Skunk (still) Works…

Source: Wired

My thesis adviser in Engineering school was a fanatic about lean:  lean six sigma (before it got cool, from when Deming and Taguchi were talking about it), lean manufacturing and lean engineering design teams.  He also taught me about the intrinsic value of knowledge.  The thesis detailed structuring engineering design teams based on the Lockheed Martin Skunks works (the old one, when they did shit hot cool work).

  1. Form smallest possible, focused engineering teams
  2. Teams have more than engineers, everything from science to prototype, manufacturing and operations would be in the team
  3. Give them a focused task
  4. Leave them the fuck alone
  5. The fewer the metrics and management reports and KPI’s the better.  The only metric that matters is make it work within budget and time.

Plus ca change… according to Wired magazine’s excellent article on the Predator drone weaponisation.  Seems the USAF took Kelly Johnson‘s principles to heart in setting up their Big Safari program at Wright-Patterson AFB.

The Predator program, only one of the most significant changes in military aviation, was a bit of an orphan,

…. most military planners at the time regarded the Predator as pretty much a technological dead end.

No big surprise then that the project only happened because of a small team of nut jobs who had the good fortune to end up working

…almost entirely free from the scrutiny of Pentagon acquisitions officers. In a series of breakthrough hacks, they hot-wired together the lethal, remotely piloted Predator over the course of just a few months in 2000 and 2001, in a mad dash to meet the heinous design challenges of a single job: to kill Osama bin Laden …

In what must be a great stroke of luck (or misfortune, depending on your viewpoint),  the project was handed to Big Safari [emphasis mine].

…Like at a tech startup, Big Safari’s teams were small and horizontal. Expediency, agility, and thrift were essential. “The most important thing was to get something useful to the war fighter quickly,”

…Ordinarily, before a modified military aircraft is dispatched into combat, it has to pass through a lengthy vetting process that can take years. But Big Safari liked to deploy its creations before they were fully polished. The team referred to this as “the 80 percent solution” (because sometimes the last 20 percent of a job takes the longest). It was like releasing the beta version of a piece of software, says Brian Raduenz, then the commander of Big Safari’s Predator detachment. “We would need to get it out there, get it into the hands of the guys doing the job, and then pay close attention to what they had to say about how it was working.”…

The “whipper-snappers” at Wired (and their buddies at Silicon Valley) would call this “hacking,” we used to call it Proper Engineering.  Still do.  My advisor and Eugene Kleiner would probably agree.


Changes at VAG; Part 2

As I mentioned yesterday, VAG is ringing in the changes.

Now Reuters is saying that Ulrich Eichorn will become the R&D Chief.  According to Autocar

Eicchorn was previously head of research at VW Group from 2000-2003, before going to Bentley as a board member. He was appointed as managing director of the German Association of the Automotive Industry in 2012.

… Michael Mauer will officially succeed Walter de Silva as head of VW Group design, in addition to his current position as lead designer at Porsche. …He has been at Porsche since 2004, with credits including the CayennePanamera and 918 Spyder.

…Head of Audi’s concept designs Ralf Gerhard-Willner has been placed in charge of leading VW’s modular toolkit growth. This is known to be a key area of development as part of the group’s new strategy.

So you have someone from Bentley’s board heading VW R&D,  Porsche’s lead designer will head VW Group design and the guy heading Audi’s concept design will have a hand defining the underlying platforms for every VAG car.





Changes at VAG; Part 1

Source:  Autocar

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, expect the changes at VAG to have two components:

  1. Limiting the damage to VW the company as much as possible, obviously.  In the form of ceremonial lopping off of heads to calm the baying hounds at the door.  It will also include rationalising the balance sheet as much as possible.  This latter needs doing, the VAG balance sheet has become bloated, partly because of the dominance of the IG Metall union in everything the board does (through it’s “unique” governance structure) but also because of lax discipline.
  2. Remaking VW the brand.  This will involve bringing in new people and new blood.

One of the first moves in the latter, according to  Autocar:

Lamborghini boss Stephan Winkelmann is set to leave the Italian supercar brand and join Audi’s Quattro GmbH division, according to reports in Italy.

Winkelmann, 51, has guided Lamborghini through the past decade under VW Group ownership – although he has previous experience with Fiat in Austria, Switzerland and Germany.

Reports in the Italian media suggest that Stefano Domenicali – the man who led Ferrari’s Formula One team between 2007 and 2014 – is being lined up to replace Winkelmann at the helm of Lamborghini. Domenicali is already employed by the VW Group; he joined Audi in October 2014, sparking speculation that the German brand was lining up an F1 entry.

Quattro GmbH would be a return to relatively mainstream products for Winkelmann, even though the Neckarsulm-based company produces relatively high-end, niche versions of Audi models

This is pretty good news for Audi fans.  I don’t personally like Lambo’s but they have become drive-able supercars under Audi tutelage.  And Quattro GmbH makes proper fast cars:  all the RS and S models, and the divine (much better than the Lambo) R8.  The RS and S models (like the Audi’s they are based one) were becoming a bit staid.  Maybe Stephan will shake things up there.

As for VAG going back into F1…that would be a good thing but I hope it won’t be led by Stefano!  Just look what he did at Ferrari!!

Eugene Kleiner’s legacy

Eugene Kleiner

When the first techs were essentially creating the myth of Silicon Valley from whole cloth, there wasn’t even established science let alone the whiff of markets. The Economist‘s obituary of Eugene Kleiner gives an idea how these guys got into this [emphasis added]:

HAD you visited the Valley of Heart’s Delight, south of San Francisco, in the 1930s, you would have found a pretty place of plum and walnut orchards. …Seventy years later, the valley contained 7,000-odd companies working in electronics, biotech and their offshoots, with 11 more springing up every week. Yet this most recent industrial revolution, like earlier ones, depended on the chance combination of three elements: the scientist with his invention, an entrepreneur to market it, and an investor willing to risk his money.
Chance and genius collided to create something so much bigger than the sum of their parts.  Because, after succeeding in creating Fairchild Semiconductor (refugees from which later formed Intel), Kleiner got into the business of creating more technology companies.  The Economist again:

By 1972, Mr Kleiner had plenty of cash. He also wanted to become a venture capitalist himself. The breed was still rare, and even rarer in the guise Mr Kleiner had in mind: a “technologist” who was involved and got his hands dirty, as well as simply writing cheques. He was never interested in enterprises that did not relish this approach. But in partnership with Thomas Perkins, and later in the firm of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, he gave the starting push to more than 350 companies.

Eugene Kleiner is now long gone but the company, KPCB lives on, counting twitter, google, amazon, uber, etc. in its portfolio.  But I wonder how Kliener might assess what he would see now.  Bob O’Donnell says
Many technology companies, and the tech industry as a whole, have gotten incredibly arrogant.
… Everywhere you turn, there are people in tech describing how they are completely reinventing businesses or business models or ways of doing business.
…only when tech folks have brought their particular form of magic to other industries, such as transportation and logistics, are they deemed worthy of thinking, talking, or writing about. (Uber, anyone?)
The common assumption behind these, and many other, examples seems to be that only people in tech can really figure these things out.
While tech has become arrogant, the investors have thrown away Eugene Kleiner’s probity & technical expertise, fully upending the koolaid jar into their maw.
“Somebody posted too many party fliers.” says Mark Suster,
The uninvited crowds have all turned up. The people here don’t respect your parents’ furniture, are throwing beer cans in your back yard and there’s a dude passed out face down in your sister’s bedroom. About an hour ago he thought he was invincible. That he defied the laws of gravity. He turned up for the fun but went too hard, too early.
Mark blames unicorns and the
entire bullshit culture of swashbuckling startups who define themselves by hitting some magical $1 billion valuation number and the financiers who back them irrespective of metrics that justify it.
 What he is decrying is what I myself find distasteful and quite terrifying.  I have met and have been told of many a “successful entrepreneur” whose only measure of spectacular success has been that he has raised a shitload of money from a boatload of VC investors.  The products themselves are not much more than a GUI and an “app.”
Silicon valley is now Silicon ValleySilicon_valley_title the TV series:  life become art become parody.  Everyone I know in technology from investor to inventor winces in some version of PTSD whenever the series is mentioned.  I wonder what Eugene Kleiner would make of it all.

The VAG saga

VW van front

VAG confess they made a mistake trying to grow the US diesel business.  According to Jones Day,

early research pins the start of the problem in 2005. That’s when VW wanted to promote more diesel models in the US, but the automaker didn’t have a way for the EA189 engine to meet nitrogen oxide requirements here within the budget. VW created the software defeat device to get around the issue.

Of course, the obvious question follows: can you play this any other way than a straight short?  I think we can make the case for a short to medium term VAG (VOW:GR) short; this dagger may have a bit more to fall.  However, as we make money on the short (though caution, I’ve always found VAG to be a difficult one to short/long, it’s such a huge XETRA component that other news always screws things up), there are some things to think about

  1. Eventually,VAG will turn around.
  2. I never liked VAG group’s obsession with being number one.  Toyota always tries to get away from the “largest carmaker” label as fast as possible ever since that was first bandied around.  With good reason:  being big is about the ego and that always makes for stupid decisions.
  3. VAG wanted to be the biggest, so they went more for volume, so they went for the TDI 4 (never mind that the margins on those cars are a paltry 2%), and so on…
  4. The cars got boring (and I say this as a proud former owner of blisteringly fast A4 & S6 Plus Quattros).  For future reference, whenever a large automaker with a stable of brands goes to anything remotely resembling common platforms, the cars will get boring at the very least and the company will get into trouble at the very worst.
  5. So how will VW turn around?
    1. VW is Germany, this company and the country dug themselves out of the rubble of WWII, they will overcome this one too.
    2. The brand will morph, the Audi and Porsche brands will be less affected.  I’d say, if a gun were put to my head:
      1. There will be a few more Porsches, going with Lambo’s, Bentley and Bugatti (but that doesn’t count)
      2. There will be a lot more Audi’s, especially smaller ones, those use the VW small car platforms, so there is a cost saving
      3. There will be a lot fewer VW’s, if not for internal reasons than for the simple reason that the brand is tarnished
      4. There probably won’t be a lot of diesels around.  Certainly not at LeMans next year:  I’d say Porsche will certainly be there with their hybrid, not sure about Audi because they use Diesel.  So I guess you can put money down for Porsche winning LeMans next year. 🙂
      5. Winterkorn was too closely tied to the mooted Red Bull F1 deal, so that’s a loss for now.  But VW needs F1 more now than it ever did.  F1 cars use petrol after all.  And they are now on an efficiency kick.
      6. All VAG cars had become boring.  Expect that to change.
  6. So how do you play it?
    1. Wait for the bottom.  I’d say the bottom would be when:
      1. Short interest starts dying down
      2. When its market cap gets close to NAV + cash
    2. Buy
    3. Hold.  VAG is a long play, it will require engineers to change a lot of things and someone with a lot of balls to take a machete to the group.  That kind of patience is for engineers, not traders.

And thank God for that…

Energy like the stars…


Germany fired up the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator for the first time on December 10.

What on God’s good earth is a Stellarator you say?  Well, if you don’t know what a Tokamak is, then don’t bother.

Oh Google it for fuck’s sake.

Fine, I’ll do it…

tokamak (Russianтокамак) is a device using a magnetic field to confine a plasma in the shape of a torus.

…The tokamak is one of several types of magnetic confinement devices, and is one of the most-researched candidates for producing controlled thermo nuclear fusion power. Magnetic fields are used for confinement since no solid material could withstand the extremely high temperature of the plasma. An alternative to the tokamak is the stellarator.

Anyway, back to the stellarator:

The €1 billion machine, known as Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X), appears now as a 16-meter-wide ring of gleaming metal bristling with devices of all shapes and sizes, innumerable cables trailing off to unknown destinations, and technicians tinkering with it here and there. It looks a bit like Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, towed in for repairs after a run-in with the Imperial fleet. Inside are 50 6-tonne magnet coils, strangely twisted as if trampled by an angry giant.

Ooooh, the geek in me is in full flight.  But seriously…

If W7-X matches or beats the performance of a similarly sized tokamak, fusion researchers may have to reassess the future course of their field. “Tokamak people are waiting to see what happens. There’s an excitement around the world about W7-X,” says engineer David Anderson of the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison.

Alibaba and Casino Capitalism

Note:  I wrote up these notes in 22/09/2014 when my partner asked me if we should invest in Alibaba’s IPO.  I figured I should blog this in, just for history…


You’re kidding, right?  How can this stock (BAB:US) get a huge pop on the first day?  That on a valuation that some people were already considering rich? It started at USD 92.7 at 11:53, popped to USD 99.4 7 minutes later and ended the day at USD 93.89, on the first day!!

The only smart people in BAB:LN are the ones who got the pre-IPO allocations and then got out (or are in the process of getting out) ASAP.
FT Alphaville calls it a “Cayman e-commerce site.”  Not surprising considering the SEC docs for Alibaba Group Holding Limited.
You’re buying shares of Alibaba Group Holding, which eventually ends up with “contractual arrangements” with the underlying companies everyone is so excited about.  You don’t get a say in anything the company (read Ma) want to do.

The FT had an excellent background story that should be enough to lay greedy hearts to rest:, the online business which had been listed to great fanfare in Hong Kong in 2007, was being delisted nearly five years later.

…The business plan for, a trade website connecting Chinese exporters with foreign customers, had not worked, but a new economic opportunity was emerging. China’s economy was turning from an investment-driven export machine into a liberalising, consumption-driven economy. Alibaba had a chance to be at the centre of it.

That’s the hope everyone is buying into.  But is that going to happen fast enough and in great enough rates to justify BABA valuations? And where is the guarantee that this company will be at the center of it all?

… Total gross merchandise value traded on the two websites increased from Rmb131bn in the three months to end June 2011 to Rmb501bn in the three months to the end of June 2014.”

But that’s not as rosy as it sounds:

…some experts question the numbers Alibaba has published on gross merchandise value.
Anne Stevenson-Yang, the founder of J Capital Research in Beijing, said the rapid growth in Alibaba’s GMV, which it said rose 63 per cent from 2012 to 2013, is not supported by evidence. A study by J Capital of Chinese publicly listed retail companies, meanwhile, revealed a growth rate not exceeding 6 per cent, and online sales were growing slower than offline.”

Some believe ecommerce as a whole is overstated in China. Alibaba’s estimates of its own size put the total value of the ecommerce market at $300bn last year, which is larger than the US ecommerce market. Meanwhile, the size of China’s GDP is just over half that of the US and consumption as a percentage of GDP is under half that of the US.

…Alibaba has also gone on a shopping spree in the past year, spending over $5bn to buy stakes in more than 100 companies, such as Autonavi, a mobile GPS mapping software and UC Web, a popular mobile browser.”

…Some of the sons and daughters of China’s ruling elite managed shareholdings stakes via a team of banks and investment firms that took small stakes in 2012 that are now worth billions of dollars: Boyu Capital, Citic Capital Holdings and CDB Capital, the China Development Bank’s private investment arm.”

…Due to restrictions on foreign ownership, investors in China’s technology companies do not actually own shares in the license-holding company but in an offshore registered VIE, or variable interest entity, that simulates ownership via a series of contracts and directs cash flows to investors.

That presents two nightmare scenarios:

  1. insiders could make off with the company’s assets by simply removing them from the VIE; or
  2. China’s courts, which have turned a blind eye to the practice for more than a decade, could suddenly strike down the structure

The first variant is especially acute given Alibaba’s history with Alipay. Add to this the complicated shareholding structure and the risks are obvious.

I think I’ll pass…