Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 Sets, 2008 Rises

Grand Canyon Sunset

Just wanted to wish everyone all the best for 2008 and hope that 2007 treated you well.

From a business perspective, 2007 was a good year for us. Looks like we'll end up right around our bookings target, and we'll have got there with a nice mix of business rather than having to rely on any single large deal. We've upgraded the team and made good progress on developing the technology. The challenge ahead for 2008 will be to accelerate our growth, something we'll need to find a way to fund through taking additional equity capital and/or debt.

On the personal side, the only real black spot on the year was losing Caitlin. She'd been part of the family since we were back in the UK so we lost both a dog and a link back to some very happy times there in the house we rebuilt in Sussex. Aside from that, everyone got through the year largely in good health, and even I've recovered very well after falling off that ladder!

Thanks to everyone for tracking us via these postings and I'll strive to maintain the discipline as we move into 2008.

Happy New Year!!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Twin Trees Topple

I mentioned in an earlier post that in a recent storm the top of a redwood got blown off so we used it as a Christmas tree. Well, it turns out that this wasn't the only casualty.

Right on the edge of our property we discovered that a Siamese-twin pair of trees had blown down, knocking out a madrone and the top of a heavily-rotted pine that woodpeckers had been having a field day with. In doing so, part of the debris had landed on our neighbours' land, leaving us with some work to do in the Spring when things dry out again.

The photos here don't quite do justice to just how big these trees are. Top-to-roots, each must measure close to a hundred feet. I still have no idea quite how we'll tackle clearing this up. In the end, we may just clear the land next door and let nature take it's course for the rest.

The joys of country living are endless and, apparently, have shallow roots.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Hello, John, Got A New Motor?

(With apologies to Alexe Sayle)

As BAR reminded me, I hadn't closed the loop on the new car thing.

Yes, we did end up replacing our 8 year old, 140k-miler Acura. After much deliberation on my part - some more unkind types might call it vacillation - I ended up with BMW 335i Coupe. I looked very hard at the Infiniti G37S and have to say I still think it's great value, especially as I hear tales of some people negotiating deals at close to invoice for what is essentially a brand new model that was only released this Fall. (I, it arrives in the UK next year according to evo, after they have rejigged the interior and suspension settings for picky Brits.) However, it's a bit boy-racer - especially as I'd have to go for the sports suspension - and once I figured out that if I kept this car as long as the last one I'll be 58 by the time I'm looking to trade it, then the BMW won out as the, err, sensible choice.

Sparkling Graphite - aka gray - with black interior and aluminium trim, an option that was hard to find (why they still build so many of these things with bits of wood nailed to the dash beats me.). Usual clutch of extras you have to take to get the couple of things you actually want and before you know it the price starts escalating dramatically. Bloody Germans.

Anyway, after several long hours in the dealer, combined with much getting up and packing to leave in order to move things along, we finally got an OK price on the car itself plus an acceptable trade-in value. Don't know if it really makes much difference but we elected to go in right before year-end and to only buy a vehicle they had in-situ. Could probably have squeezed a couple hundred more out of them but ultimately you just reach a point where the whole process is so damn tiresome it's just time to get it done, something the of course rely upon each and every time! Just as an aside, we did look at using Cars Direct again since that worked so well for the Tacoma pick-up but the price they were showing wasn't close to what we got by pressing the dealer first hand. Go figure.

Now all that remains is to wade through the 268 page users manual so I can figure out the intricacies of iDrive, Comfort Access, Hands-Free dialling and the Navigation System options. Hopefully, I can get all this stuff programmed-up without flattening the battery ....

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Just wanted to use this post as a way to say:

- thanks to everyone that sent us a Christmas card, and apologies for not returning the favour. Somehow, we just never got our act together this year. We will strive to do better next year.

- Hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and a very happy new year.

We don't have much in the way of plans, but frankly just not being in the office for a few days will be break enough for me.

Hope Santa does you proud and that the holiday cheer lasts well beyond Boxing Day.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Retail Therapy

I was right, this was a week that somehow got away from me, pretty much every day in fact.

We won't know the full tally for the final Q - and hence the fiscal year as a whole - until early in 2008, but I can say that we have passed our 2006 total so at least we'll be able to say we continued to grow.

(For us, FY06 was characterised by one customer constituting over a third of our business, largely in a single deal. Therefore, comparing this year with last was always going to be a stretch because that was something of a one-off event which we couldn't anticipate happening again in '08.)

Hopefully, I'll manage to grab a few days off next week but I have to say that things show no sign of slowing up and what with us chasing a couple of large deals for 1Q08, combined with needing to begin a fund-raising process right as the new year starts, it's going to be hard to switch off.

So I think I'll buy a new car.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Politicians? Bah, Humbug.

As mentioned earlier, we're chasing down as much Q-end business as possible, one significant (>$1m) piece of which is with a government agency. Despite a budget being agreed for that department, funds won't get released until the overall budget is passed, a process that is currently stalled as the two main parties in congress up the level of bickering and conflict as a way of sharpening the divide before the 2008 election process gets fully underway in Iowa in a couple of weeks time.

Net-net is we just heard that no new POs will be issued by this agency this year, and that they have continuance funding for salaries only at this stage. In short, we've just been screwed by all those fine folk we fund in order that they can spend their days in the Capitol pontificating about principles they love to hold up, but rarely uphold.

If literally every other piece of business we are tracking closes this week and the dollar exchange rate stays in favourable territory then we'll just about make plan for the year pretty much right on the button. And no, this is not a comfortable place to be in the last full selling week in 2007....

I'll keep you posted, but fair to say I may be a bit distracted this week.

Friday, December 14, 2007

And Speaking of Severed Limbs ...

Photo by Frank Lin, via Reuters

... came across the above as one of the 400 top global images from Reuters in 2007. Seems a vet in Taiwan got a bit too close to the bitey-end of one of his patients (who will now need a dentist to come and floss-away what's got stuck between those molars.)

Is it just me or does that croc have a bit of a smug grin about him?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Magic Leg Lopped Off & Now Lost

I kid you not. Indian police are searching for the lopped-off leg of a Chittoor mystic. Seems local legend was that if you touched it then you could take advantage of it's magical healing powers or be granted your heart-felt wishes.

Consequently, a couple of smart, local entrepreneurs concluded that if the leg is magic - which it obviously was - then it's power must transcend the corporeal host, and hence it should work even if the owner were, say, no longer around? I mean, just touching the rest of the bloke didn't seem to do anything Disneyesque so it must all be in the leg, right?

Being resourceful sorts, they got the "owner" drunk and then amputated the magic limb with a scythe, making good their getaway before anyone woke up and noticed what they'd done.

"We are looking for the miscreants as well as the leg", police said. Which is nice.

The owner is still alive, if not particularly chipper, and probably thanking his lucky stars that it wasn't his forehead that was magical ....

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Happy Accidents

We had an executive meeting yesterday with one of the biggest names here in Silicon Valley (no, not Google!) We've been working with them for a while on a pilot program that stretches our technology to the max but which, in return, could deliver significant value to the customer.

The goal of the meeting from our side was quite explicit: we need a PO in order to continue to work on this. The customer, for obvious reasons, would prefer to keep the proof-of-concept (PoC) going in order to reduce the risks of betting on what we are striving to sell them.

Anyway, the meeting quickly headed off into the weeds, getting wrapped up in technical details. The main executive we need to work on was starting to disengage as his technical team got more involved in a bits-and-bytes discussion in the background. To get back in control we were about to have to step on quite a few toes in order to refocus things on the key business issues that we needed to get addressed.

Right then, the fire alarm went off! After a few moments, it soon became clear that this was neither a test nor a drill, and that in fact something in a lab somewhere had tripped the sirens and flashing lights into action.

Rather than stand outside wasting time on what was a very chilly California morning, we headed off to another building, losing the conference call attendees along the way. Bingo! No slides, no remote bridge to the technical team in India.

Long story short, we took our shot and made our pitch to the VP, thereby getting the green light to begin commercial discussions.

Sometimes, you truly are better off being lucky rather than smart ....

Sunday, December 9, 2007

R8 Hot Laps (ADE V)

As I was walking away from the RS4 and unbuckling my helmet, I got called back to the pit lane. Turns out that the prize for winning the autocross challenge was to get a few hot laps in the R8 alongside one of the instructors. I quickly stopped taking my helmet off and shoved it back on again before jumping into the passenger seat of an extremely cool looking black-on-black model as quickly as I could before someone changed their mind. (I was thinking more in terms of a t-shirt, which, having said that, would have been nice too!)

I noticed that the instructor turned off the ESP system, something they obviously stopped us from doing for 160,000-odd reasons, and poked a few other buttons I couldn't quite see. Anyway, off we went, heading up the hill with a lot more vigor than was used for the lead-follow session, but still well within the limits of the car. Indeed, despite the pace being upped more than one notch, to my mind we never got much beyond seven or eight tenths at most. Doubtless, this had a lot to do with the attendant costs of replacing tyres on the car as well as making doubly sure you don't injure the R8 or whoever happened to be inside at the time.

Coming out of the hairpin turn right after the pit entrance, I think even the instructor was getting a bit bored as I noticed the drift angle was increasing lap by lap. Seems with ESP off then you can get the tail out in quite a controlled fashion and without having to get all lurid with tyres smoking and watchers on the pit wall diving for cover. Would love to have the opportunity to test that behaviour myself but all I can say is that the benign and rock-solid characteristics I found on my laps seem to hold good right up to the limits of grip that can be squeezed from the massive rear tyres. Again, kudos to Audi for their chassis development work on this car.

And that was about it. A great half-day was had by all, and we even got breakfast & lunch thrown in for good measure. Sure, it wasn't cheap, but considering the machinery on offer then in terms of getting track access to the RS4 and the R8 then really it was good value in my book.

Now, Audi, about that V10 derivative, any chance I could get a go in that version too, just for comparisons sake of course?? No charge.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Audi RS4 Track Drive (ADE IV)

A Brace Of Audi RS4s

Jumping out of the sublime R8, it was off to the autocross test. After a couple of practice sessions it was all down to three timed runs, across each of the fifteen participants, in order to determine the winner. The course comprised a fast right/left combination, a 180 degree hairpin and a dog-leg left into the finishing box. Fast as you like without hitting any cones, and ending with the front wheels inside the finish box. Weaponry provided? Audi TT V6.

Best technique I found was to hold the car on the brakes with the left foot, add a little throttle, and then just floor it when ready, simultaneously letting go of the brakes. Yup, it was an automatic and all this palava was just trying to get the damn thing to launch quickly.

Flat into the first corner, feather to take the second, flat to the hairpin; brake hard as you can - and earlier than you'd like - and turn in; off the brakes and floor it again right until you hit the brakes once more for the final stop. Afterwards, I could think of ways to squeeze more time (left foot brake for the hairpin but keep the throttle part open to speed the spool up of the engine afterwards, for example) but two of the three times were reasonable, sitting in the upper-mid 11-second range.

Turns out I must have got it mostly right as not only did I win the competition but two of my three posted times beat the benchmark set by the instructor. (I completely blew one run by trying too hard.) Chalk one up for the 50+ CEO over the winner of last year's US rally championship!

Last up, back to the track, this time in the RS4. Here's another car I was looking forward to driving. Reputed to be a hardcore road car with serious performance credentials - 420 bhp again, 8-piston front brakes, uprated suspension, 0-60 in 4.8 seconds - this would be a fascinating comparison with it's bigger brother. Except, except.

Here's the problem: the R8 had set the bar so high that it took me a fair-few laps to get over how much the RS4 was rolling as you pushed it harder and harder through the corners. The comparison unduly highlighted what the RS4 actually is - a beefier A4, and all that this implies - and not a custom-designed two-seater sports car. Now in many ways it was a bit more fun to drive because you could feel the chassis working hard, dealing with all the forces that were building; it kept you busier, in short, making sure that you stayed smooth and clean because any margin for error was quickly disappearing as things got faster. Regardless, it's clearly a very potent car that in context of the rest of the A4 series takes the platform about as far as it can go. $70,000 worth? Your call, but for me I think I'd be doing a lot of comparisons with other contenders from Mercedes and BMW to figure out what balance of characteristics I was looking for (road vs. track, daily driver friendly, room for spouse-and-sprogs, etc.)

One thing I forgot to mention, for the track sessions we were randomly paired with other course participants: one drives while the other rides. The guy I had in the R8 was fine. The instructor slowed down somewhat and that car flattered all kinds of driving styles, good and bad. Alas, not so the RS4. After the first sighting lap, the guy who took over in the driver's seat in my car was quickly out of his depth. We reached the point where you needed binoculars to find the apex on corners you were going through. Braking was a randomly-instigated event that occurred somewhere in the transition from going straight into one end of the corner and unwinding lock again out the other side, you just never knew quite where or when it would happen. I came to greatly appreciate just how wide Infineon is, because I think we drove over just about every inch of it, finding new and previously untried lines on pretty much every lap. Thankfully, the session was soon over and the instructor obviously saw what was happening and kept the pace down in order to protect Audi's investment in sheet metal for these courses. Phew.

Summary? A great time was had by all, and the R8 really is a stunning entrant into the super-car stakes, justifying both the price tag and the hype.

Final epilogue tomorrow, with one last twist.....

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Audi R8 Track Drive (ADE III)

Audi Circles: the R8

"Dip the clutch again, select first, and strive to pull away with stalling and embarrassing oneself", was the mantra going through my head, and it must have worked OK because the R8 set off down the pit lane cleanly. Gear change feels like it has some heft to it, at least compared with various other Japanese or German boxes I've used, but it perfectly complements the steering weight and the seriousness implied by the toothed selector plate. (I now fully appreciate that famous Ferrari "snick-snick" noise people talk about as the gear lever slots from gate to gate.) Throughout all the laps I drove I never once got the wrong gear and very soon built real confidence in what I was selecting and how long it would take. (Minor initial niggle - that machining on the gear knob - see the photo in the last post - was a bit of surprise, and if you were really charging and working the box hard it might be an issue. After reflection, though, my advice would be: Wear gloves and/or suck it up! Once used to it then to me it just helped the hand connect with the mechanical action of the box and would stop it slipping off if things got a bit hectic and sweaty. Again, lovely design touch, doubtless based solely on feedback from the test mule drivers.)

OK, by now we are in third gear and heading up the hill at Infineon. Turn-in is sharp and precise, body roll is .... is .... well, basically missing-in-action. Here's the most remarkable thing about this car: the suspension is always as firm as you need it to be, self adjusting as you corner, accelerate or brake. Don't know how much change the electronics allow, nor what the difference would be between "Sport" (the setting I used) and "Normal", but this car just gives you enormous confidence as you move around the track. I've never driven a road car with this kind of flat-feeling dynamic. My 911 has the sport suspension set up but at these speeds you'd feel it moving around, balancing forces, dipping and rising, and generally acting like it was a drunk row-boat captain in comparison. Sure, not really a fair benchmark - 8 years and nearly $80,000 separate the two - but even so the Audi chassis is in a division all of it's own.

Reinforcing the driver-focused nature of this beast, within three or four corners I was happily heeling-and-toeing. The pedal alignment is perfect, setting the throttle foot in a place where just a slight flex to the right blips the engine revs right to where you want them to be. I also found that the seemingly flywheel-less nature of the engine meant that if you over-cooked the revs they would just drop instantly to the right figure as you raised the clutch. Remember the following: No inertia, no lag! Again, jumping into some cars it can take me forever to adapt and make this technique flow, and sometimes it never works at all. Not here though, it's like the whole car, every control, is poised, waiting for new inputs and then almost telegraphing them before you act. Addictive stuff.

As the pace picked up (dictated by the now increasingly frustrating lead-follow approach) the R8 just carried on delivering the goods. Despite all the protestations over the radio to stick to third gear, I was now using second, third and fourth, following close enough to try and speed things along but without getting so close as to get the instructor all riled. Brakes were strong and firm, the pedal reacting to pressure and not going all soft and relying instead on how far you press it down in order to meter out the required level of retardation.

Despite the short few laps allowed, at least it was a chance to use full throttle in places, get the speed up (over 120 in sections), work the suspension and lean on the brakes. With a car at this level of performance, getting even this far into the envelope would be hard to do without either endangering yourself or your licence! This engine is a revelation, revving freely, instantly and delivering a very decent slug of power throughout the rev range. It's a testament to the platform that it will easily absorb the forthcoming V10 version of the R8 and the 500+ bhp that this will bring. And given the noise that this V8 version delivers, the V10 will doubtless set-off every car alarm within a hundred yards. Can't wait.

This car is a revelation. It's streets ahead of any other road-going Audi, clearly overlapping with that other stable mate in the Audi portfolio, namely Lamborghini. However, this is a car that you could more likely use on a daily basis and which delivers equivalent performance to the smaller Lambo in a package that is more graciously styled and likely better nailed together.

Competition? The 911 C4S would be the obvious comparison point, at least on paper. Having not driven the latest version I can't really offer much insight here (but if anyone out there has one they'd like to let me drive I'd be happy to oblige!) However, I've got the feeling that Porsche are presently getting their Germanic heads together to try and work out how to raise their game so they can compete because, quite frankly, I think the R8 would win.
(Course, instead of competing, Porsche may just buy the VW group instead ... stay tuned.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Audi R8 (ADE II)

Audi R8 Gear Lever

Despite what I said yesterday, the agenda for the Audi Driving Experience happened in a different order than was listed. For me, it went as follows: braking and turning; high speed lane change; R8 track time; autocross challenge; RS4 track time.

Not much to say about activities one and two. The A6 seems a fine mid-size, premium saloon car. Comfy seats, plenty of toys, healthy dollops of leg room and a decent balance of leather and wood. Not my sort of thing but well up there with the likes of Mercedes and Lexus, and streets ahead of anything Detroit has to offer.

Let's start then with the R8. Yeah, I know, bit like eating desert first and spoiling the rest of dinner, but having said that then hang the menu and pass me the spoon!

Sitting in the R8, first impressions are very positive. The interior looks and feels like it belongs in a German car costing around $150k all-in (more on the price later). Subtle touches abound such as the machined gear lever nicely complementing the heater controls and the Ferrari-style metal gate on the manual transmission. (I was offered the paddle-shift tiptronic-auto version to drive but refused, and not so politely at that! Completely unacceptable.) Seats were comfortable, well padded and very easy to get into a driving position that felt instantly "right", no mean feat in itself and a good sign that the driver's needs were given priority throughout the design process. Anyway, after a bit of random button poking to see what was what, time to fire up the engine and see what we have to play with.

Dip the - nicely weighted - clutch and turn the key. Car starts cleanly, emitting the kind of idling growl that might better come from the jaws of a mountain lion shortly before it decides that you are looking good for lunch. Engine temperature now picking up so time to blip the throttle to see how the engine reacts.

Jeez. That can't be right. This thing spins up to 5,000 rpm with the barest press, revs rising and falling with seemingly no inertia or lag. I try again just to be sure. Yup, same thing. This engine reacts more like a race lump than those gracing most of the actual racing cars I've ever driven. Things just got serious. Now we know we have 420 bhp in a dry-sumped, light weight V8 unit, revving to over 8,000 rpm, packed amidships into a car that certainly looks like it was designed by a company used to winning the 24 hours of Le Mans year-in, year-out. Add to that 4 wheel drive, trick magnetic dampers and tyres so fat they must have a BMI north of a hundred, and all of a sudden I can see what the fuss is about. This has all the makings of a serious performance car, not just some Audi design exercise intended merely to impress fat-walleted poseurs into lining up for a limited availability boulevard cruiser.

Time to roll-on-out to the track ... but not until the next post!

Monday, December 3, 2007

Audi Driving Experience (I)

Thought I'd kick off by just summarizing how the half-day was organized and then move onto my thoughts on specific cars in the next couple of days. OK with everyone? Good. Then let's begin.

Audi runs these sessions around the country, starting in Miami in July and ending in San Diego next week. From what I could see, they just did around 5 days in Sonoma using the facilities at Infineon Raceway.

Two groups run roughly half an hour apart, fifteen students in each, two courses in the morning and two in the afternoon.

The morning starts with a half-hour briefing on the basics of tyre contact patches, weight transfer and grip circles. Nothing unique here but it was done with a new spin: justifying why Quattro provides more grip, in certain circumstances, than either front- or rear-wheel drive.

Class over, it's off to the apron for the basics: turning while braking under ABS and the high-speed lane change. Again, if you have ever done any one of these driving courses before you'll be familiar with this stuff. Cars used for these exercises were A6's.

Next up, there were timed runs around an autocross course in V6 Audi TT Tiptronics with the fastest time in any group of 15 qualifying for some unspecified prize.

From there it's onto the race circuit itself for lead-follow laps in the RS4 and the R8. (Lead-follow means the instructor drives the first car and asks cars two and three to follow the line, braking, turn points, etc.)

The actual sequence of who-does-what-when varied but everyone did the full set and seat time was reasonable given the price ($595, in case you are curious).

We started at 9 am and wrapped up just after 12:30 pm. Breakfast and lunch were thrown in but no other free goodies; I was hoping for a t-shirt at least, but no such luck!

Overall, very well organized and at Infineon they had a custom suite set up with flat screen TVs and B&O sound systems. Nice touch! Plenty of brochures, too, just in case you brought your cheque book ....

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Yup, We're That Cheap

Seems it was a bit windy while I was gone last week? Getting home, I found piles of leaves and twigs all over the ground, leaving me with the necessary evil of getting the leaf blower out to clear them up.

Anyway, turns out the top blew off a redwood tree no more than 50 yards from the house. Better than last year, I suppose, when a large branch fell onto the roof & cracking a bunch of tiles, but I digress.

Instead of heading off to the Christmas tree farm to saw one down, costing us $25 in the process, we decided to drag this thing inside to see if it would work instead.

(BTW, sorry for the crappy picture but I seem to be having terrible problems with Photoshop and Lightroom; In fact, almost any application is a pain to run on my laptop right now. Click on anything in those applications and the disk will thrash itself to death for five minutes. Sigh. Probably time for a new one.)

Perfect? Nope - it's a bit uneven and likely to drop needles faster than a heroin addict with the DTs - but we saved a tree and went all self-sufficient to boot. It's going to be a green Christmas!