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Outside Ric's house

700 miles in 48 hours on an Indian Chieftain – Boston, Mt Washington and Laconia

eagleriderlogoTwo years ago I added a mini adventure to the end of my SLA conference in San Diego
(Going the whole Hog from San Diego to Las Vegas). This summer the conference was in Boston, so once again I decided to hire a motorbike and explore New Hampshire.

For this trip I decided to go for something different to the monster Harley Davidson Road King of 2013. I considered a BMW sports tourer, famed for their ride-ability and ergonomics, or perhaps my first ever ride on a British Triumph. But when I rang through to Eagle Rider I discovered the choice was just Harleys or Indians, so I went with the Indian Chieftain. If I had thought the Road King was a handful, the Chieftain was more so. With 111 cubic inches or 1,811 cubic centimetres, the engine was only slightly smaller than the one powering my five door family saloon. And weighing in at 848lbs (385 kilos) it was three times heavier than my Kawasaki KR-1R tucked up in my garage at home.

The Boston branch of Eagle Rider was being refurbished after damage caused by the severe winter storms, so pick-up was from their Foxboro branch MOM’s to the west of the City. This meant travelling by train, which was something of an American cultural experience in its own right. Sadly, trains are a badly neglected form of transport in the United States compared to Europe. The carriages on the commuter train I caught looked straight out of the 1950’s, with cracked leather seats in long rows. The windows were so worn and scratched I couldn’t even see which stations I was passing through, let alone a view of the landscape I was passing through. Luckily, and somewhat at odds with the ancient nature of the train was the provision of free Wi-Fi. So I got out my laptop and used Google maps to work out when I had arrived at my station.

train windowThe weather forecast of heavy wind and rain had my leaving the SLA Conference earlier than planned. I hoped that by picking the bike up early and heading north, I might be able to keep ahead of the worst of the weather. I smiled sardonically to myself, when remembering my conversation about wet weather with John from Eagle Rider several weeks earlier. He had warned I wouldn’t get a refund if I cancelled due to wet weather. I replied that I was British and so had plenty of experience of riding in the wet. Also, having been a Boy Scout in my youth, I had come prepared and packed my ancient Rukka jacket from my days as a motorcycle messenger in London in my twenties. I had also managed to squeeze my armoured leather jacket, boots, gloves, and waterproof trousers into my case. My crash helmet wouldn’t fit, so became my hand-luggage for the flight.

My station stop of Norfolk turned out to be a quiet suburban town with just a single rail track running through it. So I soaked up the genteel atmosphere in the warm afternoon sun watching the logging trucks roll by, as I waited for my lift.

Franklin town

Norfolk Massachusetts

North

Looking north

South

Looking south

 

 
Once I arrived at MOMs, sorting out the paperwork was quick and easy. Following a  short introduction to my big blue shiny Chieftain bike, I was wobbling off into the heavy but fast moving traffic, heading west on Route 1.

bike park full of Indians

Lots of Indians waiting to hit the road with mine in front

I joined Interstate 495 heading north, but after about an hour surrounded by speeding traffic I decided I needed to check I was actually heading in the right direction. I pulled off at a service station and parked next to a well-used Harley and its grizzled owner. He was heading hundreds of miles south for his son’s graduation, but having already done over 100,000 miles on his lean bike, was remarkably relaxed about the journey ahead.

Minimilist Harley vs bloated Indian

Minimalist Harley vs bloated Indian

I returned to the motorway just as the predicted rain clouds began rolling in from the west. But I was still really uncertain of my route without a decent map plus confusing road signs. I was looking out for route 125 north and naively assumed they would be in a logical sequence. They weren’t – and having checked on my return home, the actual order of road numbers was 62, 117, 111, 2, 119, 225, 4, 3, 3A, 38, 28, 125 and 108. I think the word ‘random’ applies here.

After nearly two hours of heavy traffic and feeling close to despair, a sign for 125 flashed up and I dived off the motorway and headed north towards Kingston and Rochester.  Immediately everything improved. At last I could get a proper feel for the bike between my legs. I could appreciate the smooth engine with its powerful low-rev torque, light clutch, strong brakes and most surprising of all – nimble handling. I was also impressed by the green lawns and white paint on picket fences and wooden architecture typical of the New Hampshire region.

Old_South_United_Methodist_Church,_Reading_MA

Reading Church New Hampshire

Sadly my equanimity wasn’t to last long, as the sparse road signs didn’t give me any confidence about my direction of travel. My planned 7pm meetup with old friend Ric began to look doubtful. The fuel gauge indicated a quarter tank remaining, so I stopped for ‘gas’. And was stunned to find I couldn’t even squeeze $10 worth in. The station was on a four way junction, so I after discovering they didn’t sell local maps, I asked which road for Lake Sebago. Considering it is a popular tourist destination, I was a bit surprised no knew which one to take. I picked the most likely looking road and headed on uncertainly.

By now the scenery had changed from manicured lawns, to impenetrable pine forests and lumber yards with the odd nudist campsite thrown in. The heavy traffic had all but disappeared, replaced by the occasional enormous log laden truck hurtling towards me along the narrow road. This was when the  sheer weight of my bike became an advantage, as the turbulence from the passing lorries barely caused a flicker.

It was around this time that the rain storm finally caught up with me, forcing me to stop and put on my ancient waterproofs. I also raised the wonderful electrically powered windscreen up to its highest level to push the water droplets over my head. I knew I must be getting nearer to Ric’s house by now, but the sun was starting to set and I my stress levels were rising. The next town was Standish where the road signs were a complete disaster. I wasted twenty minutes riding round in circles until I eventually found the right road out of town.

Just ten miles on and I had at last arrived at Sebago Lake. So I got out my Google map printout to help pinpoint Ric’s house. However in the real world there was a big gap between numbers three and ten, and I needed number seven. I asked a couple of locals, but they hadn’t heard of Ric, so I rang and discovered I had somehow got his address wrong. His house number was 2,000 higher and six miles further along the road.

It was at this point I realised my main headlights weren’t working. But, fortunately the daylight driving lights were quite bright, so I could see the road ahead. But I couldn’t see the house numbers clearly, and I was annoying drivers coming towards me who assumed I hadn’t dipped my lights for them. They punished me by keeping  theirs on full beam, blinding me. I saw the house numbers go over 2000 and slowed right down. But then then suddenly went back down to one again. I sped up, but after another five miles had run out of houses altogether, so turned around.

Sebago Lake

http://www.mainetrailfinder.com/trails/trail/sebago-lake-state-park-campground

It was getting properly dark now and my stress levels were peaking. I zoomed back along the road desperately looking for the house, and before I knew it was back at Sebago Lake. I could hear my phone ringing and fought to remove my gloves and helmet in time to talk to Ric. They had seen me ride by earlier and suggested I meet them instead at Naples before the local restaurant closed. I hurtled back along the road looking this time for the road sign to the town. But somehow missed this in the dark. I pulled into a closed gas station and rang Ric. He sounded exasperated, which I could well understand, and told me to stay where I was until he arrived.

Ten minutes later and his truck appeared along with his smiling face. By now there was only one place left open that might still be serving, so I followed Ric and his wife there for a late beer and burger. The journey had taken my over six hours instead of under three according to Google maps. I couldn’t believe how patient Ric had been with what appeared to be my deliberate repeated attempts to miss his house. After a quick tour of their beautiful lakeside house I collapsed into bed and slept hard on the soft bed.

Outside Ric's house

Ready to hit the road again bright and early

Both Ric and his wife had work the next day, and I had a full day of riding ahead of me. So after a strong coffee and a quick catch-up from the old days, I was on my way. My first stop was at Naples which I had failed to find the night before. In the bright morning sunlight I was able to take in the stunning lakeside views and to admire a big group of Harley Davidson bikes gathered in the car park.

Jackson New Hampshire

The bridge into Jackson

My only planned destination for that day was Mt Washington, which according to Motorcycle Rides website was an exciting challenge for a motorbike. The road to the mountain wound its way through dense pine forest, with signs warning of moose crossing, and very little traffic apart from a surprising number of motorbikes coming the other way. I could see my fuel was running low, so took a detour into sleepy little Jackson, but could find nothing of note other than tourist trinkets and an impressive wooden bridge over the river.

By the time I reached the car park at the foot of the Mt Washington the gauge indicated I had less than a quarter left. I got chatting to a friendly couple on ‘his and hers’ motorbikes. He had a brand new Indian Scout with all the trimmings including tassels on the front mudguard, and she was on a very futuristic looking trike. They had been up the mountain before, so we reviewed the pros and cons of the climb. In particular my considerable fear of heights.

Despite my issues with vertigo I decided I might as well give it a go after coming all this way. Sixteen dollars later and I was heading up a narrow winding tree-lined tarmac road. Soon the incline increased while the trees decreased, and I could now see just how steep the drops off the side of the road were. I took the bike down to first gear and crept forward up the mountain road.

Suddenly the fuel gauge showed the tank was nearly empty, which was came as a nasty surprise. It looked like I wouldn’t be able to make it to the top. Around the next bend the tarmac gave way to a slippery dusty dirt track. And I could feel the panic rising up through my stomach. Soon after fuel gauge began to flash warning signs at me, but I carried on up, looking for places to turn around and free-wheel back down the mountain. Somehow the bike kept going, and the dirt road was replaced by nice grippy tarmac again. And then the top of the mountain came into view and I was able to stop. I climbed off the bike and stood on my shaking legs and took in the one hundred mile views.

View from the top of Mt Washington

One hundred mile views from the top of Mt Washington

After a few minutes to recover my equilibrium, I set off to explore the peak and to search for some gas to get me back down. It was warm in the bright sunlight but the air temperature was chilly at this altitude, and I found an icy puddle in the shade. There was a stiff breeze blowing, but fortunately nothing compared to the day they recorded the highest wind speed in the world at 231 miles per hour in 1934.

After a having a quick nose around the original Tip Top hotel built in 1853, I returned to my bike and prepared to head back down the mountain. I was greatly surprised and relieved to see the fuel gauge indicating quarter full again, although this increased to three-quarters on the steeper downhill sections, which was bizarre. Thank goodness the return journey was not nearly as terrifying as the way up, and twenty minutes later I was back at the bottom feeling calm again.

Next up was a ninety mile loop of roads recommended by the Motorcycle Rides website. These were wonderfully traffic free, with only the occasional logging truck to keep me alert. Plus a few other bikers exploring these roads, who never failed to return my ‘American’ bikers wave. I couldn’t resist stopping for a few minutes at Umbagog Lake where the quiet calm of the water and views of the distant mountains were wonderfully restorative. The warning about the dangers of thin ice seemed incongruous in the 30 degree centigrade heat, but gave a hint towards the winter weather here.

Umbagog_Lake

Umbagog Lake in the midday sun

I reached the most northerly point on my the trip at Errol, which turned out to be not much more than a sign-post. Then turned south towards Berlin and the best roads of the whole trip. I revelled in the long open curves as the road followed the track of the fast flowing and appropriately named Bear Brook river. The wonderful views of the mountains were constantly changing with each bend. These roads were virtually deserted, with my only concern bumping into a bear or moose. I did actually have to slow right down to let a large female moose wander imperiously across the highway at one point. Moose Crossing

Next stop was Gorham where I just managed to squeeze another $10 of fuel into the tank. A recommendation from the lady at the gas station led me to Mr Pizza where I decided a celebratory brunch was in order, so went with prawns, cheesy pasta, garlic bread, salad and a local beer. But what sounded like a modest sized meal on the menu at $9.50 turned out to be something of a eating challenge. The food was delicious but also incredibly rich, but I kept going until I had eaten the lot. On arrival, mine was the only bike at the restaurant, but during my short lunch break, Harleys began to arrive and noisily park up. By the time I left they were filling up the car park.

lunch for one

As it was still relatively early, I decided there was time to pay a visit to Laconia bike week to see what with the oldest bikers rally in the United States was like.

Peterbilt truck

An example of a Peterbilt truck

The road there took me down to Carroll with plenty of big fast logging trucks on the road. In my mirrors I could see a particularly intimidating Peterbilt truck bearing down on me from behind, so increased my speed to a steady 70 miles an hour to prevent it overtaking.

After a few miles I noticed the truck had disappeared and been replaced by a slightly odd looking brown car. I allowed it to get closer and realised it was a County Sheriff police car – and that I was speeding. I subtly slowed down to 50 and cruised along for another ten miles until they got bored of following me.

But in Carroll I noticed there was another cop car on my tail. So I kept rigidly to the 30mph speed limit until I reached the edge of town and they disappeared for good. I discovered later the police weren’t worried about my speed but my level of intoxication, apparently many bikers ride drunk during the Laconia festival.

I could tell I was getting nearer to my destination as the bikes started to outnumber the cars on the road. The road signs were no help, so I decided to follow a particularly loud Harley in the hope they were also heading to the gathering. This bike had an incredibly loud exhaust pipe, forcing me to drop back a long way to protect my ears. I could only imagine what it must have been like for the rider and pillion sitting on the bike all day.

The road wound through more beautiful mountain scenery before dropping down to a series of small lakes. Finally I started seeing signs for Laconia, so let my noisy guide go and stopped for more fuel. Parked up at the gas station was a shiny new BMW adventure bike, so I pulled up alongside and began chatting to its husband and wife riders. They had been coming to Laconia for many years and thought nothing of the 18 hour ride from their hometown in the mid-west. He was a big fan of European bikes, and had a Ducati and Triumph to go along with his impressive BMW. I noticed they were wearing crash helmets, and we talked about why so many bikers I had seen didn’t have any protection on their heads, and how crazy they were.

Next stop was the town of Laconia itself, but having explored the main streets thoroughly I was confused by the lack of bikes in the town. I stopped and asked one of the few groups of riders in town and they explained the big gathering was over on Lakeside, and that I could follow them there. It was a ten mile ride, but soon the road were swarming with bikers, out numbering the cars by ten to one. At Lakeside the road had been closed to all but bikes and I managed squeeze into a parking space next to a ‘Jesus bike’.bikes at laconia

There were lots of kiosks and stalls selling fast food and bike related gear, with the addition of quite a few mobile tattoo parlours which were proving popular. There were some amazing custom bikes on show, many of which looked virtually unrideable. I heard later that most are driven there in vans and then wheeled out for short show-off rides.

laconia bikes

After an hour fully immersing myself in this uniquely American experience (I only spotted two European and two Japanese bikes). I decided it was time to head south. The sun was setting over the lake and knew I would need to put in some miles in, to find a motel that wasn’t booked out to bikers.

I managed to find route 107 which was a lovely quiet rural road peppered with farms and small villages. After 40 miles of riding and with darkness descending, I came to a small town and conducted a fruitless search for a motel. I asked for help from a group of locals chatting outside the only store left open. Apparently the nearest hotels were in Concord another 20 miles on. By now it was completely dark, so I sped-up and followed their directions. On the approach to Concord the signs indicated I had a choice of three exits to choose from. I guessed that the middle one would take me to the town centre, but was wrong. I spent 20 minutes exploring suburban lanes with enormous houses before I turned around and head back to the junction. Five miles in that direction and I could see the lights of the town centre approaching. A quick exploration of Concord town centre revealed just one Holiday Inn, but with full car park. It was 10pm, and after 13 hours on the road I was more than ready to dismount my wonderful two wheeled steed.

Lays chips

Dinner for one

I found a gap for my bike and entered the hotel lobby with trepidation. What a relief! They had just three rooms left, and within minutes I was soaking my aching body in a big tub of steaming hot water. I still didn’t feel hungry after my epic lunch, so made do with my emergency supplies of Mac & Cheese crisps and bottled water.

I slept solidly on the big comfortable bed until nine the next morning, and was packed and ready to go by nine thirty. I decided to miss the hotel breakfast and instead look out for a local diner on the road. I wanted to find a quiet route to get me back to MOM’s as I had plenty of time, and keep off the motorways. Route 3 to Manchester was a small road, but was also a busy one with lots of traffic, stop lights and 30 limits. And Manchester turned out to be a big town with heavy traffic crawling through its many junctions. The temperature was already up into the high 20’s Centigrade and the wafts of heat rising up from the engine big hot engine didn’t help.

Also, the sign-posts were virtually non-existent with nothing showing the way to Salem New Hampshire. All I could see were signs for I 93 so I followed them until I found myself battling with 80mph traffic speeding towards Boston. I got off the motorway as soon as I could and cruised through Salem town looking for an alternative for my brunch to the ubiquitous Dunkin’ Donuts. I saw a small wooden shack by the side of the road with a sign proclaiming ‘We serve the best coffee in Salem’. I took their nearly full car park as a good sign and pulled off at the next turning. And very nearly dropped the motorbike turning on the loose gravel surface. With relief I pulled into the car park and strode into the café where I was met by a cheery welcome. The friendly chef guaranteed I would enjoy the house special with added hot sauce pictured below. And he was right.

Salem brunchAs I sat enjoying my brunch in a bun and coffee, I noticed my fellow diners were concentrating on television screens showing just a series of changing numbers. I realised the café shared its space with a lottery shop, and most of the customers were punters not diners. The lottery sales counter displayed a series of photocopied A4 posters proudly exclaiming recent winning tickets they had sold. I noticed there were no prizes larger than a thousand dollars, but this didn’t stop a string of enthusiastic gamblers queueing up to buy more.

I returned to my now baking-hot bike and set off in search of route 3 to take me into the Boston suburbs. Soon I was heading south through heavy traffic and burning hot sun. Once again the signage was minimalist, so I concentrated on keeping straight on. Many U-turns and stops to check my map were required to keep on track, with sometimes a glimpse of the right route sign after I had already taken the wrong road.

At one point the road was closed for resurfacing with a helpful diversion sign showing me the way to go. Unfortunately that first sign was also the last, so I had to guess how to re-join the main road through a series of housing estates.

All this took a lot of time and I began to get concerned about making it to MOMs for my 4pm deadline. More heavy traffic and I was close to the motorway into central Boston and decided a more radical approach was needed. I worked out if I took I93 into the city, I could switch onto I90 out again. Soon I was fighting amongst four lanes of 80mph traffic towards the high-rise towers of Boston.

Then suddenly I was underground in the infamous Central Artery/Tunnel Project (CA/T), known unofficially as the Big Dig. The sign for I90 West flashed up and I was just able to squeeze over into the correct lane in time. But then the traffic slowed down rapidly to crawling pace. I was pincered between a big van in front and a roaring big truck right behind me. The temperature displayed on my screen showed 89 Fahrenheit and I could feel myself becoming feint from the heat and exhaust fumes. After twenty minutes of this particular torture we emerged into startling bright light. Soon the traffic eased, along with my nerves and we were back up to a steady 80mph. Twenty miles further on I came off the turnpike and used my last $20 bill to pay at the toll and ask for directions. Just keep going straight ahead was the advice, and I was soon cruising along route 1 looking forward to a punctual arrival. But with no road signs for several miles I stopped at a gas station for help. Still the advice was keep going straight on.

Finally there was a sign and it was for Norfolk, so I turned off knowing I would be able to work out my way from there. I found Norfolk, but not the railway station, so I asked for directions again knowing time was running out. A friendly trucker was sure the Foxboro branch of MOMs had closed, which didn’t inspire confidence in his directions. Ten miles later and I was lost and in desperation phoned MOMs for help. They said I was on 1A and should be on 1, and gave me clear instructions to get to them. Even so, thanks to very misleading road signs I took another detour wasting valuable minutes. Finally I could see their distinctive logo ahead. I pulled up outside the store and switched off the throbbing v-twin for the last time. I ripped off my helmet and jacket from my overheated body.

John was there to welcome me back, with no complaints about my lateness. And very soon I was out of my biking gear and ready to head to Boston Logan airport. We piled into a MOMs van and were soon mixing it up with the rush hour traffic. As we travelled back along route 1 towards the motorway, I realised that if I had listened to the directions I would have got back nice and early. Instead of desperately racing around the local roads getting increasingly lost.

live free or dieJohn and his mechanic colleague talked about biking in the region and the risqué reputation of the Lacunia bikers. He said the refusal to wear helmets came from the ‘Live free or Die’ moto dating back to the days independence from English rule. I had already noticed this uncompromising message on the bumpers of New Hampshire cars on my travels.

This hard-line attitude which was reinforced by the number of gun stores I saw along the way, some marketing their lethal wares specifically at women using a ‘Guns 4 Girls’ slogan.

Waiting for my flight home I worked out the statistics of my trip. I had travelled 700 miles and ridden for 24 of the 48 hour hire period. I had also been up and down an 8,000 foot mountain. And this time I wasn’t taking home an unwanted souvenir in the shape of severe back-ache thanks to my new kidney belt.

Re-inventing umbrellas and corkscrews in the Business & IP Centre

Squid_LondonIt never ceases to amaze me how innovative our customers in the Business & IP Centre are. In just the last couple of weeks I have been helping visitors who have re-invented the most iconic of household products, the umbrella and the corkscrew.

It started when a young man came up to the enquiry desk to ask if I could help find market research on the UK umbrella market. Sadly, the well-known publishers we hold such as Mintel and Keynote don’t tend to produce reports on niche markets like these. But a bit of creative researching led to some useful information on some of our other databases. I was of course curious as to why he wanted to know this information, (I would like to think this is part of what makes me a good information professional). “I guess you are going to tell me you have invented a new form of umbrella”, I said. His response was, “That is correct. I came up with the idea many years ago, and have now decided to patent it”.

As a heavy user of umbrellas to and from work (sadly they are necessary part of life in this rain ‘blessed’ nation), I can’t wait to see what his solution will be. The only real innovation I am aware of is the patented wind proof umbrella. Although an honourable mention should go to Squid London with their colour changing model, who just happen to be one of our Success Stories.

ScrewpullThe next encounter was with an older customer who wanted to find sales figures for corkscrews in the UK. Once again, we were not able to locate a market research report on this niche product. However we did manage to locate a few articles estimating sales and covering trends in the market.

As something of a gadget man I was interested in hearing about his corkscrew invention. But he wasn’t in a position to go into details at that point. However he did say that his idea was remarkably simple. I was left wondering if it will be any better than the ScrewPull system which is my current favourite. This involves the use of a low friction screw to penetrate the cork, combined with a mechanism that pulls it out of the bottle in one continuous movement.

By coincidence the previous evening Stephen Fry had been showing off what must be the most complicated and expensive corkscrew ever invented, on his Gadget Man television show.

 

higgs-corkscrew

Higgs Corkscrew

 

How Google’s Panda ate my blog

Panda

From Wikipedia

On 27 September this blog was a victim of Google’s Panda update.

Google Panda is a change to the search results algorithm that aims to lower the rank of “low-quality sites”.

Over the years I have found a helpful motivation to writing blog posts is to keep an eye on my visitor statistics. Once the graph starts to dip towards the X axis it is time to put up another story. Handily WordPress produces a nice little graph showing daily activity on the website.

So you can imagine I was more than a little surprised when on 27 September I noticed my hit rate had reduced from 800 a day to 80. After a few days I could see the numbers were not going back up to their previous level and so started to investigate why.

I still don’t have a definitive answer from Google Webmaster site about what caused the drop. My guess is that they became aware of the TypePad copy of this blog.

The history of why I ended up with two versions are too long and boring to go into, but it relates to being an early adopter of blogging at the British Library.

I was aware this duplication could potentially be a problem for Google, who are always on the look-out for people ‘scamming’ their way up the rankings. However, after five years I had assumed they weren’t bothered by my two sites… It seems I was wrong.

A bit of research on the Google Webmasters forum found quite a few other bloggers complaining about plummeting traffic on their pages. And the explanation offered was that the regular Panda index update had demoted their site in the search results.

So all this is a rather long winded explanation as to why my TypePad blog posts now consist of just a short introduction followed by a link to this WordPress site.Screenshot_1

In case the same thing happens to your site. Here is the official advice from Google:

What counts as a high-quality site?

Our site quality algorithms are aimed at helping people find “high-quality” sites by reducing the rankings of low-quality content. The recent “Panda” change tackles the difficult task of algorithmically assessing website quality. Taking a step back, we wanted to explain some of the ideas and research that drive the development of our algorithms.

Below are some questions that one could use to assess the “quality” of a page or an article. These are the kinds of questions we ask ourselves as we write algorithms that attempt to assess site quality. Think of it as our take at encoding what we think our users want.

Of course, we aren’t disclosing the actual ranking signals used in our algorithms because we don’t want folks to game our search results; but if you want to step into Google’s mindset, the questions below provide some guidance on how we’ve been looking at the issue:

  1. Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  2. Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
  3. Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
  4. Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
  5. Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
  6. Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
  7. Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
  8. Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
  9. How much quality control is done on content?
  10. Does the article describe both sides of a story?
  11. Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
  12. Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
  13. Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  14. For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
  15. Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
  16. Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
  17. Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
  18. Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  19. Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
  20. Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
  21. Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
  22. Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
  23. Would users complain when they see pages from this site?

Writing an algorithm to assess page or site quality is a much harder task, but we hope the questions above give some insight into how we try to write algorithms that distinguish higher-quality sites from lower-quality sites.

 

Inspiring Entrepreneurs event – Going for Gold – report

Stephen_FearMany thanks to my colleagues Michael Pattinson and Gail Mitchell for reporting on this successful event.

Last Wednesday evening the British Library hosted the latest in the series of Inspiring Entrepreneurs events called Going for Gold which featured an audience with the Business & IP Centre’s new entrepreneur in residence Stephen Fear.

Stephen has 50 years of business experience and is involved in our new Innovating for Growth Programme which nurtures existing businesses and helps them grow over a 12 month period. He was joined on stage by two of the participants in the programme, Mandy Haberman, inventor of the Anywayup Cup and Cate Trotter, Head of Trends at Insider Trends.

Following a brief introduction from Frances Brindle, Head of Marketing at the British Library, chair Matthew Rock started proceedings by asking Stephen about the origins of his entrepreneurial spirit. He talked candidly about his early childhood spoke about his first business venture as a teenager which involved sourcing the formula for an oven cleaning solution from the US and enlisting the help of friends on the estate where he grew up to make up the product. He famously used a telephone box as his office and managed to charm the telephone operator to pose as his secretary.

After much deliberation about which job title to award himself on his business cards, he finally decided that trainee salesman was more appropriate than president or chairman considering he was so young, he set out to make his first sale. After being ejected by the receptionist at Hovis he managed to convince one of the managers who was outside having a cigarette to see a demonstration of the product. He was duly impressed and placed an order. How did he convince him? He told him that he would lose his job if he didn’t get to demonstrate it to someone.

There were several lessons to the story. Always believe in your product and make sure it works; use whatever ‘guerrilla’ tactics you can to market the product; and make sure you approach the decision makers, don’t waste your time trying to sell to the receptionist.

Stephen proved to be a very engaging speaker, down-to-earth and keen to share his entrepreneurial know-how with the audience.

Mandy_HabermanMandy Haberman joined Stephen on stage and spoke about the initial success of her Anywayup cup. She has some new products in the pipeline which she is going to manufacture herself with the help of funding including a baby feeder which emulates breast feeding. After talking about how difficult it was to secure funding Stephen told the audience that businesses will always face such challenges but it’s how you react to those challenges that matters. Matthew Rock asked him if he had any tips for businesses looking for funding. He recommended the British Bankers Association’s Business Finance for You website as a good starting point.

Cate TrotterCate Trotter from Insider Trends was up next. Cate runs a trend spotting service which includes trend tours and talks for clients ranging from large corporations like Marks & Spencer to SMEs. She is currently expanding from being a sole trader. Stephen made the point that this can be a dangerous time as you need to entrust parts of the business to other people who may not share your passion and commitment.

Stephen urged the audience to spend carefully when you are building up a business and to avoid what he called unnecessary fixed overheads such as an expensive office space or a company car. If you put a set of BMW keys on the table people assume you have a BMW, so just get a set of keys!

Mandy pointed out that you can mock up packaging to save money. Stephen came up with a very useful tip called “tacking on.” Some packaging companies may be prepared to package your products cheaply at the end of a run for another client, especially if they think you might be putting more business their way in the future.

Matthew Rock thanked the guests for their insight and then asked the audience if they had any questions. Somebody asked if having a limited company was preferable to operating as a sole trader. Stephen felt that aside from the issue of liability, the legal status of the business was not that important because it was the individuals involved that were important.

Someone else asked for advice about trading overseas. Pick an English speaking country or at least a country where you are familiar with the language and culture, said Stephen. Mandy suggested using international distributors who know the market and have the infrastructure in place already.

Nick Nair at the back of the auditorium told Stephen that if he didn’t use this opportunity to give him a bottle of his product, Flavour Dash, his boss, (ie his wife) would give him the sack. To applause from the audience, he ran down the steps and presented Stephen with a free sample, employing the very same guerilla marketing tactics that Stephen had recommended earlier in the evening.

Early Doors Disco at Drink, Shop and Dance

DrinkShopandDance_logoI’ve already blogged about Drink Shop & Do – a new kind of consumer experience back in October 2010, and am glad to report they are going from strength to strength.

They have now taken over a former sex shop in the basement and created Drink Shop & Dance.

In something of a bizarre coincidence, it turns out that the husband of a former close colleague of mine from my previous job has a regular slot at DS&D. Andy and Luke have created Early Doors Disco as an alternative to the late night party scene in London. I think they describe what they do better than I could.

Because we know you want to dance…but you also have to work the next day

EarlyDoorsDisco_logoEarly Doors Disco was spawned in the winter months of 2011. We were confused as to why there was no mid-week, early starting indie disco going on for those who wanted to have a few drinks, get their dance on and still be able to get the last train home. So, we got together a few friends, some of our favourite tunes and decided to get our clubnight on, with the help of the lovely folks at Drink, Shop & Dance in Kings Cross.

In terms of music, the hard and fast rule is that everything played after 7.30pm needs to be dance-able, so that you can drop in at any time and dance…for as long or as briefly as you like. Other than that we operate a fairly open music preference, which is really determined by the DJ on the night. Mixing up a bit of indie, pop, electro, soul, funk, rock, 90s hip hop and punk, with a slew of other genres thrown in depending on the feel of the night.

We’re not a fan of rules, but we’ve jotted down a few ‘guides’ for the EDD way of thinking:

  • We want people to dance and have fun. Bad attitudes not welcome!
  • We don’t play self-indulgent tunes… well, not many of them we hope
  • We aren’t a glorified wedding party, or school disco…

I went along last Wednesday and the place was buzzing, even before the official start-time. The point of the story however, is that with just two performances under their belt the story went viral in the mainstream press, including Time Out, Who’s Jack, Londonist, Google London and  The Observer, as well as on a couple of BBC news programs.

This all goes to show that if your new product or service hits the Zeitgeist, then you don’t have to spend money on advertising or promotion, the media will come to you.

Andy and Luke hard at rest - image from Laura Tosney

Andy and Luke hard at rest – image from Laura Tosney

Digital Strategies for Heritage – DISH 2011 Rotterdam

Dish_logoThe Digital Strategies for Heritage 2011 conference (DISH 2011) was a new name to me until quite recently.

This could be explained by the fact that my job is all about helping aspiring entrepreneurs with their information needs, rather than digitising parts of the enormous British Library collection.

However, one of the four strands of DISH 2011, held from 7 December in Rotterdam, was Business for Heritage, and I was asked to speak at session on Organisations that Redesigned their Business  Models.

I certainly believe the Business & IP Centre is an excellent example of how a library can deliver a different kind of service, to support its community and economy. As well as giving a talk about the development of the Centre and the services we deliver, I was also asked to offer myself up as a trained business advisor.

Quite a few conference attendees applied for these one to one advice sessions, and I selected four I felt I could help the most. It was fascinating to hear first hand about some of the projects my clients were undertaking, and the challenges they were facing. In most cases it involved persuading staff with somewhat traditional and cautious attitudes to adopt new technologies and new ways of working. These were issues we had faced in developing the Business & IP Centre.

Overall I found the conference to be extremely well organised with fascinating speakers and interesting and engaged attendees. I would thoroughly recommend attending any future DISH conferences.

Here are my notes from the two days of the event:

I got off to an excellent start when I found myself sitting next to the conference chair Chris Batt and his charming wife Adie, who also happens to be his business partner, on the flight out to Schiphol airport. So I was able to get the inside track even before arriving in Rotterdam.

Chris has been a key figure in the information world for many years including  Chief Executive of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). However, this was the first time I had had the opportunity to speak to him.

Chris_BattWednesday 7th December – Introduction from Chris Batt, Conference Chair

DISH has now seven years experience, and aims to be a toolbox with practical solutions, rather than just keep on saying it is a ‘good thing’.

The four themes for the conference are:

  • ­    Business for heritage
  • ­    Crowdsourcing and co-creation
  • ­    Institutional change
  • ­    Building a New Public Space
DISH_2011_introduction

Image by DEN (Digitaal Erfgoed Nederland)

We are living in a time of uncertainty, complexity and change, but more than ever a need for us to think strategically.

In the private sector it is a case of ‘a thousand flowers blooming’, but each one is aiming for market domination. And how can you tell which will be the success story?

We are moving from Evolution to Revolution (look at the recent changes in the music industry), also in some cases Extinction.

There are big differences between the public and private sectors, but both are serving the same customers.

In the public sector how does the weeding of the ‘thousand flowers’ take place, when there isn’t the private sector market control elements.

Do we undertake cost benefit analysis for our digitisation projects?

When looking at the UK government departmental strategies and cooperation, it is a case of ‘the whole being less than the sum of the parts’.

Chris asked the audience what ‘being ahead of the wave’ meant to them.
Is it the Institution, the Project, the Sector, or Public knowledge institutions?

To make progress we need to move from being technicians to strategists, and from an institutional focus to a consumer focus.

Katherine_WatsonLiving the Digital Shift – Katherine Watson – Director, European Cultural Foundation

  • We need to start with the person not with the technical tool.
  • We should look into the future, and ask ourselves how will the current six year old in school be wanting to use your services when they are ready?
  • Looking to the past is not helpful.
  • The economic crisis means that our funding landscape is crumbling around us.
  • In the future it will not be ‘back to business as normal’.
  • Rapid change means that it is not possible to predict the future with risk free certainty.

Amber_CaseCyborg anthropology and the future of interfaces – Amber Case

Although something of a surprising presence at a conference on digital strategies, Amber’s talk was absolutely fascinating, and I am still pondering on the implications of what she said. You can catch some of the same points in her TED Women talk.

The traditional tools that humans use have changed very little over thousands of years. Whereas computers have changed beyond recognition in less than 50 years.

The idea of Cyborg Anthropology first came about in 1941, when a group of scientists and technologists first met to review impact of computer technology on people. In 1992 it became a formal academic subject.

Becoming a cyborg
When you first go online, you have to start making decisions about how you will present your virtual self, and how closely related this will be to your ‘real’ self. You are likely to adjust this version of you based on feedback from your contacts.

The future

  • We will see more Calm Technology, which appears when you need it, and disappears when you don’t.
  • Technologists try to digitise old technology and nearly always fail. For example trying to ‘grab’ a virtual page and turn it, instead of pressing a button.
  • We need to have technologies which give us superhuman powers, eg Flipboard
  • There will be an increasing merging of tech with real life. E.g. body implants.
  • Real-time gaming eg MapAttack
  • Home automation that actually works.
  • The interface will begin to disappear, so that actions are reduced, queries are eliminated. E.g. Kinect for Xbox®
  • The best technology is invisible… like a book.

Q&A
Q. How do you cope with the way technology negatively impacts available time and the ability to concentrate?
A. Amber recommended moderation in all things includes technology. She recently took 3 weeks away from her email and social media to read a book a day. The government in Singapore has proposed its citizens should turn off technology an hour before bed-time to give their brains time to settle down so their sleep is effective.

Charles_LeadbetterCulture and Social Media – Charles Leadbetter

The answer lies in ‘creative muddling through’, using skill-full incompleteness.

Charles used an excellent analogy of the development of the wine industry over the last 50 years to illustrate different models of customer service that relate to the Cultural Heritage sector.

French wine is elitist, their bottles (with just a front label) give almost no clue to an amateur wine drinker as to the nature of the wine they will find inside. You need to know their language, geography, horticulture and coding systems.
The message is, ‘keep away, unless you know what you are dealing with’.

In contrast Australian wines are consumer friendly. They have colourful modern labels on the front and lots of helpful information on the back, explaining the grapes that make up the contents, and what the wine will smell and taste like. They a have a handy screw top, so you don’t even need to drink the whole bottle in one go.
The message is, ‘I go very well with your Chicken Korma’.

Because of these changes New World wines are now the largest selling in the world.

Then there is the rapidly expanding area of home made wine. People are planting their own garden vineyards and buying the wine making kit from the web. Needless to say the quality of wine produced ranges from the undrinkable to excellent.
The message here is, ‘anyone can have a go’.

Next Charles looked at four distribution models and the challenges they present for the cultural sector.

1. How we communicate

Communication

2. Where ideas come from.

Contributors

Compare this to what he called the evil genius of Simon Cowel managed to operate in three out of four sectors.

Contributors X Factor

He was particularly impressed by how Apple have been so successful, by creating a ‘guild’ of followers (customers) who believe their Apple products are helping them to live better, more modern lives.

3. How has society changed?

change

In the future to grow big with small investment will require seeing yourself as a movement, or networks with values and ideologies, not institutions, with opening hours, collections and catalogues. Social media and the web gives an opportunity to do this.

He gave the example of Barcelona football club as the kind of organisation which exemplifies this approach.

The English, who invented football, developed a game in which defenders never went beyond the half-way line. They repelled attacks with physicality and generally ‘booted’ the ball up the pitch to their attackers who had the skill to put the ball in to their opponents net.

The ball only ever went straight up and down the pitch. The occasional creative player would attempt to move the ball across the pitch instead.

However, Barcelona developed ‘total football’, where everyone is a key player with skill. The ball always moves across the pitch, never along it, the team aim is to never lose possession, and everyone has to contribute.

This has made them into the most successful football team in the world.

For Charles cultural institutions must learn that the way to win is, not to be brilliant and individualistic, but to remain part of the network, to pass, to constantly move, look for space and find interesting angles, to always remain linked. If you are not open to people passing the ‘ball’ to you, no one will be interested in playing with you.

In other words, play culture, like Barcelona play football.

Thursday 8 December

Michael_EdsonCome let us go boldly into the Future – Michael Edson

Michael gave the closing keynote talk, which was more a call to arms than an academic treatise.

He spent some time talking about future predictions from the last 50 years. He pointed out that even those ideas we think of as new, such as The Long Tail, Joy’s Law, Cognitive Surplus, Network Effects, Moores’s Law & Mobile, and Every user a Hero are no longer really new.

He built towards his message that the ‘future is now’. So we should stop worrying about what may or may not be coming down the wire, and start engaging with our present future.

He summed up with three key questions we should all be asking ourselves:
1.    What world am I living in?
2.    What impact do I want to have?
3.    What should I do today?

He also strongly recommended The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun.

I have been attending keynote talks at library and information conferences for over 20 years now, and in all that time I have only seen two genuinely evangelical speakers from an information background.

The first was Eugenie Prime at SLA Conference in Seattle in 1997, when she called on all librarians to quit whining about image and begin walking the walk. And to earn respect by forgetting about our negative image and doing our jobs better than anyone else could.

Michael Edson qualifies as the second. The audience left his session inspired to tackle this particular professional challenge. No more whinging about all the problems we face, but to focus on the solutions.

You can watch his talk on Vimeo.

Pole-pole to the roof of Africa

Kilimnanjaro 2011 - Uhuru PeakHaving tried all kinds of different training methods in preparation for my Kilimanjaro Climb, (Will falling forward get me to the top of Kilimanjaro?), the one technique I had not thought about, turned out to be the most important.

To get to the top of the highest free-standing mountain in the world you need to go really slowly, or ‘pole-pole’, to use the Swahili term.

Making forward progress at 19,341 feet or 5,895 metres above sea level, where the oxygen levels are fifty percent less than normal, requires minimum physical effort.

Our very conscientious mountain guide was always keeping an eye on our speed, our ability to cope with the conditions, and for onset of the feared acute mountain sickness or AMS.

Walking the fifty mile climb, at times as slowly as one mile an hour, gave plenty of thinking time. And my thoughts turned to the Aesop’s Fable of the Hare and the Tortoise. In the case of climbing Kilimanjaro, it is not that the tortoise arrives first, it more about arriving at all. According to one company, the success rate for those on the quick three days up climb is less than fifty percent.

In fact our five days of training to plod slowly up the mountain were so successful that one of our our party made it to the summit on automatic pilot, despite suffering from altitude hallucinations. She had to be shown a photo to prove she had actually been there, in body, if not in mind.

Knowing that generous supporters had already donated to my JustGiving page gave me the extra motivation to keep going when I felt like giving up. The page is going be up for a few more weeks if you want to make a contribution.

My reward for getting to the top was a nine day safari in northern Tanzania where I saw some wonderful sights.

Tanzania_2011_leapard

Tanzania_2011_lion

Tanzania_2011_hippo

Tanzania_2011_sunset

More photos on Flick.com and videos on YouTube.com.

I’ve joined the fun Flubitron club

flubitlogotaglinewhitebackgroundI was delighted to meet Bertie Stephens (Chief Flubitron) from group buying website Flubit during Tuesdays excellent Marketing Masterclass from Grow.

Their pitch is; For any product you want to buy online, tell Flubit, and we’ll work our little socks off to get you some wonderful bespoke discounts… for free!

And they already have 17,000 fans on facebook so are off to a great ‘pre-start’.

It was great to hear from Bertie how useful they have found the Business & IP Centre in developing their business and protecting their brand. I look forward to them joining the growing ranks of our Success Stories.

Having become disillusioned by Groupon, after too many 75% offers for the Ultimate Facial Using Microdermabrasion, I was happy to sign up to Flubit.

And this was the fun email I received in response:

The Flubitask Force to Manlius

To Balcombe’s newest and most wonderful Flubitron,

Honourable Manlius Buggerflub

Welcome to our world.

Now you are officially a Flubitron (an exclusive club we must add), you are one step closer to being part of a new revolution in internet buying. Soon, whenever you want something, you’ll be able to get it cheaper, just by using Flubit – how cool is that?! If you haven’t already, why not follow us on Facebook or Twitter to keep up with what’s new?

Over the next few months we’ll be finishing off some bits and bobs, polishing the knobs and preparing to launch this Summer. Hurrah!

So what happens now?

In 2 – 3 weeks you’ll receive your official Flubitron membership card (Flubicard – don’t worry you’ll get used to the terms). With this card you’ll have access to a whole range of offline and online benefits. We’ll let you know more about this with our introductory letter, or you can have a read here:

http://www.flubitron.com/

OK, so now we’re going to go and tell our Flubitask Force to start making your membership card, and we’ll be in touch in a week or so to let you know how they’re getting on!

Speak soon Honourable Manlius,

Flubregards,

Bertie & Dan
Chief & Head of Internal Imagination

Logos with customer appeal – Apples and Marmite

A recent post on the Graphic Design Blog showed the results of their readers top five logos of all time.

I guess I really wasn’t that surprised to see the Apple logo sitting at number one.

Apple Logo

Although I am old enough to remember the original Apple Corps logo used by the Beatles pop group. Apple and the Beatles: The End of a Long and Winding Road?

Apple_Corps_logo

This talk of logos got me thinking about the power of brands and trademarks in protecting products and services.

The harsh truth about business, is that if you are successful you will have competition, even if you have an invention protected by a patent.

An example would be the Dyson vacuum cleaner, whose Dual Cyclone technology is protected by patents, and yet the courts have allowed a somewhat similar looking cleaner from rival firm VAX to compete – Dyson loses design case.

dyson cleanerVax cleaner

My favourite brand of all time would have to be Marmite yeast extract spread.

(Marmite jar - 250g size Photo by User:Malcolm Farmer, 28 June 2003 Category:Spreads)

This is not because the logo or image are particularly strong, but because since the creation of its secret recipe in 1902, it has managed to maintain a virtual monopoly, with the only rivals being Australian Vegemite and Swiss Cenovis. With sales of 60 million jars a year at over £5 each, one would assume this a market to attract heavy competition.

However, the Marmite brand is so strong that no-one seems to be trying, or certainly succeeding in competing.

As with many products not everyone is a fan, and Marmite have very cleverly used the strong reactions to the flavour of the spread in their recent marketing campaigns.

Marmite - Love it or hate it

Teenagers teaching Silver Surfers the web way

http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1204276Once again my local paper has its finger on the pulse of social and business change. Although, once again their headline writer hasn’t exactly hit the jackpot – ‘Youngsters take Infernal Trouble out of IT for mature students.’

According to the Middy ‘For many people IT stands only for Infernal Trouble and The Web is somewhere unsuspecting technophobes get trapped.’

I would be more inclined to say that for many older people, Windows are something they prefer to open in order to let in fresh air, and the Web is something they get tangled up in all to easily.

The article is actually about a group of teenagers at Oakmeeds Community College in Burgess Hill, who run a weekly class for that growing population over Silver Surfers (The growing grey market in the UK). Interestingly the club is funded by the local Business Enterprise, so it will be interesting to see how many of these mature students are aspiring Grey Entrepreneurs.

I love the way this story goes against the usual media stereotyping of teenagers as rude and lazy, by showing them in such a positive light, using their skills and knowledge by empowering older generations to take advantage of this revolutionary technology.

It’s not all one way traffic either. According to 15 year old Lloyd Passingham, ‘I really enjoy helping at the club. It feels really good to know that something I’ve learnt, I’m passing on to someone else’.