Is this the worst cleaning job in your house?

sink-hair-source Reddit
Source Reddit

As a regular viewer of I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! (the perfect ‘lock-down’ viewing), I realise there are worse jobs than cleaning drains blocked with hair.  In my house anyway, there aren’t usually any snakes or naked rats involved. But as disgusting tasks go, I think it runs the ‘trials’ pretty close. Especially if the hair in question has had time to congeal and putrefy in the drain U-bend.

So, of course you are asking, is there a gadget which can solve this repulsive task? And the answer is a resounding YES!

Let me first take you on a brief tour of my previous so called solutions to this household challenge. Something I have had to deal with most of my adult life, due to wives and children who seem to shed hair at an alarming rate.

According to Sienna Fantozzi I shouldn’t be surprised, as it normal to lose up to 100 strands of hair a day. That sounds a lot until you consider the average human head has over 100,000 strands. So, plenty more where that came from. (How Much Hair Loss Is Normal When You Shower?)

For many years I relied on a range of powerful chemicals such as these below, with mixed success. But always the blockage came back with a vengeance.

liquid drain unblockers

caustic sodaThen I graduated to the ‘hard stuff’, Caustic Soda.  Which I had used with great effect to clean out the gummed up insides of my motorbike exhaust pipes. I loved hearing the fizzing sound coming out of the blocked pipes as the soda got to work. I wasn’t so keen on the noxious chemical smell. And wearing rubber gloves to avoid burns was de rigour. I wasn’t too happy about what the chemical was doing to the water in the drains either. And of course it was still only a temporary solution to the problem.

Next I switched to a non-chemical approach by buying a drum auger. As you can see in this video, it is not an easy process. Many times I had to wind out the full length of the wire before the blockage was cleared. And in my experience, you pull most of the decomposing hair ball back up into the sink, and spend the next 15 minutes trying to remove it from the device. Whilst trying to hold your breath to avoid the stench of rotting hair.

So finally we come to the solution to the problem of hairs blocking my drains. Catch them before they go down the plug hole with a TubShroom or a SinkShroom.


hairy sinkIt looks deceptively simple, and like all great inventions, it is. The only snag for me was that I have old sinks with built in drain holes. However, half-an hours work with my trusty drill and file, had that impediment removed. And the the SinkShroom could be inserted. Since then I have to clean it out every few weeks as the water flow starts to slow down. But taking out a few relatively fresh strands of hair every few weeks is absolute bliss compared to any of the previous so-called solutions. If you don’t believe me, there are plenty of reviews to be found on YouTube like this one.

When I’m cleaning windows – What’s the best name for a window cleaning company?

Mr BitI recently came across this photo on social media, and it made me think about names for window cleaning companies.

If you have read my previous posts, you will know I love a clever name for a business. And this is one of the best I have seen. Just in case you don’t get the joke, say the name out loud as one word, and you should get … missed a bit.

Perhaps it’s not the best for those who take their names literally. But I think it is both clever and funny, which makes it memorable. And every businesses wants to have a name people can recall easily.

I have a personal interest in window cleaning, as my cousin started his Clear Bright business over 20 years ago. He has lots of great window cleaning stories from his years popping up and down ladders.

As an aside, he also came up with a brilliant invention for improving map indexing, to make it much easier to find customers houses. GB2365196A Identifying locations on a surface, e.g. a map. As with so many inventions, its value was not recognised by the map producers of the day. So the it went down the cul de sac of history.

Steve Infield window cleaning
My cousin Steve Infield and his Clear Bright company

In terms of describing the service offered, Clear Bright is a pretty good name.

Here are a few highlights from over 700 UK window cleaning companies I found on a recent Fame database search. I’ve marked my favourites with a *. Which are your favourites and why?

20 : 20 CLEAN LTD

Window Cleaning - photo-1523408255168-75b935ec2bc3
Source Ronaldo Santos on Unsplash – photo-1523408255168-75b935ec2bc3

Six years on my Brompton and I’m still riding along

Brompton on wallSix years ago this month I made the switch from hiring Boris Bikes to my very own Brompton (Farewell Boris Bikes – hello to the Brompton folding-bike experience).

And after quite literally a shaky start (any bike with such small wheels is going to be wobbly), I have come to love my navy blue Brompton. The fact that I can cycle to almost any part of London within an hour is incredibly liberating. No longer do I have to crowd onto the underground or buses to get around town. But what about when it’s raining I hear you ask. With relatively a small expense on decent waterproof, but breathable kit, I can cycle in all but the heaviest downpour without getting wet. The latest clothing is surprisingly light and compact whilst still maintaining effective weather-proofing. So I always have a full set of water-proofs neatly folded in my backpack.

To be honest, when I first started riding in London I felt unsafe quite a lot of the time. The main cause was having to share the road with larger forms of transport such as four, six, eight and sixteen wheeled vehicles. Taxis, buses and lorries were the most worrying. Either not noticing me, and and squeezing me into the kerb, or in the case of several taxis I encountered, appearing to deliberately cut in front of me.

Bicycle traffic lightsBut these last six years have seen a big change, with two main causes:
One, the development of safer routes for cycles. These include dedicated cycle lanes that completely separate bikes from other forms of transport, plus cycle boxes at junctions, and even special traffic lights giving riders a precious few seconds lead on the rest of the traffic.
Two, there has been a massive increase in the number of cyclists commuting to work in London. On some days my route can actually get quite congested, just with other two-wheelers. And what a range of cyclists, from hard-core MAMIL’s (middle aged men in lycra) on their £8,000 racers, to whole families on riding to school and work (sometimes with toddlers strapped to the front and rear of the same bike). There are even few people dressed for work in smart suits and shiny shoes – that’s where I come in 😉

The proliferation of bikes has forced those hostile tin box owners to adapt their driving habits. They can no longer pretend they aren’t sharing the road with us pedaling commuters. In the past they would only come across the occasional cyclist, now we are everywhere they are. When cycles are literally filling up those cycle boxes the cars and lorries behind have no choice but to wait and follow.
cycle juntion box

Source: The Evening Standard Amazing new maps show huge demand for cycle lanes across London

Over the past couple of years the sheer number of riders have increased so much that the majority of my few near-misses have been with other cyclists, not cars.

Early on in my Brompton ownership I joined the London Brompton Club and Brompton Hacks groups on Facebook. I rapidly discovered there are many people out there with a serious addiction to these engineering wonders. Some have as many as 10 different models, often shown off in Ikea Kallax storage walls, which are the perfect size to fit a folded Brompton.

Bike Gang on Instagram_ “My #brompton wall. IKEA Kallax
Bike Gang on Instagram_ “My #brompton wall. IKEA Kallax

Fortunately I have a garage at home, so although I do fold my bike and tuck it neatly under my desk at work, I can leave it unfolded and ready to go at home.

As well as providing excellent advice for Brompton owners, these groups exposed me to the wide range of accessories available. There are endless debates on the pros and cons of replacing the factory fitted saddle with a Brooks. I admit they look beautiful with their polished leather and brass, but my bottom has been quite happy to save the £100 or so they cost.
Brooks saddle

I must confess to having made a few changes to my bike over the years. In particular a mirror so I can see who is coming up behind me (The safest thing on my bicycle is my Mirrycle). I also installed an ingenious device to improve the fiddly latches (Speeding up my Brompton folding with SpedDial). And I replaced the soft foam handle bar grips with Ergons which really helped on my London to Brighton charity ride.
Ergon grips

One issue I have become slightly obsessed with is visibility, both at night and in the day. I always wear a bright orange gilet, which I can see pedestrians notice when they are about to step out in front of me. For the night time I have a very bright rear light (My new Blazing Saddle ignited by my Burner light ), and two front lights (one to be seen, and one to show the way). I have also spent / wasted many hours experimenting with range of ideas, including luminescent paint on my tires, which literally glows in the dark.
luminous wheels

Although they looked great, sadly they just weren’t bright enough, and the paint didn’t last. So I switched to reflective stickers instead. I think you will agree they are really much brighter.
Brompton at night

So everything about my Brompton is great… except that for the last seven weeks it has been languishing in my garage due to coronavirus lock-down.

Hopefully it won’t be too long before I can start riding it again. But I heard on the news today I’m likely to have a lot of company on the roads for my daily commute. According to the BBC, fear of catching coronavirus on public transport has helped lead to a boom in cycle-to-work schemes. With a 200% increase in bicycle orders from people working for emergency services.   Coronavirus: Boom time for bikes as virus changes lifestyles.

If this means less cars on the roads and more cycle-ways, I will be quite happy wobbling along on my Brompton together with these new converts to the joy of two wheeled transport.

Just a couple of days after publishing this post the Observer newspaper had the headline, Coronavirus cycling boom makes a good bike hard to find – Would-be cyclists keen to exercise during the lockdown have cleared stores of their stock.

London cyclists

Christmas is a time for giving… to dogs and cats

Christmas Family Dressing Red Santa Dog Jumper

With Christmas 2019 almost upon us, it’s time to think about presents for our loved ones.

No, I don’t mean our nearest and dearest friends and relatives. I mean creatures who we often put higher up the pecking order, our pets.

According to a study by Mars Petcare, pet owners will spend an average of £44 on treats and toys this Christmas. This adds up to over half a billion pounds in the UK over the festive season.

When asked why, 92% of respondents said they did not want their pets to feel left out.

This follows a trend of owners buying similar products for their dogs and cats as they buy for themselves. Examples include Christmas stockings, jumpers, Advent calendars and even pet friendly wine, beer and mince pies.


Lily’s Kitchen is credited with introducing Advent calendar for pets in 2014 with a run of 5,000. But since then sales have grown to more than 50,000.

Lilys Kitchen first Advent calendar containing dog biscuits

But when you are considering what tasty treats to buy for your loved ones, do remember their health should come first. The UK is currently in the midst of a dog and cat obesity epidemic, with 52% of pets obese or overweight, and with vets telling owners not to overindulge their pets or feed them inappropriately over Christmas. You have been warned.

Wrapsody has Christmas all wrapped up

Wrapsody presentYou have left it a bit late now, if you wanted to pay someone to do your Christmas wrapping. But if you really hate it that much you could always book up Wraposdy and employ one of their ‘wrapologists’ for next year.

Apart from having a great name, they also “believe that there is no gift unwrappable, no theme unworkable and no deadline too tight”. I love their sense of humour too, illustrated below.

Wrapsody text

Below is an example of the kind Christmas present wrapping they can produce.

Wrapsody presents

Like all good businesses, Wrapsody have a blog so they can share their activities with potential customers. Below you can see the team in action Christmas gift wrapping at Liberty of  London.

Wrapsody at Liberty

Wrapsody have the whole presents thing nicely ‘wrapped’ up (sorry couldn’t resist that pun). But I have found a couple of rivals elswhere in the country.

In Kent, “Wonder Wrap offer a unique and fabulous gift wrapping service for all occasions.

Your presents and gifts are beautifully wrapped and can even be grouped together to ensure you can easily present them to the lucky recipient.”

And in Wales, “Eclipse provides a professional gift wrapping service comprising high quality demonstrations, ‘hands-on’ workshops and professional gift wrapping services for businesses and individuals.”

Below Eclipse founder Alison Westwood gives some expert wrapping tips.

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
Looking north
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.

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

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 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


How Google’s Panda ate my blog

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