Thursday, October 30, 2008

World Ending - Just Deserts At Google

Phott by Everett Bogue, via NY Mag

Ah yes, early signs that the on-going meltdown of capitalism is impacting even Google, or at least the lavish perks Googlers have come to take for granted. The notice, as reproduced below -and thanks to Silicon Alley Insider for this one - was sent round the New York offices of Google. (Please do though take a look at the linked article to see the inaugural menu so you can get a taste of what, err, you won't be tasting.)

Hi Everyone,
Changes have been made recently to programs throughout our company to ensure cost effectiveness and consistency across offices. In New York City, our food service team has closely examined cafe usage, food consumption and labor costs to find areas where efficiency can be improved without compromising food quality and nutrition. We would like to announce the following NYC-specific changes to the food service program:

* Meals: The below hours were determined to be the most cost effective to serve meals based on traffic flow to cafes.

* Breakfast will be served from 8:30-9:30am (formerly 8:00-9:30am) and the menu will be simplified.

* Lunch will be served from 11:30am-2:00pm (formerly 11:30-2:30pm).

* Dinner will be served from 6:30-8:00pm (formerly 6:00-8:00pm). Please note that dinner is provided for those working late in the office and is not intended to be taken home.

* Microkitchens: Those of you who have been around for a while know that the microkitchens started for a variety of good reasons, including a genuine desire to make it easy for folks to grab some food while working long and/or odd hours. While we are staying true to that original purpose, we are also looking for ways to be smarter, more cost-efficient, and more earth-friendly in the usage and product offerings of our microkitchens.

* There will be changes to the selection of snacks in the microkitchens. We will be sending a survey to Googlers in NYC soon asking for them to vote on their favorite snacks.

* Socials and Guest Policy

* Afternoon tea on Tuesdays will be suspended. Similar to Mountain View, there may be occasional surprise "snack attacks" in the future.

* On those occasions when a senior executive would like to speak at TGIAF, temps, contractors, vendors and guests will be restricted from attending, for confidentiality reasons.

* To maintain consistency with other Google offices, we are going to adopt the guest policy announced in MV last month. Please see below for more detail about this policy.

We look forward to continuing to provide Googlers with a great meal experience every day. Questions, comments or concerns can be sent to [REDACTED]
Thank you,

Shocking. Next they will ban pyjamas in the workplace and actually make people work on real stuff that matters. Fancy that. And for those of you who can spell schadenfreude without first looking it up, bets on when we'll see the first round of Google lay-offs? April '09 gets my vote.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Pithy, and to the point.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Monday, October 27, 2008

On The Plus Side

Layoffs are starting to bite here in Silicon Valley. Any young company that relies on click-throughs, eyeballs, web-traffic or advertising spend in order to have a business model is about to have a tough few quarters. For example, following their doom-and-gloom presentation, Sequoia's portfolio companies are cutting back on average by 30%. However, they are not the only ones. Some 50,000 tech job cuts have been announced spanning everything from semiconductors to PCs, cell phones to cars.

This is nothing new to California's high-tech businesses. In its short history Silicon Valley has already lived through several cycles of up-and-down, with the more recent-prior in 2001 being, of course, the worst by far.

At this point we don't yet know how wide or how deep this new rift in the high-tech landscape will become. Yes, it's going to hurt; yes, we'll get through it and something else will propel the next run-up. It may be green-tech, bio-tech, web-tech, nano-tech or something-else-tech, but somehow we'll figure something out. "Hope springs eternal" as they say, and nowhere quicker or more vigorously than in Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile, Starbuck's will get clogged with unemployed geeks renting wi-fi by nursing a small coffee for 5 hours, property prices will fall further as people migrate away from the area, and the incessant calls from stock brokers touting for business will become even more strident.

However, experience tells us that on the plus side at least the commute will get easier....

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Made It Back

Racing Aston Martin, 007

Back from Europe, at least for a few days, but leaving again next Saturday to head to Switzerland.

Meanwhile, here's a car picture to keep you going until I can sort out what timezone this is. Going to China, getting home but then turning right around and heading to Europe for few days is a painful way to do it, but circumstances dictate that that's just the way it had to be.

Hopefully, the travel gods will get me into Heathrow in time next Sunday to watch the final F1 GP in Brazil where Lewis Hamilton again has a seven point lead going into the closing race. Thanks to what we saw last year (he lost the title by one point after a poor start and mechanical problems) it's goign to be a nail-biting experience.

Alas, before that there's a board meeting to get through, along with all the usual end-of-year planning and other tasks to get completed between now and Friday.

Much less fun in prospect, therefore, than watching cars going round a racing circuit.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Yea, Now We're Winning ... Kind Of

Over breakfast, I found myself reading an article in the european edition of the Financial Times discussing the impact of the precipitious fall in world oil prices.

Now that the price of a barrel of oil has fallen by 50% from its peak, bringing it down to around $70 to $75, the writer was noting that this is likely to have a positive impact on the west but a much more significant and negative effect in the east.

It seems that the national budgets in Iran and Venezuela, for example, only balance when oil trades at $95 per barrel or above; that figure is $70 for Russia, making them about break even today but clearly much worse off than before Wall Street withered. (This is of course a game the US doesn't even get close to playing, thanks mostly to dwindling oil output and a budget deficit that beggars belief.)

Add to the above an analysis by Deutsche Bank that says the marginal production cost for crude is between $65 and $80 a barrel - by implication also therefore the trading range that things should settle into over the long term - and it's hard to see how even with OPEC trying to trim output and push prices back up again that we will see much in the way of upwards pricing pressure.

Ultimately, it was economics that brought the collapse of the Soviet Union, not some inate demand from the proletariat for the wholesale adoption of democracy. Over the past years, Iran's burgeoning balance sheet has unnaturally emboldened the state in both its rhetoric and the surpression of internal anti-government dissidents. Being flush with cash makes it much easier to covertly fund terrorist activities elsewhere and also creates a thick insulating blanket against the negative effects of any sanctions applied by the western powers. Take away that comforter and it makes you wonder if falling oil prices may ultimately do more to bring stability to the middle east than the reverse trend ever could, especially as meddlesome forces get increasingly distracted by niggling domestic issues like, shall we say, trying to stay in power?

Oh, and the dollar is finally worth something again. Funny old world, innit?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Night Races

Racing Into The Night, ALMS 2008, Laguna Seca

I've raced in the dry and I've raced in the wet; I've driven in sprint races and endurance races; I've raced in the US and the UK. But, I cannot claim to have ever had the chance to race in the dark. I've read a lot of accounts of what it's like at Le Mans proper, especially in the old days of turbo charged long tail Porsches doing over 200 mph down the Mulsanne straight in the pitch dark, and quite frankly it sounded terrifying, an impression not changed by noting that the drivers often felt exactly the same way. Definitely a case of taking the brave pills and refusing to listen to the nagging voice in your head that says there's no way you can get round the next corner flat in fourth,despite the fact that you've already done so many times in the past.

Don't know if I will ever have enough time and/or money to race again, but even if I do then I think I'll stick to the daylight hours and leave this challenge to the pros.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What the 360 Means in Xbox 360

Porsche 911 GT3 Having a Bad Day, Laguna Seca, 2008

"Degrees of rotation" would be the answer, at least in this case. This GT3 nerfed the car in front between turns two and three, somewhere close to the back of the pack. Lots of tyre smoke (blue stuff front left) and bits of bodywork was the result, along with the exit of this competitor from the race. If only it had been hit by a car sponsored by Nintendo then the world would have been in perfect harmony, but alas not!

Monday, October 20, 2008

American LeMans 2008

Acura ARX-01b LMP2 Sports Prototype

Since I managed to make it by on Friday, I was able to catch the last race in the American LeMans series, held as always at Laguna Seca. I'll post a few more pictures over the following days but, once again, I'm on a plane today, this time heading to Europe.

ALMS is a great sports car series and of course Laguna Seca is a wonderful circuit. I like the way they organise the racing here and there's always plenty to do and to see, both on and off the circuit.

Uniquely, this is the only race at Laguna that runs late enough into the day to give some impression of what it's like to compete in the dark. The shot above is of the Gil De Ferran Acura grounding out as it runs down the corkscrew (they ultimately finished 4th). According to the telemetry I saw on the TV coverage the next day, that car was accelerating through 80 mph at that point and pulling 2g. Wonderful stuff!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Terminal Disease

Terminal 2, Pudong Airport, Shanghai

Terminal disease (not a terminal disease, thankfully) is currently an affliction of mine, not something exhibited in anyway at all by Shanghai airport's terminal 2.

While I'm seeing way too many different kinds for my tastes - quite to the point where I am indeed sick of them - I would nevertheless have to congratulate the Chinese authorities for the design and implementation of the new terminal 2. It's broad, light, spacious, well laid out and quite frankly yet another testament to the skills of Richard Rogers the architect they brought in to create a new gateway to China's most prosperous area.

From the upstairs lounge, you can see that the main runway runs parallel to the terminal building, affording a great view of the aircraft taking off and landing. Beyond that, you get a similar vista, this time though of ships entering and leaving Shanghai's immensely busy seaport. Most entertaining.

Since the airport was built to offer a lot of headroom for future passenger growth it means that today the typical traffic load is way below capacity, leading to a very pleasant sense of not being crowded or harried anywhere at all in the process of going from check-in to departure.

This contrasts sharply with the Heathrow experience at T5 which already felt cramped, hot and fatiguing the last time I was there, an experience I'll get to re-asses in about, oh shall we say, 24 hours .... ?

Round 2 begins.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Shenzhen Living

A shot of the cityscape from my hotel window in Shenzhen. Roof-line panoramas rarely shown the best side of a city, and this case is no exception. The massive growth Shenzhen has experienced has necessitated a massive, sprawling building program of apartment blocks to house the influx of workers keen to benefit form the new Chinese economic miracle. Some, especially on the outskirts, are new, shiny and fresh looking, but many are not. Weeping concrete, rust-stained cladding and dirt-washed exteriors dominate the downtown skyline.

Pretty it ain't, functional I suppose it is.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Bare Essentials For A Thrusting Economy

Hotel Amenity Kit, Chinese Style

Clearly, hotels in China have very quickly come to understand what their clients really need after a hard days work: drinks, gambling and sex, and quite possibly in that specific order.

Where we stayed, the first of those was available in copious quantities. However, the other two seemed to be in shorter supply, at least within the hotel's direct precincts. But having said all that, from our table in the ground floor restaurant we could see a continual progression of young women, all dressed in short skirts and tight tops, heading into the lobby of the building next door, starting around 6:30 pm and lasting certainly as long as we were sitting there. No idea what this place was but we could see a large Japanese restaurant on the second floor if that's any clue. We were planning to go over and take a look, but we never got round to it and so this will have to remain a mystery for now.

However you look at it, China has come a very long way, very quickly, from the old boiler-suit and bicycles image we used to have of the country; at a quick glance, we could just have easily been in Sapporo as Shenzhen. Just to paint the picture one additional way, imagine how dominant Japan could become if it had 20x the people and was seeing GDP growing at a steady clip of 10% per annum.

Make no mistake, China is already a major world power and growing stronger by the day. With the rest of the world slipping into recession, the World Bank and the Economist both think it's likely to only dent their growth by a couple of percentage points or so. The net result will be that, relatively speaking, they will now start to grow even quicker than before.

Wonder what Mandarin is for "we're number 1"?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Chinese Smog & Hairy Crabs

Chinese pollution? Best in the world, no doubt about it! Actually, the smog in Shenzhen today isn't too bad as a breeze has kicked-in to move the air around. However, taking just a short foray outside yesterday afternoon meant that I came back with my eyes already starting to sting. Clearly, the Olympics brought only the slightest of pauses in the gradual poisoning of the atmosphere in key industrial centres in China.

And it's fair to say that Shenzhen is one of those key industrial cities. Its location - right over the water from Hong Kong - was the basic ingredient that allowed rapid economic growth to develophere , with Shenzhen benefiting greatly from the prodigious influx of foreign money into the area from the 1970s onwards. Indeed, Wikipedia reports that Shenzhen is reputed to be the fastest growing city in the world, and looking out of the hotel window it's a claim that's easy to believe.

However, according to the hotel at least, all of the economic prowess has to take second place to the culinary allure of the local seasonal delicacy, hairy crabs. Now personally, I'm not that fond of crabs be they of the hirsute or clean-shaven variety so I cannot comment one way or the other on how they taste. But make no mistake, these things are definitely a big deal down here and, perhaps unsurprisingly, suffer the same fate as many consumer (literally) items that are popular and pricey: they get faked.

To help combat this outrage, real hairy crabs can have ID rings attached or even get their shells laser engraved in order to try and prove their authenticity. Of course, such things are easy to fake, which is precisely what apparently happens. Cunningly enough, unscrupulous vendors can also dip crabs from other locations into the specific lake they are supposed to come from and voila, the price just jumped ten-fold or more, and it's a deception that's hard to prove unless you catch them red-handed (the criminals, not the crabs).

Still, if you manage to find the genuine article then it seems there is still one hazard yet to overcome: the damned things might poison you just as surely as the local smog will. There was a scandal with Taiwan a couple of years ago around crabs reported to be loaded with a known carcinogen being exported their way.

But perhaps that's just what makes them hairy?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

China Bound + Europe (x2) = ?

Doggie Hell (from Fox's Family Guy)

Back to travelling again, thereby creating my own version of jet-lag hell.

Between now and the middle of November I am away overseas for three weeks out of four. Starting with Shenzhen, China, I return at the weekend and then and then head to Sweden. Back on a Sunday (damn those cheap fares that require a Saturday night stay), in the office for a few days and then off to Montreax in Switzerland, finally returning once more around the 7th November (cunningly missing election day).

Will post when I can, won't when I can't. Meanwhile, thanks to B, I've added some Google ads for your clicking pleasure in my absence. Have at it. After the Dow's performance this week I need the money.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Lenin Takes A Bath

And for once I mean that literally. Check this out. Seems they take the "skin sack" - aka Lenin - out of its glass case each year to give him a nice restorative bath in a mixture of formaldehyde, methanol and ethanol. Only surprise in this recipe is that there's no vodka included, but perhaps that's just to try and dissuade the workers from drinking it after the event .....

On the plus side, at least this annual ritual keeps some small set of the proletariat employed and, more importantly, Vladimir Ilyich himself from smelling bad and going green. On the minus side, however, it leaves him looking like Oddjob, sidekick of the villainous Goldfinger of James Bond fame, albeit sans bowler hat.

Think that's really what the architect of the world's first true socialist revolution had in mind for his twilight years? Likely not (Wikipedia says he wanted to be buried next to his mother) but I guess even members of the 100 most influential men in history club don't always get what they asked for!

Friday, October 10, 2008

And Then The Wheels Came Off ....

Well that was - is - ugly. At one point today the Dow Jones was pretty close to the low we saw of 7,500 back in September 2002. Last time we were driven off the cliff by the dot com bust; this time it's down to real estate and too much borrowing.

So what does this all mean for Silicon Valley and venture companies? "Nothing good" is the short answer, but it's actually more nuanced than that.

On the side of doom and gloom, here's the take from the biggest of the big dogs, Sequoia Capital. If you are of a nervous disposition then sit down before reading. Actually, I think the most interesting slides are at the beginning where they present the macroeconomic indicators that all was not well with Wall Street or Main Street. (But why, one is compelled to ask, is it that these charts only ever come to light after the crash has happened?) However, it is worth remembering that Sequoia is heavily invested into companies that rely on advertising spending or consumer interest in order to grow, and in some cases may not yet have a way of turning interesting into income. Both those areas will be hit hard. You have only to look at Apple's stock price over the past few days to see that play out; AAPL is trading at half what it was 8 weeks ago.

Clearly, firms tied to selling into the financial markets are going to get hit hard too, but there the picture is far less uniform: Oracle says "no real issue" where as SAP say "this is hurting us already". IBM, meanwhile, just got their results out into the public's gaze early, larded through with a message that might be summarised as "don't panic"; IBM further reaffirmed its existing full year profits guidance, for example.

The markets are absolutely consumed with the effects of the credit crisis. Notions of an overall business slowdown are secondary, and taking a step back even a slowing worldwide economy in no way justifies the falls we've seen hitting every stock market around the globe day-after-day.

We're now beginning to look at what this means for our business. Thankfully, we have relatively little exposure to any of the sectors seeing the most immediate impact, but when the world is crashing round your ears then, even if it's not your building that's disintegrating, wearing some sort of hard-hat and keeping a weather eye open is the least you can do. However, this is no time for panic, and letting things play out for a couple of weeks and getting the election over & done with should clear out a lot of the smoke and dust, allowing a much clearer picture of what's really happening to appear.

Meanwhile, there are deals to be done, customers to meet with and value to be added. In short, business as usual, keep your head down and in the game, and don't get distracted from the basics.

Rumours of the death of capitalism are greatly exaggerated. Indeed, for those with strong nerves and a ready supply of cash (Soros and Buffett anyone?) will make out like bandits from what is now a golden buying opportunity.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Tilt-And-Shift Lenses

The frames making up the clip from yesterday comprised a series of time-lapse stills, downsized and turned into the video shown, taken via a tilt-and-shift lens (plus the required 35mm adapter) by Keith Loutit.

Tilt-and-shift (T/S) lenses were originally developed as a way for architectural photographers, amongst others, to compensate for those converging verticals you get when shooting a building from somewhere below the centre line. Unless the image plane - film or digital - is absolutely parallel to the subject, buildings lean inwards, trees tilt and the world as a whole takes on an almost vertigo-inducing quality. On the basis that it's much easier to move the lens around to correct these kinds of problems rather than the camera itself (trying to elevate it half up a church facade, for example, is no mean feat), a T/S lens allows you instead to move the glass elements in two directions relative to the film plane and hence correct things that way instead.

One of the by-products of this range of adjustment is the ability to create a very narrow and targeted depth-of-field, something that's used to great effect in this video, and also here (choose Index/Sports/Play Magazine) to give another perspective to, in this case, sporting events such as horse racing.

Be fun to try out and see what can be done but I can't personally justify the $1,000 such lenses cost. For now, I'm glad to leave this sub-branch of the art-and-craft of photography to others better qualified and better financed to work with!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

It's A Small World

Bathtub III from Keith Loutit on Vimeo.

Take a look at the above clip and then think about how it was made. Models? Blended animation? Manipulated video? Bathtub toys?

Answers tomorrow.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Oh, So That's What "Debate" Means?

'Nuff said and kudos to Aden Renkei for nailing what was so depressing about the Palin vs. Biden debate. What's the point of these things if at least one of the pair starts out by stating that they likely won't be answering the questions from the moderator, preferring instead to parrot bland party lines helpfully written onto cue cards stashed under the lectern?

Coming from the UK, I cannot understand how political debate in this country can be seen as functioning, even barely, when no one will ask the hard questions and keep on asking them until they get some answers? Listening to the wounded bellows of those who think Palin's inability to handle even simple questions like "what newspapers and magazines do you read" unless they are sent in three days before and can be dealt with via answers scripted like the stage directions to a Broadway play, calling foul because it's "unfair" and down to "liberal media bias" just beggar belief. And even this soft slap was from Katie Couric, for chrissakes, hardly the punchiest of pugilists the fourth estate can offer up. (Where's Jeremy Paxman when you need him most? Actually, "on BBC America" is the answer! Go and watch him take politicians apart on YouTube if you don't know who he is.)

Politics is a contact sport. It's not afternoon tea with the vicar and a nice chat over a post-prandial game of croquet. I expect those who aspire to public office to be able to think, speak and act on their feet, because that's real life. Palin's not the only one guilty of this charge of course, she's simply the worst of the bunch. The race here has really reached the point where policies no longer matter, it's all down to likability. And isn't that the thesis for electing a president that got us into this current mess in the first place? You betcha!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Candy Twist

In addition to the static and flying displays, the airshow also included the Canadian forces Sky Hawks parachute display team. I liked the above picture for the graphic quality it has but not sure I yet have it quite where I want it. Hmm, will try some other minor changes to better balance the colours and to make the smoke trails stand out some more.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Hard Right? Damn Right!

Another shot from the Salinas air show, again of the F-15E Strike Eagle Demonstration Team aircraft. From this angle it's easier to see that the afterburners are lit, and it's also plain that at this point in the turn the g-forces must be piling on big time.

Wonder if they'd mind taking a passenger along next year? It must be an amazing experience to pilot one of these things; just imagine having all that raw horsepower at your fingertips and how that must feel? Of course, at my age I'm never going to fly one of these or anything like it but I can still dream about being in the jump seat can't I??

Being America, it goes without saying that or a few thousand dollars you can hitch a ride on all sorts of high-performance jets from Migs to Phantoms, and likely many others too. So here's a promise: if we get a decent exit this time around then I think I'm going to have to have a go. Yeah, there's the whole embarrassment factor of throwing up in your helmet to deal with but I'll take that risk!

Goals are good, right?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Fluid Dynamics, Fluid Wars

Another shot from the Salinas Airshow, this time of an F-15E Strike Eagle, albeit processed to bring out the air condensing as it flows over the wings at speeds approaching supersonic.

By going to back and white, controlling the blue channel with a digital filter and changing contrast, you can bring to the fore elements that otherwise get lost. Not only did this processing emphasise the air flow over the plane's control surfaces but it also brings out the engine pulses.

Regardless, public demonstrations like these help reinforce the notion of what air supremacy actually is and what it means to modern warfare. It's worth remembering that the Russians only began to capitulate in Afghanistan once the mujaheddin acquired shoulder launched surface to air missiles from the US. All of a sudden, helicopters and troop transporters were vulnerable, air reconnaissance became a dangerous activity and even fighter-bombers were increasingly being targeted. With reduced air cover and much-curtailed ability to supply the front lines, the tide quickly turned as commanders reassessed the situation, and Russia soon pulled out.

To date, in the current conflict the Taliban have not been able to gain access to these weapons, despite many attempts to do so. We should all hope that this remains to be the case because if they succeed via Iran or somewhere else then once again a foreign occupying force will likely find itself on the losing side. Public opinion, historically being supportive of the Afghanistan operation, will rapidly turn negative if the 6 o'clock news starts reporting the downing of troop transporters.
Air power remains the primary tool of waging war in the 21st century, even where we face a 19th century foe.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Glass Ceiling #2

Here's an additional view showing more of the inhabitants of the sea-ceiling referred to in the post earlier today.

Glass Ceiling - Literally

Persian Ceiling and Wall Reflections

Back to the glass exhibit for a post today: one of the most impressive things we saw was an installation comprising a back-lit glass ceiling. This was a recreation of something he built for the bottom of his own swimming pool and comprises an amazing diversity of glass-modelled marine life, from mermaids to fish to seashells, lit to gives the impression of light being filtered throiugh water.

It's one of those exhibits you could easily spend an hour or more looking at, always finding something new and interesting to further catch your attention. Each piece is so well crafted, each piece so carefully placed.

The above shot doesn't really do it justice but at least it gives some impression of the scope, color and sheer joy of this unique piece of art.