In through the outfield blog

12 posts from October 2009

23 October 2009

The Toshiba Dynario fuel cell

The BBC news website is often the first to tell me of interesting innovations. It has a story about Toshiba's Dynario fuel cell, which is a revolutionary development.

Fuel cells work with cathodes and anodes and need a replenishable reactant. In this case it's methanol, which can be poured from a bottle into the hand-sized device. This contains a lithium ion battery which stores the generated power from the fuel cell and -- this to me is the clever bit -- transmits the power through a USB cable to the mobile phone or other device to recharge it in just 20 seconds.

A limited number, just 3000, will be produced for sale in Japan at about £195. The cost of the methanol has to be added.

I am not sure why such a limited number is being produced -- surely it's a test launch. After all, they have gone to the trouble of making quite a few patent applications.

Methanol fuel cell patent

Above is the main drawing from the Japanese-language Fuel cell patent application (not yet available in an English text), which was published in June 2007. In fact, there are quite a few by Toshiba on the subject -- this is a list of the 15 patent applications by the company in the "world" Patent Cooperation treaty system by them where "Fuel cell" is in the title and methanol is in the English summary. 

The Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals

I had a feeling my last post (Would a librarian by any other name smell just as sweet) might not be my final word on the subject.

What I hadn’t anticipated was just how much heat the name change vote would generate. It is quite rare to see information professionals in ‘passionate mode’, but this issue has brought plenty out of the woodwork on discussion lists, blogs, facebook and twitter. Here are links to a selection; Am I a Strategic Knowledge Professional, ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy

As I mentioned before, the membership of SLA contains 2,000 different job titles, what I wasn’t aware of was the fact that only 25% of members use the title librarian. So already the term is a minority within the organisation.

Amongst the passionate comments attacking the new name have been a few calmer rational ones which I include below:

  • If we were not called the Special Libraries Association I believe many more people who are in the information profession would find a professional home with us.  The new name is meant to be broadening and inclusive.
  • But I want to be fair: it’s easy to criticise and far harder to take a leadership role and come up with alternative ideas which pedantic old cynics like me might take a shine to and approve!
  • SLA leadership has been between a rock and a hard place on this issue for some time and it’s to their credit that they have been trying to do something, even if I don’t hugely like the result.
  • I think the old name is life-expired and something new is indeed needed.
  • Imagine trying to find one name to cover everyone who works in the medical profession. Doctors, consultants, surgeons, nurses, secretaries, hospital managers. All quite different jobs all supporting patients either directly or indirectly.

Hopefully the excitement will calm down as we move towards the name change vote in November, and we can start planning for the next 100 years of the association confident in the knowledge that knowledge (sorry couldn’t resist) will still have resonance and meaning in 2109.

16 October 2009

Micro Men and the birth and death of the personal computer – 1980 to 1985

Last night I watched Micro Men, another in the recent BBC series of dramatised portrayals of historical events from the 1970’s and 80’s, such as Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley.

This was the story of the battle for dominance in the newly emerging personal computer market from in the early 1980’s. It was also a personal clash between eccentric inventor of the pocket calculator Sir Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry (formerly his right hand man).

The film cleverly interwove news footage from the period and actors, effectively reawakening memories of my involvement in that era as a callow youth.

In particular I remember the excitement young people felt at the rapid development of the technology, and how we thought they would change the world. One scene from the seminal BBC Computer Programme talked about how personal computers would replace manual typewriters and much of the associated office paperwork. (here are some snippets). It was also something of a shock to remember how Britain led the world for that brief period, with by far the highest rate of ownership of personal computers. There was an optimism that this lead would give us an immense advantage in this newly emerging industry.

As with so many cutting edge technologies of course expectations far outstripped reality. As a ‘programming expert’ with 98 per cent in my Computer Science ‘O’ level, my father presented me with a brand new £99 Sinclair ZX81 and asked me to show him what it could do. My memory is a bit hazy on the details, but I seem to remember that its state of the art 1k of memory (compared to 2 gigabytes in today’s computers), allowed me to create a spreadsheet about 5 rows high and 16 columns wide. Unfortunately that didn’t leave any room for calculations or content.

However this did not dim my nerdish enthusiasm and I went on to study Computer Science at ‘A’ level using a Commodore Pet, and then to university on Apple II computers. It was only when I came to leave university and was pondering which model of personal PC to buy, that reality dawned. I remember my cousin asking me what I would use it for. Programming of course was the main purpose, but outside the learning environment that was not a practical application. Games were next, but the basic ones available did not appeal to me. The applications we take for granted today such as word processing and spreadsheets were not established at that time. I decided to save my £600 and wait for the technology to develop.

Which brings me to the point of this blog. Today we are surrounded by personal computers which have profoundly affected how we live our lives. Whether it is the constant bombardment of emails via Blackberries, shopping over the Internet, sharing our lives through social networking, watching or listening to films, television or radio on our iPods and personal media players, meeting new life partners through internet dating (7.8 million in the UK alone), spending time in virtual realities like Second Life, or just computing on the move (I am writing this on the train sitting next to another laptop owner – who appears be writing a gripping novel – from my furtive glances)

So although the personal PC went from boom to bust in just five short years between 1980 and 1985, apparently taking its future promise with it, the long term impact of computers on our lives has been truly revolutionary.

The footnote at the end of the show reminded me of how the two companies at the centre of the story subsequently went in very different directions. Clive Sinclair returned to his obsession with creating the world’s first mass produced affordable electric car. And produced the legendary Sinclair C5, perhaps the single most spectacular failure in the history of personal transport with sales of less than 12,000.

However, the chip that powered Chris Curry’s Acorn computer went on to be developed into the ARM processor, which has gone on to become the most successful computer chip ever, with over 10 billion shipped to power the majority of mobile phones manufactured across the world.

15 October 2009

Would a librarian by any other name smell just as sweet

Many apologies for taking extreme liberties with Bard again (To Blog or not to Blog? That is the question). This is all part of my attempt to come up with magnetic headlines to bring in readers.

Anyway on to the meat of this topic. The SLA (formerly The Special Library Association) has just (10 minutes ago) proposed a name change for the one hundred year old association.

I should immediately declare my hand and say that I was involved in (perhaps scarred by would be a more appropriate description) a previous re-branding task force which ultimately led to a name change vote at the Annual Conference in New York in 2003. Needless to say the name did not get changed on that day, although it was a close run thing, falling short of the two-thirds majority required by just a few votes.

Since then the information world has become even more fragmented with all kinds of information roles that don’t have the ‘L’ word in their title. Knowledge Manager, Intranet Manager, Competitive Intelligence Manager, Information Resources Manager are just some examples of the 2,000 different job titles held by SLA members. This new breed of information professionals need to feel that the SLA is a suitable home for them as well, of course, librarians working in specialised organisations.

Even more import are the research findings of a two year project lead by Fleishman Hillard (a leader in international marketing and communications). They tested a range of information profession related concepts and words and showed conclusively that anything with the ‘L’ word such as librarian or library were not perceived as valuable by senior managers. To quote Janice Lachance from her recent Sticks and Stones article in the latest issue of Information Outlook ;
Like detergent, the word ‘librarian’ is an accurate description of function, but not a value proposition. It says what you do for living, but it does not say what you can do for your organisation. Moreover, the research shows that ‘librarian’ is perceived as being dusty and antiquated-two words that should not be connected with either a profession or a professional association that prides itself on being ahead of the curve.

Working as I do at the British Library, which under the leadership of Lynne Brindley has established itself not only as a forward looking organisation engaging with cutting edge technology such as the award winning Turning the Pages, but has also proved itself to be of significant cultural and economic importance for Britain. To which the Business & IP Centre by supporting new businesses has contributed in its own small way.

However, from my previous sixteen years managing a specialist information service in a corporate environment, I recognise the problem of using the ‘L’ word in a commercial and business context. In my experience senior managers and directors are far more impressed with colleagues who are providing insights and identify trends, creating competitive advantage, anticipating industry changes, facilitating good decision making, providing value-added intelligence, sharing knowledge and using innovative technologies. Needless to say these were all terms which tested positively in the Fleishman Hillard research. And although in many many cases this is exactly what specialised librarians are actually doing, unfortunately their senior colleagues are likely to be judging them on their job title instead.

Below is the full text of the email anouncing the proposed name change:

Dear Neil:

John Cotton Dana, who founded SLA a century ago, wrote, “The name Special Libraries was chosen with some hesitation, or rather in default of a better…”  We, as special librarians and information professionals you have elected to SLA’s Board of Directors, believe that validated research has identified a better name, one that will help all of us communicate our value in the workplace.

We are excited to propose that SLA change its name to the Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals, or ASKPro.  We encourage all SLA members to voice their opinion on this proposal by casting an electronic vote in a special referendum that will begin on 16 November and end 9 December. The result will be announced on 10 December.

The choice of this proposed name began when the board concluded in June that the alignment research conducted over the past three years revealed a clear challenge posed by SLA’s name:  executives who make hiring decisions and allocate budget dollars do not understand what it means.  Furthermore, they do not recognize or appreciate the contributions that special librarians and information professionals are making now or the potential they hold for building more successful organizations in the future.  This disconnect endangers the jobs of our members, and we are determined to act.

The proposed name is the result of the same rigorous process used in the Alignment Project research .  We began by compiling words, terms and critical concepts that both information professionals and executives agree best articulate the value and potential of the information profession and the association.  We also received and considered input from members around the globe via Twitter, blogs, e-mail, FaceBook and listservs after the annual conference.  The result was a long list of potential names. We then began eliminating names if they caused confusion, were too close to names already in use, posed legal difficulties, or could have different meanings in various countries. We also eliminated names that did not have good acronyms or shortened versions associated with them.

We feel that the name that emerged, the Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals, strongly ties special librarians and information professionals to the strategic goals of their organizations, increases the perceived value of their services, and stresses their professionalism.  We also want to emphasize that by changing our organization’s name, we will not change the name of our profession.  It is important to note, that in fact, SLA members have more than 2,000 different job titles.

Before settling on our proposed name, we subjected it to a survey of U.S. and U.K. information professionals and executives in  human resources, marketing, information technology and strategic planning in the corporate, academic, healthcare and government sectors.  The results prove that the proposed name will help us accomplish some important objectives:

  • It was well liked, fit well with a description of the association, and was judged relevant and credible.
  • Executives felt it promotes our members as invaluable assets to their organizations; information professionals said it made them more likely to join the association.
  • The abbreviated form, ASKPro, was very well received and also fulfilled the desire frequently stated in member discussions for a name with a meaningful acronym or shortened form.

The topic of changing SLA’s name has been much discussed in recent months in a variety of SLA chapter and division listservs and other forums, and board members have heard individually from many members.  We have compiled a list of some of the most frequently stated questions and opinions and responses to them.  In some cases, we have borrowed heavily from the words of members, and we thank all of you for your input.  We hope you will take the time to read this document before continuing the conversation.

You will receive notification on 16 November that the e-vote system is open and have until 9 December to cast your vote.  Please note especially that when and if the new name is approved, it will be a matter of months before the association can put it into use because of various legal requirements, the need for a new “look,” and other technicalities.

As your representatives, we are dedicated to your success, and we firmly believe that adopting a new name for SLA will further that goal.  Ultimately, however, it is up to you to vote on a new name for SLA– the Association for Strategic Knowledge Professionals (ASKPro)–and launch us into our second century.


Gloria Zamora, President, and the SLA Board of Directors

14 October 2009

The Dyson Air Multiplier® fan

Dyson have produced an electric fan which they claim is the first in the world that works without blades.

The Dyson Air Multiplier® fan contains a small motor at the base of a large plastic loop. This creates a flow of air over the curved surface, which brings in more air to create a draught, much the same way as air flows over an aircraft wing. Dyson say that 15 times more air is blown out than is performed by its motor. Here is the main drawing from the patent specification, which was published in March. 


Bladeless fan patent

October may seem an odd time to launch a cooling product, but the company point out that it is the perfect time to launch in Australia. The UK retail price will be about £199 -- high, perhaps, but Dyson believe that people will pay for quality. CNET has an article about it.


[This patent application looks being being granted soon in Europe -- the European Patent Office states in its official status register that grant is intended, see the relevant webpage. Ed. -- 27 Jan 2010].



13 October 2009

Starting a business is like playing at Pooh Sticks

Bryan Mills

During a recent training event I was fortunate to hear Bryan Mills speak. Bryan has had a long and successful career creating and managing IT related businesses (although without an IT background himself). His particular claim to fame is building CMG from a two person business, operating from the founder’s homes in 1965, into a multinational FTSE1oo business.

During his fascinating talk recounting lessons learnt from a lifetime as an entrepreneur he used the analogy of playing Pooh Sticks for business start-up.

As both a fan of the game from early childhood, and having grown up very near to the home of Winnie-the-Pooh the inventor of the game in Hartfield, West Sussex, Bryan caught my attention.

When you are planning to start a business you look down into the swirling river below (the market place for you product or service), you try as hard as you can to see where the current is flowing strongest and is least turbulent (assessing the market opportunity with published and field market research). You drop your stick in as carefully and accurately as you can (detailed business plan preparation). And once it is in, you follow it with Eagle eyes, watching every bob and weave (you track every activity minutely in your newly founded business).

However once the stick goes under the bridge it moves both out of your control and out of sight, and there is nothing you can do to influence its route down the river, across into a bank of reeds, or dropping down to the bottom of the river bed. This is very much the situation once your business is up and running. All kinds of unpredictable events can knock you off course, or sink the business altogether.

My blog reaches 30,000 visits

I don’t rate this as a ‘real’ story, but I can’t resist recording the fact that according to my free Sitemeter

account the number of visitors to this blog has now reached the 30,000 mark.

I am aware that many of my visitors are coming via Google, so are accidental tourists rather than regular readers, however I am still somewhat proud of this achievement for a British Library based blog.

Looking at the chart below reinforces the advice I have heard about blogging, that patience is required to build visitors.


10 October 2009

Karan Bilimoria and the story of Cobra Beer

Cobra_Beer_bottleAnother late night for me last Thursday night. This time to attend the Chartered Management Institute 2009 Sir Kenneth Cork lecture. It was organised by my friend Chris Seow from the University of East London who is the current chair of the City of London Branch of the CMI.

I have to admit I was reluctant to spend another evening in London and went along to support Chris. However, I am glad I made the effort as the talk by Karan Billimoria was absolutely fascinating.

Even while waiting for Lord Bilimoria to start I heard an amazing story from Darren Way the founder of Streets of Growth.

Streets of Growth is a dynamic community leadership organisation founded in 2001 and led by local people in Bromley by Bow East London. Committed community adult and young people work together to offer real solutions and practical approaches to tackling the issues that people face in their local community and so develop sustainable and healthier communities in the East End.

karan-bilimoriaAlthough I had not been following the Cobra beer story closely, I was aware (along with everyone else in the audience) that they had gone bust in May of this year and had been rescued by the giant Canadian brewery firm Molson Coors.

I was wondering if Lord Bilimoria would mention what seemed to be an unfortunate end to what had been an amazing success story up till that time. His first slide gave an indication that he would not be skirting around the painful aspects of his fascinating twenty year story to bring a new beer brand into mass consumption. The title of the slide was ‘Adapt or Die’. He immediately began to explain how quickly the
credit crunch had impacted high growth business such as his, who were dependent on external finance for expansion. As he pointed out, prior to the crash, cash had been king, but then it became an emperor.

Fortunately, he then went back to the beginning of his story, and spent an hour giving an absolutely riveting speech which concluded with the painful details of the collapse and eventual revival of the business.

As with so many entrepreneurs Lord Bilimoria went against his parents wishes with his plans to start his own business. Although his father as head of the 350,000 strong Indian Army did not want Karan to follow him into the military, he felt a career in the City of London would be a more appropriate use of his Cambridge University education. He was told ‘you should get a real job like a banker’.

But, he had developed a love for beer and recognised there was a significant gap in the market between traditional British bitter beer, and the sharp and gassy lager beers available at that time. There was nothing that was a suitable accompaniment to curry meals in Indian restaurants.

The second slide of the talk consisted of just three words, ‘Aspiration, Inspiration, Perspiration’. He reinforced my experience of dealings with entrepreneurs that the business idea is the easy part. Bringing it to production and then to the market is the hard bit, and may take many years.

Lord Bilimoria went to give many instances when his business nearly died. Often from causes which could never have been predicted. For example, a one year boycott of his product by Indian restaurants (his primary customers), after an article criticising the professionalism of the restaurant owners in a trade magazine which Karan had founded, but no longer had links to. In each of these ‘near-death’ experiences it was always flexibility and a creative approach that led to a solution.

It was good to hear his quite confidence about the new opportunities the partnership with Molson Coors would lead to. He said they were moving from a David vs Goliath situation to one where David and Goliath were working together. He had been impressed by the family culture that was still present despite the global size of the company, and how they had been true to their initial agreement despite the financial turmoil of the period when Cobra was forced into a Company Voluntary Arrangement.

He concluded by listing the Molson Coors definition of what makes a remarkable brand:
1.    A compelling story
2.    Refusing to compromise
3.    An instantly recognisable look
4.    A unique, relevant and consistent product
5.    To inspire brand champions from customers
6.    To deliver enduring profits