Saturday, March 29, 2008

Dead Horse Point, Utah

Arid Lands, Utah

As we head out of winter and into spring, thought I'd raid the archives and show what the South Downs will look like once global warming takes hold ....

Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah is an amazing place, quite unlike anything you'll find in northern Europe. From visiting Utah, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, I've come to really appreciate the desert environment and scenery. The sterile, blinding-bright landscape, fashioned from nothing but rock, really does have a deeply-etched - if stark - beauty.

Maybe it's just because we're still exiting the California winter, but I wouldn't mind moving to, say, Sedona. Being a few thousand feet above sea level means it doesn't get as unbearably hot as does Phoenix, for example, but you still get all the buttes, canyons and mesas to play with. Alas, even a cursory glance at property prices shows that there's no easy escape. For the sort of place you'd like to live in then prices are very comparable with Silicon Valley, just with the added disadvantage of no jobs for the likes of me to be had.

Still, I'll definitely be heading there again someday soon, and since this year we're headed to Africa in July then "hot and dusty" will be in our future one way or the other.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

New T5 A Resounding Success .. Unless You Have These

Yup, the first full day of service at the newly opened T5 was, predictably, a disaster. I say predictably because it happens at pretty well every new airport (Hong Kong and Denver, to name but two) pretty well every time. And interestingly, it always seems to be the baggage system that blows up.

In classic "I'm All Right Jack" fashion, British Airports Authority is blaming British Airways, and vice-versa. One runs the baggage system, and one is responsible for handling the bags ... cue finger pointing, left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, everyone shrugging and saying "not my fault guv", etc.

By mid-afternoon, BA was refusing to check anyone's bags, and by days-end they had cancelled 34 flights on top of it all.

All I can say is I'm glad I wasn't there, and that I have no plans to be going through there any time soon! From watching the BBC news tonight, the queues were long and fractious. One passenger was complaining that he waited in one queue for 3 hours only to have the desk close as he got close to the head of the line. Surprisingly, he wasn't being interviewed whilst throttling some hapless BA employee, but only because they a) appeared to be in short supply and b) travelling in packs for safety.

Worst. Terminal. Ever. At least, until the next one opens somewhere.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Jaguar Goes Tata - Sold, But At What Price?

Racing Jaguar, Monterey Festival of Speed, 2006

There's been a, slew of stories on the impending - and long-mooted - sale of Jaguar and Land Rover to India's Tata group over the past week, indicating perhaps that a final resolution is near. As we've mentioned before, this is the latest in the line of disposals by Ford of it's old Premier Auto Group business, assembled back in the days when the company was flush with cash and keen to splash. Alas, buyer's remorse set in very quickly once they found out just how much money it would take to revive Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover and whatever else got thrown into that bucket, and to overcome decades of mis-management by, in the case of Jaguar and Land Rover, that old bogeyman British Leyland. Remind me to do a post one day on some of the wonderous cars those guys managed to produce .... Allegro, Metro or Maxi anyone?

Anyway, new management, new era, new plan: sell the lot just as they turn from cash sinks into cash cows ... maybe. One of the last peices on the block is a job lot of Jaguar and Land Rover (motto, "buy one, get one free"), and after hitting every conceivable buyer in town India's Tata conglomerate is the only one left standing. Despite some reports that the price would be around $2.6 b, pundits are now saying that it won't reach anything like that figure, struggling to deliver $2 b back into Ford's fast-draining coffers (they posted a $2.8 b loss in the 4th quarter alone).

It's tough to have an auction with only one bidder, and it's hard to build value when in the last couple of sales - Aston, anyone? - Ford has accepted what is quite frankly bargain-basement pricing. But Ford has only itself to blame, especially in the case of Jaguar. A string of lack-lustre models tied to unrealistic sales targets took the brand from premium-to-proletariat in a few short years.

Buy high, sell low, and kiss goodbye to countless billions, leaving Ford as a cash-poor producer of volume sheet metal. Now there's a strategy for Harvard Business Review to pick apart.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Can You Still Be A Startup At 10 Years Old?

Just thought I'd make note that the company I run today hit it's 10 year mark. I've only been there 3 years mind, which either makes me able to claim 30% of the credit or 30% of the blame - take your pick!

Ten years is a long time to still be considered a start-up, especially with Web 2.0 companies having a half life measured in something more like months. Still, "different strokes for different folks" as they say, especially in Nevada ...

We serve a different kind of customer and with a much more technical, complex and revolutionary set of products than is the case for YAWNS companies (yet another web-based networking- and social-site). Therefore, the way we look at this question is very different from how you'd view things in a market where 24 hours can give you what to us would be a lifetime's worth of customer usage data. This is a huge advantage for Web properties. That ability to get almost instantaneous feedback on how effective a new positioning or sales mechanism is drives a fundamentally different approach to things.

In the same way that there appears to be some sort of natural life expectancy for a land mammal based on the total number of heartbeats experienced (roughly a billion) then perhaps there's a similar metric for companies? Instead of the total number of heartbeats then perhaps it's down to total sales cycles with customers. In the same way a shrew has a heartbeat so fast (the animal almost looks like it's vibrating) that it results in a life-span of only a few years, so too with Web 2.0 startups? Anyway, food for thought for another day, but I will say that what's still very important to us at this point is getting more sales cycles completed with customers a) to increase total sales and b) to up the level of knowledge we have about how and why they are (or even are not) successful.

In all of this, my goal is to try and create something that can embrace the positive qualities of a start-up (constant questioning and self-assessment, highly responsive, customer-driven, cash-conscious and hungry) with what a more mature organisation can bring (maturity of thought, experience, continual process improvement, battle hardened, specialized.) Doable? I think so, but it's a goal that's always going to be challenging, if for no other reason than, in the fog of war, what's right in front of you can sometimes seem way more important than trying to sort out the bigger picture.

Be interesting to see how the VC community reacts when we head out to do our C-round and if we are able to get this across in a slide or two. Indeed, the challenge, as always, is to convey the excitement and opportunity we all see and experience in a set of slides that makes the viewer not only sit up and take notice, but take out their cheque book.

I have no idea what the next 10 years will bring, nor even the next 3, but it will, most definitely, be interesting!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Work-Life Balance

Surfer, Natural Bridges Beach, Santa Cruz, CA

This is just one of those days where you can't help feeling you've got the balance wrong. Above, a shot from Santa Cruz last weekend where we again had sunshine and gusty winds, offering an excellent excuse to get the car out the garage and the camera from the cupboard. Surfer-dude was having fun doing what he does, and so was I.

Contrast that with today where I am in a seminar from 9 am through until 5 pm, the first half of which was so dull it risked sucking all the life from me before I'd even made it to lunch time. In fact, I'm declaring defeat. While being well organised and reasonably well attended, the agenda is all over the map, ranging from detailed, low-level things to do with semiconductor physics right up to multicore-based software benchmark design. From my perspective, two mistakes were made:

  1. All the boring stuff was in the morning, rapidly killing any spark of enthusiasm you may have started the day with, and

  2. they handed out printed copies of the slides at registration, instantly negating much of the value in sticking it out to the end. Few presenters - me included - are capable of adding much to whatever is on the Powerpoint these days, so a paper version of a decent slide deck gets you 90% of the way there.

I got as far as eating lunch which, as usual in these things when they are hotel-based, comprised those two wacky characters "chewy chicken" and "stringy beef", before throwing in the towel.

I should instead have just bunked-off for the morning, and gone for a walk or sat in the library for a while and got some decent thinking time in. Quite honestly I and the company would have got way more value from a bit of introspection and analysis, something I could have quite happily done sitting at a cafe somewhere.

Whatever you do in life, it's all in how well you balance things. Bit like surfing, really.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Whirly Magnetic Disks Still Rule

Couple of interesting things popped up today here and here pointing to new laptop users being disappointed in both the performance and reliability of solid state drives (SSDs), a feeling that's probably amplified by being asked to fork over in excess of $1,000 extra for the privilege of being on the bleeding edge. Oh yes, and battery life wasn't any better either, it seems.

These stories echo what was written in Business Week a couple of issues ago when they profiled IBM's work to develop a new super thin and light laptop, the X300. IBM pulled SSDs from the first iteration of this machine because suppliers couldn't meet the contracted levels of quality.

Some experiments done by ARS technica on a Macbook Air show that, for a premium of $1,300, you only win with the SSD-equipped version when doing random-access based disk reads. In daily use, despite a 200 Mhz clock speed advantage over it's HDD-based sibling, the SSD-equipped Macbook was only noticeably better in one circumstance, namely, "it didn't suffer entire machine slowdowns when there was a lot of disk activity—or at least less so than the HDD model. "

So there you have it. Further proof that it's sometimes better to lag than it is to lead, especially when you plonk down your dollars before the pundits get their hands on a new advance, in advance of you. And for the more cynical amongst you, another victory for Jobs et al in their relentless war to squeeze increasing profits from hardware before the law of commoditization kicks in.

Apple acolytes please note: this is one expensive religion to adopt, particularly if you are relentlessly at the head of the queue for the latest blessing.

Me? I'm just disappointed that this technology doesn't appear, at least at first blush, to be the answer to achieving a major step-up in both the performance and reliability offered by current generation laptops; one piece of the puzzle perhaps, but not a complete new picture.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

CA Gas Prices: Worse Than You Think

Just in case you hadn't heard, California has some of the highest petrol prices in the country. Partly, this is because that's what the market will bear, but largely it's because the formulation of gasoline in this state is different from that found anywhere else in the USA. This means that refineries in the state have to produce almost all of the local demand and gas can't be brought in from other locations in order to smooth supply vs. demand cycles. Nope, makes no sense to me either.

Quite how the California legislature ever thought it sensible to get into the petrochemical specification business (sometime in the 60s?) is a mystery to me. Indeed, it's a mystery to many people, especially as one of the things they insisted upon was that petrol sold in the state should have a specific oxygenator (MTBE) added that subsequently turned out not only to be a carcinogen but also to actually lower fuel consumption, which was a problem because that completely wiped out all of notional smog benefit it may have originally offered.

Anyway, this week I also figured out that we getting the middle finger in one other dimension too: octane rating. Back east, premium petrol (the top grade) comes in at a middling 93 octane, a level itself quite some way below what's standard in the UK, for example. However, premium gas in California only makes it to a measly 91 octane.

A couple of octane may mean slightly less power and the engine running a bit hotter, but having never done experiments on any of my cars to see the difference first hand I can't really say how significant this difference may or may not be. Either way, we don't even get offered that choice, or at least I thought that was the case until this week I found a gas station in CA that was selling 93 octane, albeit at a whopping $5 a gallon, which is a dollar-thirty more than they were charging for 91 rated "standard" premium juice. Nope, guess I won't be running those experiments just yet because that's a complete rip off. Save your money for a tank or two of racing gas (100+ octane) next time you are at the track is my advice. Now that's the good stuff!

So let's recap: we pay more than anywhere else, we get a lower octane fuel than is the norm in other states, and our state legislature insists on making up it's own formulation with who-know-what consequences.

Hard to view all of this as a victory for the California consumer ...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Long, Hard Climb

The Staircase

These past few weeks have been very busy, combining long hours with too much pressure.

Trying to get a fund-raising underway, help close the Q, sort out all the materials & plans required to get the year started, manage the board and generally try and keep things all heading in the right direction is driving me to 12 or 14 hour days.

Yes, we do seem to be making progress, but it's hard to find the time to stop and reflect where on that staircase we're all climbing we have reached. We can report once benchmark worthy of note though: the company is about to hit its 10 year anniversary, which is a quite remarkable achievement just in itself. It's also noteworthy - to me least - that I've been there 3 years already, which I suppose means I get 30% of either the credit or the blame, depending on who is keeping score!

Have we made progress in those 36 months? Hell yes. But I'd have to claim it's really only now that the time and energy invested over the past three years is showing signs of paying off.

Glancing up, still seem to be a lot of stairs overhead though .... and I have no idea what's at the end of the climb.

Oh well, head down and back to one foot in front of the other.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Taking Hackers To Heart

From The McGovern Historical Collection, Texas

Very interesting post from the New Scientist team relating some experiments that demonstrate you can indeed hack a pacemaker. The team involved used the built-in radio channel designed to allow doctors to pull out data for patient monitoring or to upload new hardware settings. Not only were they able to convince the device to shut itself down, they were also able to hack the monitoring function to extract data about the owner, presumably implying you'd want to know something about the poor individual you were about to pull the plug on?

Probably no immediate cause for alarm as the transmitter used was placed 2 inches from the device and likely had quite a large foot print associated with it (laptops, coils, geeks in sandals, that sort of thing.) Still, expect to see this kind of scenario appearing in a James Bond film heading your way soon where it's all built into a hair brush. (Seriously, do secret agents travel with monogrammed hair brushes in this day and age? Be a dead giveaway if so. No wonder the Iron Curtain fell, probably ran out of badger bristles and so the Stasi couldn't make any more secret devices. Also be worth checking to see if spies suddenly started sporting bad hair grooming too just before the Wall fell ...)

Monday, March 10, 2008

Consolation Prize

Marin Hills From Fort Mason

As predicted, the show wasn't great, and so here instead is a shot of Fort Mason itself. There were a couple of pictures I should have taken but missed, including one of the stern of some unknown wooden ship mounted on a retaining wall ... but they'll just have to wait until we find ourselves back there again some day. Probably won't be in early March next year though!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Art - Tough Way To Make A Living

Not yet sure how today will work out but sounds like sales yesterday weren't wonderful at least. There was a bit of a rush when the doors opened Saturday morning but come around 12:30 then things basically fell away. Haven't yet got an update on sales weekend-to-date but I somehow suspect that, no matter how you count it, I won't be retiring tomorrow on the proceeds.

Still, the weather has been glorious and the venue - Fort Mason, up in San Francisco's Marina District - is itself interesting. As you may have guessed, it's an old military base and part of the Golden Gate Recreation Area. There are a few shops or small businesses that have opened there but in all honesty then unless you are in the area anyway I wouldn't make a special detour.

Now for the no-fun part: taking everything down, packing it up and getting back through the city. Let's see, it's 3 pm now so with luck we'll be home by 8:30 pm earliest?

Friday, March 7, 2008

We Are Officially In A Rut

Wave Jumper, Parasurfing, California Coast

One more shot from last weekend, just to show that I've not taken pictures of much else recently!

This work thing really does get in the way of having fun doing other stuff ...

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Artistic Weekend

Well, of a sort anyway. Am helping out at a craft show S is doing this weekend up in the city. For me, that means mostly hefting and carrying in order to set up the booth, lights and all the rest of the stuff before the show, and doing it all in reverse when it closes on Sunday night. In addition, I usually end up manning things during the day in order to give her a break. Ends up being a lot of work and so not sure how much time I'll get to post; we'll see but I'll try to write something at least.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Wave Jumper

Wave Jumper, California Coast

And here's the third picture from Sunday's outing. The wind was pretty strong that day, gusting from the north (this shot faces west, of course) allowing the guys to really get some height. Great stuff.

Monday, March 3, 2008

More Surfing ...

Surfing With Sails, California

Here's another shot from yesterday. I think I prefer this one. The picture with the last post might work better with a different crop (the sail from the other surfer unbalances things) but either way this one gets the nod. One more tomorrow.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Things You Could Have Done On A Sunday

Parasurfing on the California Coast

Worm the cat; walk the dog; iron a shirt; wash the car; clean the house; tidy the dishes; paint the bedroom; weed the garden; hang yourself.

Or, you could get out into the great outdoors and do what these guys are doing.

In my defence, although I did none of the above, at least I was at the Pacific coast with a camera, and that's not a bad compromise.

Saturday, March 1, 2008


This is a wonderful film clip, from Dylan Winter, a professional documentary maker, capturing the quite remarkable behaviour of flocking starlings. I grew up watching these birds flying around the fields and trees in southern England. It's hard to describe just how they manage to twist and turn seemingly completely synchronized with each other, but this video does a great job of capturing the grace and beauty of these birds. As day turns to night, the way they fly in co-ordinated waves, folds and ripples is like nothing else I've seen, making them seem more like some kind of computer animation that a group of individual birds exhibiting instinctual behaviour.

Watching the display again quite makes me feel almost home sick. In Brighton, starlings would swarm back into the trees around the Royal Pavilion as well as to the remains of the old West Pier. I can still almost hear their screeching calls at dusk, though thankfully I can't smell what I remember as being the results of several hundred birds all roosting in one place! Locals knew not to park their cars under those trees opposite the Theatre Royal when they were in full cry, but visitors didn't .... turns out starling guano is particularly corrosive to the paint finish on cars!