and pulling data from terminal devices.

Satellite-based internet access is already available in the US, as pioneered by Hughes, and if you line in an area where it's an option between that or dial-up then even the slow up-link speeds and painful latency times that go with a signal round-trip of 20,000 miles or so suddenly become bearable.

How, then, might Google leverage such a service? The story referenced above indicates that providing an internet connection to your car is definitely one option and doubtless there are many others you could think of too: mobile hand-held device that streams any kind of digital content plus it has an always-on internet connection for free, anyone?

But before we get too seduced by what's possible, let's look at the alternatives. 3G is already active in Europe and APAC providing ample bandwidth for data as well as voice traffic. Cars are already equipped with the means to manage those communications channels and it's only a matter of time before we see the first internet-enabled cars hitting the showrooms. The data rates, responsiveness etc. of those connections would be light years ahead of what the satellite-based approach could offer, with the sole exception of areas that have no cell coverage: an issue in Nevada, for example, less so in places where there are actually people with money to buy shiny new cars every couple of years, which is what's relevant here after all.

Adding it all up, it's a fun rumour and really does highlight the prevailing view that Google can pretty much do anything it damn well pleases right now. Stranger things have indeed happened - just look at the two satellite phone systems launched in the late 90s, Iridium and the other one, for example - and it's undeniable that Google has the financial clout and muscle to do it. However, I'm not convinced and I don't think it's real. But it could be ...

Monday, September 24, 2007

Bull or Bear?

Is it just me or does this feel like we are bumping up against a bit of a financial wall? Oil is sitting at $80 per barrel; the dollar continues to fall; despite taking a breather, the market is not able to keep above 13,500 without getting all wobbly; and now the UAW is out on strike.

While all this dollar weakness this all may be good for US exports, consumer spending still seems to be slowing and the declining housing market continues to add a drag-anchor to the whole domestic economy. Further cuts in interest rates are being talked about - again, and just a week or so after the last one - but take that step and you run the risk not only of sparking inflation but also of sending the dollar into a real tail-spin, further reducing the options available to the Federal Reserve to control things.

Perhaps I'm just tired and feeling a bit low from the travel, Q-end stress etc. Then again ... that may not make me wrong.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Cafe Marcella, Los Gatos

Look, the food was fine, OK? Really. And there was bread, water, everything. I mean, the minestrone I had was a bit bland and frankly it all felt more country than cosmopolitan, but no real complaints about the basics. Everyone else enjoyed all their dishes, and it was a good choice for ourselves plus the in-laws, always a tricky situation to solve for eating out, requiring that we find somewhere that serves good solid food without too much in the way of "fancy fixin's" shall we say. And spices are right out, 'kay?

However, I'm not planning to return. This place was deafening. The ceiling is low and the dining room quite broad, with hard walls and wainscoting. In short, nothing at all to absorb the roar of noise generated by a place packed with happy diners, as in "happy diners on a Friday night with a few bevvies under their belts". Despite the tables being fairly small - actually making things worse because then can then crowd more people in - it was impossible to hold a conversation without literally talking directly into the ear of the person sitting next to you.

Dining out is about much more than the food. The restaurant itself needs to be a place that you want to sit in to eat, otherwise we'd all just order take-out from our favourite chef, a process that would be far cheaper and generally much more convenient than heading down town, trying to park and then not being able to drink because you have to drive home.

If you do decide to go, find a time when it's not packed. Avoid Friday night at 7 pm like the plague, unless you spent all your youthful years at Black Sabbath concerts and hence came into the game half-deaf to begin with. Or you can sign.

Tripping Again

Washing Out

No, not a follow-up to the Drug Bunny post (which had nothing to do with drugs, just in case the DEA has figured blog-searching out), simply pointing out that I'm back on the road again. Off to Stockholm for a few days, home Thursday night. More planes, one train.

Oh, the picture? After this coming week, I'm home for a few days and then leave again to go back to Europe once more. I've still not fully readjusted from the Tokyo trip, and remain short on sleep. By mid October, I'm going to feel like that piece of wood.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Of The Feds, Fat and Foolishness

Oi, You There, Is That Grasshopper Rated For A Bloke As Fat As You?

According to USA Today, and as covered here, a little known byproduct of the "exploding tyres cause SUV wrecks" frenzy a couple of years ago, as brought to you by de-laminating Firestone rubber and the ubiquitous Ford Explorer, was that the Feds decided to invent yet another round of pointless rules and regulations to blight our lives with. Nope, I'm not surprised, either by that response or by the fact that they managed to get it all arse-over-end.

Simply put, they concocted a single formula to define what's a safe carrying weight for any vehicle and what's not, all based on the maximum number of occupants declared by the manufacturer. From 2006, the results of that single calculation are now stamped and stuck onto every new car sold here. Job done. And all with time left over for another round of doughnuts in Washington to celebrate a fine initiative that is clearly making America safer.

Well ... no. Instead, think more along the lines of "pointless government bloat, the sole purpose of which is to make them feel important and to keep the buggers employed" to help guide you back to reality. And even that cynicism might be underplaying things, as we shall see ...

Let's take an example: The Corvette. As American as apple pie and invading countries without the faintest idea of what to do when you win. Even the basic model packs 400 horsepower and 400 lb ft of torque. This thing could tow the space shuttle from California back to Florida and still out-drag your average Camry away from the lights. However, the Fed's formula says that the max. permissible passenger loading for this car is less than 4oo pounds. In other words, a couple of (US) average sized male adults (190 lbs each) alone exceeds that figure, not allowing for the needs of luggage to be carried nor even one of the occupants wearing a particularly heavy tweed that day.

How long, then, before the first law suit is brought in which an insurance company refuses to pay out after an accident by claiming that the records show the car involved was obviously being used unsafely simply because the passengers inside were a bit porkier than average or had the temerity to actually have an overnight bag on board?

Sound far-fetched? Then you don't know the US insurance industry. Loopholes like this are their bread-and-butter, their very lifeblood. Indeed, if you were a real cynic, you might end up concluding that they helped lobby for this rule to be introduced in the first place ....

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

When To Sell, When to Hold?

Interesting post on why a particular entrepreneur decided to sell for $5m instead of holding out, raising another round and going for it (where "it" might or might not be substituted for by "broke").

Hard to argue either with the maths or with the overall logic. Indeed, the most remarkable thing about Silicon Valley might well be the number of people who have gone down the wrong road, relying on hubris and blind-faith instead of a more reasoned analysis of what their longer-term business options actually are. Of course, selling-out at the first hurdle isn't always the right decision for a business owner, any more than declining to be the 5th Beatle was a good move for Messrs Best, Preston and others when opportunity came-a-knockin'. However, I'd bet a big tranche of company stock on finding that the total number of those who should have sold and didn't is far higher than those who could of and passed.

Regrets like those can last a lifetime.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Health Care Costs

You Get The Analogy, Right?

It seems that no matter how many people complain about it, how complete agreement is that the system is broken or how expensive the whole shooting match becomes, nothing ever changes. Costs continue to outstrip inflation, often growing as much as 15% per year in order just to keep benefits to employees flat.

We're starting to look at trying the new HSA plan going into next year, offering as it does an alternative way of doing the same thing, namely covering employees health needs and contributing to the coverage of dependents. However, I'm sceptical that it will ultimately be much different from what we have today. The theory seems to be that by having employers pay a per-employee deductible amount into a self-managed account and paying less to the health care provider because the deductible on their plan is now that much higher, will somehow reduce the overall costs seen across the whole system. I remain sceptical because, at least in the plan details we've seen, the other shift is that drug costs are fully covered once you get past the deductible amount. Get past that initial deductible amount, therefore, and costs to the emplyee actually drop compared with the present scheme.

In order for this to work out to everyone's benefit, therefore, depends upon a lot of actuarial data showing how employees treat health care provision and what affects the decisions they make about what expenses to take, when. Fair enough, at least historically this may well be a good predictor, but the challenge is that even small changes in the plan can cause unknown - and unexpected - shifts in behaviour, changing the whole premise on whihc this scheme is based.

Prediction time: in two years, these new HSA things will look a lot like the existing plans and any real price or benefit differential will be lost.

Further tackling the demand side is pretty much pointless at this point. Instead, a mechanism is required to better control the often wasteful consumption of health care resources on the supply side, putting doctors back in control of the diagnostic process without operating under the continual fear of being sued. In addition, the ability of drug companies to literally drive consumers into demanding the latest TV-advertised drugs, medically justifiable or not, should be outlawed. Simple changes; big rewards.

But don't hold your breath. Following Hilliary's disastrous attempt at health care reform during the early years of Clinton's reign, politicians of all flavours treat this as a potato(e) too hot to handle. Expect, therefore, platitudes a plenty over the next year, but no action whatsoever.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

SV Toy

Shot outside the Village Pub in Woodside (where else?) Ferrari's finest and yours for a mere $300k, plus a bit more if you get heavy handed with the options list which the owner of this one had. (Carbon ceramic brakes, for example, adding a mere $18,555 to the base price of $250k.)

Good for him, I say, and I look forward to the day when working through which of those same option boxes to tick is my biggest problem du jour. Which begs the question, how much do you have to have sitting around the bank in order to sensibly - and I use the word advisably - let yourself go out and buy such a thing? I reckon it's about 10x the price, or the equivalent of dropping 10% of cash-to-hand on such a plaything.

"Goals are good", as they say ....

Friday, September 14, 2007

Drug Bunny

Drug Bunny, Tokyo Hotel

I mean, what else would you call it? This was inside a very expensive hotel in Tokyo, placed at the entrance to a coffee lounge. Probably some deep symbology at work here that I don't understand ... either that or a significant quantity of class C drugs were involved when the interior designer came up with this one.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Tokyo Rain

Well I certainly got drafted to head here at just the wrong time of year. It's hot, humid and either raining or about to rain, except when the sun comes out when it gets even hotter and you now hope it switches back to rain very, very soon. Oh, and of course you are wearing a suit, and get to spend much of the day wedged into the Tokyo subway system with roughly half-a-million of your now very close-indeed Japanese friends. Having spent a number of years commuting by train in the UK, I now remember all too well just why I hated it so much.

Business aspects went OK, with the end of the week being better than the beginning. Even so, things move very slowly here, and coming from the USA the need to take that "longer term" view gets to be very frustrating, not to mention expensive. Still, Japan continues to be a place that is just too attractive to ignore so we'll continue to pay our dues, put in the time and see what we can make happen. I hope I see the returns before I retire, is all.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

King Of The Road

Fixed it. With no more than some scrabbling around on the floor and a pair of nail clippers I was able to find a substitute mains cable in my room.

Turns out the PC, so thoughtfully provided by the management here, has a separate screen that is powered by a 16v DC "brick" type supply (shown here in grey.) The plug that fits into it from the mains side has a similar pattern to that required by my laptop power adaptor. Close, but not quite close enough it seemed - I couldn't force the plug far enough in. Turns out that the laptop supply has a ridge of plastic between the two mains voltage pins whereas the brick powering the PC screen does not. Hence the need for the nail clippers. By partly cutting away that plastic ridge, along with nipping a grove in the plug to match, I was able to just get enough contact to deliver power to the laptop supply. Success!

(Note to self: next time, remove plug from mains voltage before attacking same with metal clippers ....)

Monday, September 10, 2007

I Goofed ..

Got to Tokyo only to find I have left a key part of my laptop power supply behind, namely the mains cable!

Am typing this very gingerly on an in-room PC provided at the hotel. Trouble is, except for the text I am entering, everything else is rendered in Kanji. Oh, and if I accidentally hit the wrong key somewhere on this keyboard then even that goes away and now no English is involved whatsoever.

This may limit my posting this week to day the ぇあst

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Just How Big is "Big"?

In the on-going search in Nevada for Steve Fossett, sometime co-adventurer with Richard Branson, it seems hard to believe that he can't be found.

Coming from the UK, it's tough to grasp just how big Nevada really is. Let's see if this helps, though:

a) they are concentrating their efforts close to the CA border - so not all of it in other words,

b) search has expanded to an area the size of Massachusetts,

c) amazingly enough, so far, they have found 6 previously undiscovered airplane crashes,

d) if you're of a mind, there's still Utah, Arizona and all the rest to go.

A place to treat with respect, then ....

Friday, September 7, 2007

Yet Another Typhoon Posting

This happened to me last time I went to Japan: a typhoon showed up. Just saw today that Typhoon Fitow is currently lashing Tokyo, causing widespread damage and resulting in 4 people missing, presumed dead.

Last time out, the typhoon hit just as I was leaving; this time, it's hitting just as I'm heading-in.

With that sort of record, I should probably call it quits at this point ...

Thursday, September 6, 2007

You Always Knew As Much

The SJ Mercury News reports that they found over 1,300 unopened mail-in rebate applications in a dumpster outside a company hired to manage these things. Seems the deal was for a $3.50 rebate on a USB hub, but they decided they couldn't be bothered to process them after all, preferring the alternate approach of, well, just throwing them away and hoping no one would notice. (Since you have to register to read stuff on this site, one, here's the gist of it ... )

"I know that Shu Wong of San Jose hasn't received the $3.50 mail-in rebate for a Vastech computer networking USB hub purchased at a Fry's Electronics in May. Richard Louie of Austin, Olivia Sattaypiwat of Saratoga and Buu Duong of San Jose haven't received their rebates, either.
I know this because they told me so, and because I am staring at more than 1,300 rebate requests sent to Vastech on Bonaventura Drive in San Jose. The envelopes were tossed - unopened - into a garbage dumpster near Vastech. I have two boxes of envelopes that were thrown out without being processed. In all of my years of reporting, I have never encountered such outrageous behavior against consumers.

An employee of nearby Dominion Enterprises found the letters, along with hundreds of others addressed to Vastech, at his company's dumpster. He turned them over to his boss, Joel Schwartz, who gave them to me. All of the letters were addressed to UR-04 Rebate or some variation of the product name at the Vastech address."

Come on now, you aren't really that surprised are you? We all know it happens. For rebates that small the mail-in rate must be not much more than 25 or 30% at the very most. Companies routinely track the return-rates they see against the amount of the rebate so they know in advance just how much of the supposed discount these offers imply is actually going to get taken up. All this is, therefore, is a further nudge in a direction that's already baked-in: most people just can't be bothered to fill this crap out and so binning a few of them won't cause their phone to ring off the hook for a year-and-a-day. "$3.50?? Fuggeddaboutit."

And is this sorry tale really that much worse than, oooh, shall we say, Apple, for gipping people for an extra $200 in order to be amongst the first to buy an iPhone, and then offering a $100 store coupon back when they get antsy after the price drops a few weeks later, thereby cunningly instead giving them the chance to spend even more on Apple's products? I think not.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

No Smoke Without Fire

We are getting ample proof of that old adage in the Bay Area just now. There are two large wildfires burning to the east of the area - one up by Susanville and the other in Henry Coe State Park, east of Gilroy. Add to that a strengthening off-shore wind and visibility here has plummeted as a result. Just driving home with the air conditioning blowing into the car made my eyes sting; you can literally see, smell and taste the smoke. Both fires are still growing, with the longer-burning one only 20% contained. Humidity is falling, the wind is still blowing and no obvious end is yet in sight.

Scant compensation that it makes the sunsets pretty, though.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Yup, We're In A Holding Pattern

Moon Setting Over Eagle Peak, Yosemite

I'm flat out here and hence don't have time today to post much beyond another shot from Yosemite. This time, it's the moon setting over Eagle Peak, and once again is in black-and-white.

In addition to managing the board, I'm also now having to replace a VP who is leaving to move back to his home town, working through a potential high-level partnership that has numerous - and complex - pros and cons, trying to figure out how to meet the needs of a new potential customer project as well as preparing to head to Asia and then Europe.

Whoever decreed that days have only 24 hours in them has clearly never worked in a start-up or else they would have included some padding; 28 or 30 is surely a more realistic figure.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Tight Week Ahead

But before we get to that, apologies for the quality of the shot I posted yesterday. I think I exported the wrong one out of Lightroom, resulting in an image that was a bit flat and hazy. I've discovered that it's hard in Blogger to replace one shot with another cleanly because you end up with duplicates in the gallery online and formatting in the post all shot to hell. In short, it will remain there, a testament to my own ineptitude. Here's another one, therefore, to see if I can cope better in black-and-white.

Yet another board meeting this week. Combine that with trying to get everything set-up after we moved offices last Friday, as well as various customer meetings and preparation for an upcoming trip to Japan, means that this week will be a mess. And perhaps more so than I yet realise? Rather wisely, I thought, I left the office on Wednesday, well in advance of the main moving activities happening Thursday and Friday. In reviewing with people how it all went, it sounds like Equity Office (our landlords once again) were their usual disorganised selves, resulting in short tempers, frayed nerves and an all-round general air of negative vibes hanging over the new premises. We made it in, but not yet clear to me that there isn't some clean-up still to do.

EOP are their own worst enemy, and particularly in this one regard: They don't write down anywhere how one is supposed to organise an office move, preferring instead to rely on the flawed notion of oral tradition as a way of communicating to in-coming tenants how this is supposed to work. (Rather than boring you all to death with this stuff here, if you are interested then feel free to e-mail me for the sordid details of how you have to use their contractors for a bunch of stuff, a fact you only find out after playing twenty questions with their local managers, a game that spreads out over the weeks you thought you had to sort all this stuff out, but then don't. )

I always wondered why EOP had such a bad rap amongst other CEOs I've talked to, so on the plus side I suppose at least I got that question answered.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Hot Days in Yosemite

As this shot helps tell, it was a hot few days in Yosemite Valley. Temperatures hit over 100 degrees in the Valley, so suffice to say we limited the time spent down there, heading instead to Tuolumne Meadows to hike up by Gaylor Lake (trail head right by the Tioga Pass entrance). On the way we stopped at Tenaya Lake for a bite of lunch and after hiking for a few hours we stopped-off at Glacier Point to see sunset on Half Dome. (I'll post some more shots over the coming days.)

Anyway, in the morning we took the two hour guided "Ansel Adams Photographic Walk" around the meadows on the Valley floor. It was run by the resident photographer from the Ansel Adams gallery and was designed to both show the locations where Ansel Adams took some very well known pictures as well as to give some general photographic pointers. It was well done and a great way to get to know a bit of the park I've only ever driven by on the way in or way out.

Amazingly enough, the crowds and traffic weren't too bad for what one would expect to be amongst the busiest weeks of the year. Some people really do like the brake pedal on those windy roads, though .....