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Author Archive for ClaireBurdett

6 Inspirational Books That Changed My Life

Loveheart in sky

These are my must-read books…  the ones that when I was reading them it was like a light being switched on, the ones that made me think “I must do that now!”, the ones I keep on my bookcase and return to again and again. These books are my life and heart companions, and yet they are also the ones I frequently give away and have to reorder!

1. Games People Play – Eric Berne

I first read this when I was a teenager and the realisation that ordinary interactions could be ‘scripts’ was a revelation. Made sense of many things that had been puzzling me and it has been a constant guiding light over the years, especially when I feel that I am being ‘played’. His other books are great too, but this is the one that really changed my life.

  

2. Families and How to Survive Them – John Cleese & Robyn Skinner

This was also an early ‘find’ that I have returned to many times. It’s easy to read and amazingly insightful. No family is perfect and this helps you see the bigger picture – and realise that it’s all about patterns of behaviour and that you do have the power to change things, if only how you react! If you like this one, do read the companion volume ‘Life and How to Survive it” too.

 

3. Happy Children – Rudolf Dreikurs

My parenting bible, which helped inspire me to start Funky Angel back in 2003. ‘Happy Children’ is not just a highly practical and useable guide (which it really is, the best out there by far), it also helps us see how we and our relationships are shaped by family dynamics – and to make changes in the way we parent so we do it better. Highly recommended, not just for parents, but for all grown up children too – and yes, this is one I have lent, given away and repurchased many times 🙂

 

4. Inner Game of Tennis –  W Timothy Gallwey

This is so much more than an approach to playing tennis: it is a whole philosophy of life, helping you build your confidence and find your inner flow in everything you do. Brilliantly helpful in a work environment but also hugely inspirational for creatives too, especially when you are experiencing a ‘block’!

It’s one of the many books I read when I was training to be an NLP life/business coach and the one that has stayed with me after most of the others were given away.

 

5. Transform Your Life – Penny Ferguson

Great practical insights and case studies to help you challenge your thinking and ultimately change your life for the better. At age 50 Penny realised that her life was a disaster because of the way she was in herself, and she then read widely (from Louise Hay to Eckhart Tolle) to try and understand why she wasn’t happy and why everything was falling apart and then fix it – which she did very successfully.

This is my favourite of her books as I can open a page and immediately be inspired because it’s distilled wisdom and offers a hugely practical blueprint. However, I can also thoroughly recommend ‘The Living Leader’ and if  you want to take it to a whole other level, especially from a work perspective, seriously consider taking her (honestly) life-changing Personal Leadership Programme – I promise you won’t regret it!

 

6. Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma – Daniela Sieff

Subtitled ‘Conversations with pioneering clinicians and researchers’ this is an amazingly insightful, and very easy to read and understand book. Pretty much everyone has a degree of childhood trauma – it’s part of being human – and these conversations with experts in their fields helps you make sense of it and gives you the tools to heal and overcome anything that is holding you back or affecting you deeply.

I attended a lecture that Daniela gave locally, and throughout it I felt I was being reminded of an inner truth I had been aware of, but hadn’t articulated, and then when I read the book (twice, back to back) it was like experiencing a series of revelations about myself, other people, and society in general. Mind blown. A must read for everyone.

 

I hope you found my list interesting and inspiring, and that if you haven’t read all (or even any) of them, that you will. Please do share any of your ‘must read’ books too in the comments – all light bulb moments happily received 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jordanian Dreams

I blame Blue Peter myself.

Somewhere back in the eons of time before the days of colour television and when John Noakes, Valerie Singleton and Peter Purves were still young, there was a dog called Petra.

The year I was eight Blue Peter did one of their famous historical stories all about her namesake, the rose red city of stone, Petra, and how the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt had rediscovered it in 1812.

I was mesmorised.

An Enid Blyton fan and obsessed with mysteries and hidden valleys and secret islands, I was immediately enthralled with a pink stone city carved out of the heart of a mountain, even better that you had to walk through a long gorge in the rock to find it. I had no idea where it was, but from that moment on I was determined to go and see it for myself.

Time passed. My children watched Blue Peter in their turn and every time that dog was mentioned I thought about that city, but somehow I never fulfilled my childhood ambition. Until this year, that is, when I finally decided life was too short and told my girls (by now in their early teens) we were going to Jordan for the Easter break. “Where?” they said “Petra, in Jordan” I said (having finally located it), “it’s pink stone city carved out of the inside a mountain, it’s one of the ‘new’ Seven Wonders of the World. It’s not the topless model. Or the dog.”

I have to confess they didn’t look exactly thrilled. But slowly over the months leading up to our departure, they researched it on the sly and when a shop assistant asked them the week before whether they were excited or not, their emphatic “Yes!” left me speechless. So far so good, then.

My original aim had been simply to see Petra, but when I started to look into Jordan itself I was amazed at the sheer weight of history, architecture, history, activities, geography and well, more history, that exists within this tiny desert kingdom. For such a young country, Jordan certainly has ancient and significant roots, which is not to take away from the modern Kingdom of Jordan and what they are trying to achieve on minimal resources, but just to acknowledge that history has certainly dealt them an extraordinary card – or pack of cards – in natural wonders and historical and religious significance.

Where else can you see the Dead Sea, Lawrence of Arabia’s desert, the castles of the Crusaders, the coral gardens of the Red Sea complete with angel fish the size of plates and the cutest green turtles, the earliest Christian mosaics, the mountain where Moses saw the promised land, the site where Salome danced and John the Baptist lost his head, the River Jordan where Jesus was baptized, the hot springs where Herod bathed and the Spice Road along which the Queen of Sheba travelled to visit Solomon…?

Cat mosaic in MadabarThen there’s one of the best-preserved Roman city in the world at Jerash and the World Heritage site of Umm Quais, and the fact it’s where farming, and therefore civilization, almost certainly started, as backed up by their extraordinary legacy of early mosaics. The variety of nature is stunning, from oasis to desert to pine forest, with the Dana nature reserve perhaps the most special as it incorporates terrain from 50m below sea level to 1500m above, although Wadi Mujib, a rocky canyon where you can go white water wading and which seems tailor-made for adventure, comes a close second, or maybe third, when you take into account Wadi Rum, the Bedouin’s desert.

Add to all that the Bedouins themselves look like they have just stepped out of one of very English primary school Christmas nativity plays, complete with camels and head dresses… plus beautiful and tough Arabian horses, world renowned spas, natural hot springs, and the handicraft and silver souks… and it was soon clear this was going to be a bit more than a ‘holiday’.

And, dear reader, it didn’t disappoint.

We travelled there in early spring and left England languishing under grey skies with temperatures barely making it into double figures and only the merest hint of green leaf on the trees. Five hours later and here we were enjoying balmy temperatures in the high 20s°C and some of the flowers were already going to seed – from late winter chill to mid summer in fact!

From the moment we arrived we were overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the Jordanians – from the hotel staff who couldn’t do enough to make us comfortable to every Jordanian man woman and child we met on our travels, I can honestly say we always felt like honoured guests.

On the down side it did mean allowing at least an hour per shop, simply because tea and a seat would be offered and couldn’t be refused, pictures taken, phone numbers and life stories swapped, and then gifts pressed upon us that were impossible to refuse without giving offense.

Obviously this may have been to do with the fact we were travelling independently rather than with a guide or on a coach, that we three were a mother and her daughters driving in a car by ourselves (this was considered very odd) and yes, that we are all blonde and blue eyed, all of which may well have ramped up the feeling of being minor celebrities. But since every other visitor we met there (and since) reported the huge amounts of kindness and friendliness shown to them by the Jordanians, I actually think it’s just the Jordanian way to be absolutely lovely.

As the lady we met on the plane going over said: “Your first time? Oh, you’ll be back!” And yes we will.

General Information on Jordan

• Dress code is modest and clothing should reach from neck down to the knee, and at least to the elbows. Jeans are very acceptable, and I found scarves an invaluable addition whether to cover the neckline of t-shirts, pull up over the head, or use as a shawl. Having said that, very Westernised dress (shorts, short skirts, strappy t shirts and low necklines) won’t get you harassed in all but the most mild ways (think teenage boys leering or nudging each other, or grown ups staring) they are way too polite and well bought up for that – but it just feels rude and inappropriate somehow.

• Social etiquette – always use your right hand to greet or eat (the left is for bodily functions), if you are invited to sit to eat or take tea make sure you tuck your feet out of sight, and if you are invited into a Jordanian home (or tent) it is polite to take and give gifts, even if just a box of baklava.

•  Costs – Jordan is still a poor country, despite its growing middle classes, and it’s economy has been put under pressure by the various influxes of refugees over the past 60 years. There isn’t full employment and so if you can buy, hire, use local skills and goods, try to do so.  Begging is not encouraged and Jordanians would rather do something for a JD (Jordanian Dinar) rather than take a hand out, even if it is just carrying your bags. Generally it’s a very affordable country – allow £70 -£100 per person per day for mid to high range accommodation, some activities and travel and eating well.

• Temperature – Aqaba in the south is warm to hot pretty much all the year round, but the rest of Jordan is subject to some mighty temperature fluctuations – they even get snow in the north. The best times to visit are spring and autumn, when temperatures average 27°C, although even these can vary depending on where you are and the time of day (or night).

• Responsible tourism – the water supply in Jordan is under immense pressure from increased population and therefore extraction, as well as, ironically, increased tourism – all those spas, swimming pools and extra showers have to be supplied from somewhere. Do your bit wherever you can – don’t leave taps running, have showers not bathes, and if you don’t need your sheets/towels changing every day, say so. Every little helps.

• Jordan is a five-hour flight from the UK. See Royal Jordanian and BMi for direct flights. You buy a month’s visa at the airport in Jordan.

• The currency is Jordanian Dinars (known as JDs – pronounced JayDees). 1JD is just a smidge under £1, which makes it easy to budget. You will need to order them at least 24 hours in advance. ATMs are widely available throughout the country and electronic payment is the norm – accept for in Wadi Rum and outside the entrance of Jaresh!

• Transportation. There are no trains and the buses are irregular and tend to meander, so best go as part of a coach tour, take taxis, hire a chauffeur or self drive:

  1. The pros of a coach tour is that someone else has organized it, you don’t need to do the driving and you have company; the cons that you can’t go off the beaten track and you have to follow the itinerary.
  2. Taxis are generally fairly affordable and you usually get a guide thrown in for free – you can also hire a car and a chauffeur, which is a good option if you want to go exploring all over the place but don’t want to drive yourself.
  3. Self drive is only for those of a fearless nature with an excellent internal compass as the road signage is near non-existent and obviously it restricts what the driver can see, although ‘stopping to look’ is very acceptable in Jordan! The pros are the freedom and contact you get with everyday people.

© Claire Burdett 2010

Images of the trip can be seen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/funkyangelclaire/4789814093/

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Myth of the Solo Entrepreneur

Myth of the Solo EntrepreneurThere is a prevalent myth in our society that an entrepreneur is a lone wolf who operates on his or her wits and doesn’t need a team to succeed.

Like all myths it’s very far from the truth.

Any entrepreneur who tries to do it all alone is likely to learn the hard way that regardless of how talented or clever you are, there are simply not enough hours in the day for you to succeed when you are working totally alone.

Like all myths the assumptions surrounding entrepreneurs are largely unspoken and so can lodge themselves in your subconscious, just waiting to trip you over. They include:

• ‘Real entrepreneurs’ just do it.
RESULT: If you can’t do it alone, you must be inadequate.

• ‘Real entrepreneurs’ instinctively know how to succeed
RESULT: You can’t ask for help without losing face.

• ‘Real entrepreneurs’ are supermen /superwomen.
RESULT: If you are an entrepreneur you must be the best at everything you do. This is particularly damaging for entrepreneurs who are also hands on parents, such as mumpreneurs – the pressure to be the best in both areas can be incredibly destructive.

• ‘Real entrepreneurs’ work alone 24/7 for years to succeed, and may fail many times before they succeed.
RESULT: Overworking and poverty are almost carried as a badge of honour, and it’s still seen as somehow suspect to not work at least 6 days a week and late into the evening.

• ‘Real entrepreneurs’ are always on their mobiles, wheeling and dealing, never missing a chance.
RESULT: You must always be available, on the end of the phone or email, day or night.

The reality is that everyone has particular strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others, and by working within a team you balance each other out to create a strong ‘whole’. Solos are inherently weak, and by working in a team you can also achieve a good work/life balance more easily, something that is essential not just for you, but for the health and wellbeing of the people around you.

Teamwork will also help you avoid burn out, one of the greatest (and unspoken) issues facing entrepreneurs. Burn out occurs when you push yourself too hard without adequate downtime, and can lead to a number of problems, including poor judgment, low productivity, and developing an aversion to your business, which is obviously very bad for you, your business AND your reputation.

So, the myths that entrepreneurs fly solo, overwork by inclination, and are ‘superbeings’ are very bad for your health and your longterm prosperity if you buy into them – you have been warned!

Written for The Coaching Academy, 2010

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Torro! Torro! in Sexy Sultry Seville

Bullfighting in SevilleHot, intense and bitter sweet, Seville is famous for passion, for spectacle and theatre, and for song. It’s the greatest city of the Spanish south, the home of such legendary characters as Carmen, Don Juan, Figaro and Columbus, and the city of the Andalucian gypsies and their flamenco culture.

It’s an elegant and wealthy city, whose buildings and culture reflect the centuries it spent under Roman, and then Moorish, rule, as well as the wealth generated by its adventurer-son, Columbus, and the conquistadors. However, it does have one of the highest unemployment rates in Spain (at nearly 20%) because Andalucia in general is predominantly agricultural and is quite a depressed area, economically. Consequently there’s been a rise in petty crime, especially car thefts, in past years, although compared with many cities it’s still relatively crime-free.  Be careful, but don’t let it put you off! This is a great city for a weekend break, especially if you immerse yourself in the local culture.

Seville has a sub-tropical climate, and as temperatures hit the 30s as early as May and increase steadily through to the upper 40s in the summer, perhaps the best time to visit is in April, especially as this is the month in which the two most important festivals occur – Semana Santa (Holy Week) followed two weeks later by La Feria de Seville (Seville Fair).

Historically, Seville is a fascinating meander through layers of colourful and glorious architecture, over laid by the trappings of wealth from Spain’s colonies in South America. In fact, in many ways it resembles a Latin American city, from its meandering streets where the houses nearly seem to meet above your head, to the heat and relentless sunshine, to the passionate and exuberate nature of the Sevillianos themselves. All good stuff, especially if you’re not the shy and retiring type!

Friday night is a great time to arrive and plunge straight into the true Sevilliano experience. Book your flight for straight after work – flights go from …

Once you have arrived, change into your best togs and head straight into town for your first taste (literally) of Sevilliano culture. Most Sevillianos don’t really get going until after 11pm on a Friday night. Firstly they’re all way too busy on the ‘Marcha’, promenading, seeing and being seen, checking out the shop windows and comparing prices and arguing about where the best deal is to be found. And then Friday-night dinner is often ir de tapeo, or ‘tapas crawl’, where the locals (and tourists in the know) meander their way around an area sampling a selection of scrumptious tapas, each one in a different bar. With a glass of sherry, of course. Remember Seville is the capital of the sherry-making area of Spain, so there is a vast choice available, none of which tastes remotely like the stuff from your Nan’s drinks cabinet at Christmas. This is divine stuff, nectar, and there’s a huge variety to choose from, from the very dry, almost salty, through to the richly sweet, although the locals generally stick to the chilled dry fino with their tapas, especially with shrimps.

Good grazing grounds include Alfalfa, which lies north of the cathedral and gets so packed on weekend evenings that cars can’t get through – try Bar Alfalfa on the corner, and try their provolone al horno (baked cheese). Calle Betis by the river over in Triana is another good tapas cruise option, as is around the Alameda, and in the Santa Maria de Blanca area of Santa Cruz…not that I’m saying that we sampled tapas extensively, but as Seville is the city that is reputed to have invented tapas, it would have been rude not to!

Many tapas bars shut around 9pm, but this is still very early in Seville, as things really don’t start kicking off until midnight, especially in summer when temperatures stay in the 30s all night. There’s a wide choice for your evening entertainment, from the big bar scene along the river (it’s cooler here), especially El Faro de Triana on the bridge  (Triana/Isabel II), which has the best view of the river, as well as all around Calle Betis in Triana (so stay put if that’s where you were grazing), particularly Café de la Prensa, Or, if you want the chance to hear and see some spontaneous Sevillian-style flamenco, head towards Carboneria on calle de Levies, just north east of the Cathedral, an atmospheric old building that is packed at all times and is renowned for its free nightly flamenco.

The club scene is pretty major in Seville, being a Spanish university town, so if you want to go dancing head for Alfalfa, where there’s a good selection of venues, or ask around the students (they’re everywhere) for what’s hot this season (it changes every year), or head over towards the Triana riverfront and follow you ears. Rio Latino on Betis is usually a good bet. For hard house, the serious choice is Weekend in Torneo, but be warned – there’s no alcoves for chatting, so only go if you’re a serious dance bunny!

Saturday through to Sunday offers you the chance of a little culture or shopping wrapped around some good lazy lunches. Now, if you want to go shopping, you’ll have to steel yourself to get up early as most shops, bar the really large ones in the centre, shut by lunchtime on a Saturday. The main shopping thoroughfare is Calle Sierpes (the street of snakes), especially the area just north of the Cathedral, between Plazas San Francisco, Encarnacion, Magdalena and Nueva (where the bus terminus is), the ancient Jewish quarter of the city. The best place if you’re short of time is probably El Corte Ingles on Plaza de la Magdalena, which claims to sell almost everything – clothes, electricals, everything. Their food hall is excellent, if expensive, and recommended if you want a slice of Seville to take home – try their olives from all over Andalucia, the fabulous local marmalade made with Seville oranges (see box), sherry from nearby vineyards, and the local cured hams.

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Tips to Improve ROI from Email Marketing

Digital Marketing is now a must have for most businesses, but not all areas within the discipline are created equal.

Email is a case in point. As social media usage and reliance has increased, and direct mail has almost disappeared, the email has become the new junk mail. Stats are disturbing, with over 70-80% of all emails now spam mail – depending on which survey you read, and exactly when – and the lack of engagement from recipients on an ever-decreasing spiral.

Much of this lack of engagement is down to the ‘batch and blast’ methods so disliked by most people and yet so frequently used by most PR and marketing departments and unthinking companies.

Unfortunately the net result is that fewerdigital marketing: the problems with email marketing ‘newsletter’ emails get opened, let alone read, and so the ROI continues to be very low. The solutions are not new but they do bear repeating:

Tailor your newsletters – not every one has the same requirements, so don’t treat them the same. Yes it takes time to segment your list and send tailored newsletters or individual emails, but the ROI is likely to be much higher than a ‘batch and blast’.

Keep a clean list and keep it clean – have your system set up so that once you haven’t heard from a customer for a certain timeframe, they automatically receive a welcome email (with a discount voucher to use if they return if its appropriate). Also assume they don’t want to hear from you if they don’t return (tell them they will be removed or can ask to be removed if this is the case) and ask them to confirm if they do. Yes, your list will be smaller, but hopefully much more likely to actually trigger sales, and also you will have hopefully have gained an advocate in the person you didn’t continue  ‘blasting’.

Keep your emails short – few people read below the fold, especially if it’s a newsletter type email they didn’t especially want to receive, so keep the message short and sweet.

Don’t use pdf attachments – even fewer people open those than read html newsletters.

Do republish your newsletters – use them as news on your website, to gain the SEO and search benefits. It also means you are reaching a bigger audience than just your email list, and many people like to see what you are offering and how pertinent it is before they sign up to your list.

Add social media – far too many business emails still don’t contain the social media links for the companies social media profiles, which is a shame since studies prove that most people on social media follow at least 3 or 4 brands, and that most prefer to receive information via social media rather than via email.

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Google+ and Digital Trends

Google+ and digital trends for marketing, PR, advertising and salesGoogle built it and people are coming, well coming to create profiles anyway.

Google+ still feels pretty empty and only full of those who particularly like the sound of their own voices, but so far so good. The stats are reassuring so far and ‘everyone’ is talking about it. But will the ‘the people’ come, will they use it, and most importantly will they end up staying on it?

It remains an open question at the moment despite the huge amount of column inches written and an even greater amount of media speculation in the weeks since launch. Most of which, it’s fair to say, has been written by men and a great deal of it by the early adopters, many of whom are in their 30s and 40s ie Generation X, who appear to make up the bulk of the GooglePlusers so far.

Now forgive me for being unduly commercial here, but unfortunately the Gen X’s might make a lot of noise but there has never there been a more cash-starved generation in recent history – they are the true Squeeze Generation. Many are wrestling with high debt, high mortgages, high-maintenance offspring, rising cost of living (and the cost of educating said offspring in the UK), aging parents and a very difficult personal economic situation whereby most don’t have any savings or pensions.

Boomers and Seniors are in a much better state, generally, with more disposable income per head – in the US in 2011 the biggest age group is 50 and the 50+ age groups have $2.4 trillion in annual income, which accounts for 42% of all after-tax income. The Millennials aren’t doing so badly either if they are living with their parents ie the Boomerang generation, or being bank rolled by them, which seems to be a growing percentage, certainly in the UK.

So what do these top and tail generations all think about Google+?

If you ask your average CEO, teen or grandma about Google+ and she (she because 85% of brand buyers are women) will look at you blankly. All of the ones I asked are on Facebook, and they still looked at me blankly. Most haven’t even registered the furor and to be honest, none of them seemed that bothered. Now, I hate to get commercial and pedantic about this, and I know it was hardly a large sample and this was the general reaction to Facebook and Twitter in the early days, but this isn’t the early days of social media and so if we accept that they might just be representative, where does that leave us?

As a digital Consultant I spend a lot of time reading, researching and looking into the future at how things might pan out. At the moment I think there are a number of issues at play and no one can predict the way it’ll pan out with any confidence given Google’s weight and ability to influence users, but the strongest issues I have noted already are:

1. Mobile Creating Social Silo’s – most Millennials don’t use email except for sign ups and they bypass Search unless they are doing a school, uni or research project. They are surprisingly slow to adapt to new networks and most stick with what they know. Just because they ‘grew up with’ social media doesn’t mean they are quick to adapt or comfortable being early adopters. The way they use social media is also interesting – they frequently seem to adapt the way they use the site to do what they want it to do, so there is no added incentive for them to leave.

2. Habit. Most peeps haven’t the time to use more than two or three social networks and most are entrenched in Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and struggle to keep up to date with those. Most ordinary people “CBA” (“can’t be arsed”; it’s a Millennial term apparently) it would appear, especially Boomers (who are surprisingly techno phobic or Millennials (who are surprisingly techno lazy). That leaves the smaller pool of generation X peeps, who are – hardly surprising – the ones rushing to use Google+. They like shiny new tools and tend to be mavericks – perfect for early adoption. Whether they will stick it out or whether it’ll be like Wave, Buzz, FriendFeed, Quora and all the rest that they have played with and abandoned, well that remains to be seen.

3. Gimmicks. So what if Google+ has Circles? Facebook has lists, as does Twitter. Few people use them. Trying to force people to use circles isn’t go to work outside of the uber-organized and geeks amongst us (and that does include me, yes). Why? CBA, mate. Especially Millennials. Don’t want your grandma or boss to see your drunk pictures? Unfriend them. Job done. Don’t want the boss or your parents to read your bitching? Use chat or IM. And ignore the fall out. Like wearing tights with holes in them, it really doesn’t seem to bother them what people think. Don’t like it? Tough.

4. Late to the Party. Google are, sorry, but they just are. Social Media is no longer the Wild West, it is accepted, integrated, corporate. People don’t like change but having adopted something they are then unwilling to give it up or change again, there’s just too much history. It’ll have to be forced down their throats, and if Google do that, they may just see most people start to avoid Search and anything ‘Google’ completely. Can they do that? On either side? Oh yes, they really can.

5. Marketplace. Google is obviously after advertising revenue (have you SEEN the vast expanse space it has built in everywhere on Google+?). They want brands in there selling and the people to come and buy from them. They also want to be able to sell advertising space. But to do that they need an audience that has disposable income. I refer you to the points above.

6. Impact on Marketing. Well it’s a game changer, that’s for sure. Demoting search for Twitter and Facebook is one thing, but it won’t stop people using them, just make marketers job more difficult unless they can persuade brands to completely buy into Facebook and Twitter… which they will have to do if that is where people are socializing and sharing and ultimately buying. So in a way Google’s actions may actually backfire because it’s going to be difficult to persuade brands to invest in a network when the actual people who buy are happily socializing elsewhere….Yep, welcome to silo world.

7. Impact on organic SEO. I think the temptation for Google to swing Search towards brands on Google+ is going to be nigh on impossible for them to resist. The trend we already see towards Social Shopping whereby you see what your friends recommend on Facebook is only going to accelerate and that’ll distort SEO as well. The business of SEO is going to get very messy and people may just give up on trying to make content or sites SEO friendly and just pay for social-site specific advertising instead.

So maybe advertising will be the game winner in all this, after all. Just not, perhaps, in the way Google are hoping. I am sure Google have done their research, but whether they have researched the right things or reached the right conclusions is another matter, and whether people (and businesses) will behave in the way Google wants them to is yet another matter altogether.

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Ripe For The Picking

Country walks with the dog collecting wild foodFood for free is a passion of mine – I never walk the dog without a bag or two in my pocket in which to stash bounty. Whether it’s berries to make into jam, mushrooms for breakfast or nettle tips for soup, it all finds its way home.

It’s a hobby with a long legacy – my grandmother took me to collect cowslips and elderflower to make wine, blackberries to add to apple crumble, windfall plums for jam, and when she died I inherited her recipe book, a cornucopia of the delightful and, it has to said, the gruesome. For example, I’ve never quite had the courage to try her recipe for pig cheeks – the memory of half a pig’s head floating in a bucket in my grandma’s pantry and my sister’s resulting screams are more than enough to put me off!

However, when my husband and I got married we wanted an ‘old fashioned country wedding’, complete with ‘elderflower champagne’ for the guest cup (see below), and so out came Grandma’s little red book. The wedding was on August Bank Holiday Monday, giving us plenty of time to collect baskets and baskets of elderflowers through May and June, and allow it to ferment over the summer.

The weather was so hot, however, that the wine became what is known as ‘lively’ in the trade; it didn’t pour out of the bottles as much as leap, much to my husband-to-be’s increasing anxiety. Eventually he rang the venue, which advised him to bring the bottles in and let them chill down in their walk-in fridges. He reports that he never felt so worried in his life as he did driving 70 bottles of volatile home-made ‘elderflower champagne’ over road bumps through the middle of town in our convertible Triumph Herald – he was worried that he’d get arrested if one exploded!

Luckily all was well – on the day the corks flew over the nearby 10 foot hedge as soon as they were opened while the wine itself behaved perfectly and stayed in the bottle until it was poured, much to the delight of the guests, who couldn’t believe it was barely 1% alcohol, such was the bonhomie of the atmosphere. Magical stuff.

CrayfishOur daughters seem to have inherited, or perhaps just acquired, our liking for nature’s free treats – top of their summer weekend activities is crayfishing in the local (very clean) river. The ones that they are after are the large imported American crayfish, which are a pest, so the children are actually doing the environment a favour, as well as well as catching dinner. With bacon on the end of a weighted string, up to a couple of dozen of these beauties can be pulled out in a couple of hours with patience – some are no bigger than a robust tiger prawn, but others are as big as young lobster and just as ferocious! Best plunged in to a pan of boiling water or barbequed, and served warm with mayonnaise dip.

Spring and summer also bring free wild ratatouille ingredients, such as young dandelion leaves, nettle tips, deadnettle shoots, broom buds, and hawthorn buds (the fan shapes are so pretty). Many of these can also be eaten raw in a salad, especially tasty when mixed with edible flowers, such as nasturtiums, clover and marigold petals.

Elderflowers are delicious in fritters (use the lightest of tempura batter) served with vanilla ice cream, while my children enjoy crystallising other edible flowers, such as violets (wonderful on white chocolate mousse), rose buds and petals, lilacs, apple blossom, and primroses, to add to the top of cakes and puddings, give away as gifts in fairy-sized boxes – or to just eat in one decadent picnic in the sunshine! We are blessed with a large rose garden and I use the deepest red rose petals to make a sumptious confiture de petal de rose recipe given to me by a French relative (see below).

But of all the seasons, autumn has got to be top of the list in sheer choice and abundance. Blackberrying is, of course, the staple activity, and tends to turn into a social gathering, with assorted uncles, aunts, friends and godmothers thrown in for good measure.

I still make Grandma’s apple and blackberry cake as a first choice, but over the years we have perfected our blackberry wine, discovered that pickled blackberries are delicious with Cheddar, and blackberry vodka a lovely (and very pretty) addition to the Christmas drink’s cabinet or gift boxes for special friends. I also sometimes mix blackberries with Japonica quince gathered from the bush at my parent’s house if it has a good year – it makes a glorious jelly with an exquisite perfume, simply moreish on hot buttered wholemeal toast.

We are lucky in that we are usually given a brace of pheasants each week during the season, and blackberry syrup is a wonderful accompaniment to the roasted bird, although rowan jelly is a nice alternative. The rowan tree is often the first to bear fruit in the autumn and is surprisingly common in towns as well as hedgerows – its clusters of orange berries can be skimmed off with a fork in the same way that you would tackle elderberries. The jelly is jewel red and quite sharp – perfect with rich meat or cheese of any sort.

Crab apple also makes a lovely jelly, especially as a Christmas gift when spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, while hedgerow jelly makes the best of any wild fruit you can find, including blackberries, hawthorns, bullaces (wild plums) crab apples, hips, and sloes.

Squashes are not always free but are usually available in such abundance that it feels criminal not to do something with them, especially after making Hallowe’en lanterns when all that pumpkin puree is on the verge of being thrown away.  My favourites here are pumpkin pie, made the American way and served with ice cream – people have been known to write from the other side of the world for my recipe – and pumpkin preserve, which is so pretty it seems almost criminal to eat it.

Chutneys are the other great harvest time bounty, and the choice can be almost overwhelming between what you can gather from free in the hedgerows and the surplus you will receive from neighbours and friends. One of our favourites is Irish Whiskey marrow chutney, a great way of using the ‘ones that got away’ in the courgette patch and apple orchard and, as it says on the label, mixed with a little Irish whiskey so it’s a great keeper that matures to a rich mellow finish perfect with cheese on Boxing Day.

Later in the autumn the nuts start to ripen, and we collect hazel nuts and sweet chestnuts when we walk home after school just as the dusk gathers in. Mostly these get eaten straight from the shell or husk, or roasted on the fire, but surplus might find its way into crunchy harvest butter made with wild plums or apples, later to be added to pies and tarts throughout the winter, and served with thick custard or crème fraiche.

And finally we come to mushrooms, an early morning treat these, gathered while walking the dog in the morning mist. My grandfather would put a bucket over favoured areas where horse mushrooms grew – he believed it made them grow sweeter and larger. They are certainly delicious fried straight up with bacon for a proper breakfast, as are spotted ink caps, which must be used almost immediately they are gathered (and obviously it’s important to know your mushrooms before you pick them).

Food for free is nature’s bounty, despite parts of our countryside having become so sterile and chemically-overloaded as a result of intensive farming and rationalisation – and it hardly needs saying to avoid areas of high pollution and chemicals when you are gathering your harvest. But with care you can still find a huge amount of food for free still thriving in the hedgerows, along abandoned railway cuttings and beside canals, and let’s face it, it only adds to the pleasure of the table to know that what you are about to eat didn’t have to be bought or grown.

Red roses make the best rose petal confitureJosette’s Confiture de Petal de Rose

Based on a kilo of petals (adjust as necessary)

• Non-chemically treated red rose petals – for preference use ones that are just about to drop as they are softer

• Place petals in the preserving pan

• Add a small amount of water – for a kilo for petals, use 300ml of water

Pectin sugar to your taste

• Bring to the boil for 7 minutes so they form a setting consistency, and then bottle in sterilised jars.

Elderflowers make a great prosecco type wineGrandma’s Elderflower Champagne

1 gallon cold water

1 ½ lb sugar

7 heads of elderflowers – make sure they are the really fragrant ones; some smell a little of cats, which isn’t nice. They are also better at the end of a hot sunny day.

2 lemons, sliced

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

• Bring the water to the boil and pour over the sugar; when cold add the flowerheads, lemon slices and the white wine vinegar.

• Cover and leave to stand 24 hours.

• Syphon off and bottle, using strong bottles (ideally champagne bottles).

• Cork well as this wine is very fizzy, hence its name.

• Drink young, ideally within 6 months.

© Claire Burdett. First published in Woman’s World, January 2010.

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Las Vegas – Gambling Low Down

Las Vegas gamblingThere are a lot of good new reasons to come to Las Vegas, but there remains one pretty good old reason – gambling.

The opportunity to gamble is at every turn, and what reasonable person could resist? Which is probably why over 90% of all visitors gamble during their stay. Just remember the legal age to gamble is the same as it is to drink: 21.

Casinos are expected to adhere to very strict rules to maintain their gaming licences, so no one under the age of 21 is allowed in the casino area even if a parent or spouse is gambling. If they do they will be asked for picture ID and likely escorted off the property, or conceivably even arrested, when caught. So don’t risk it.

Some people feel shy about joining in at a gambling table and choose to stick to the slot machines that proliferate, which is fine, although the odds are stacked much higher against you beating the casino on these than if you actually join a game.

Just remember if you feel intimidated about joining a gaming table is that most of the people are tourists just like you (the professionals prefer the older downtown establishments), that they are trying their luck, just like you, and the majority are probably not that much more clued up than you are!

So, to increase your enjoyment, you might want to learn a few games either in reality (poker clubs are pretty popular in the UK) or on-line, or perhaps think about taking gaming lessons while you are in Vegas – many of the casinos do half hour poker tournaments for free, and they are an excellent way to learn the ropes so you not only stand a higher chance of winning, but you also enjoy it more, whether you are gambling or just watching.

Ask at individual hotels for information or check out the Vegas website for a list. If you want more than just poker, try the Imperial Palace, which offers morning lessons in craps, blackjack, roulette and baccarat for residents and non-residents.

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Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, Grand Canyon

Grand CanyonThere are 1001 things to do in Las Vegas, and that’s just before lunch. Not only is there a stunning array inside the Mega Resorts, but there’s all the glitz of the four-mile, neon-drenched Strip itself, as well as the glittering Freemont Street Experience, Downtown.. and although many people visit Las Vegas and never feel the need to leave the boundaries of their hotel, it would be a shame to come this far from the UK and not visit outside of the city limits.

Nearby to Las Vegas there is the desert itself, plus the impressive Hoover dam, and a little further afield, although by no mind way out of reach, is the Grand Canyon itself.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Located 25 miles outside of Las Vegas, Lake Mead National Recreation Park Area allows a great deal of relaxation and fun year-round. With 1.5 million acres, it’s twice the size of Rhode Island and is America’s largest manmade reservoir. With 50 miles of shoreline, the park offers multiple marinas, boating, fishing, and water sports. It also caters to hikers, climbers, campers, and car tours, and there are paddlewheel cruises on the lake itself, on which they serve a wonderful champagne brunch!

Hoover Dam

The colossal Hoover Dam was completed in 1935 giving this desert region and Las Vegas a reliable water supply from the Colorado River, as well as creating Lake Mead (above). You can take a $10 tour of the facilities (print your own discount coupon from the website for $1 off) or you can just walk over the dam and view it from both the Nevada and Arizona sides of the canyon. Make sure you park your car on the Arizona side where there is plenty of free parking; parking on the Nevada side is $5. The water levels are currently 50 feet lower than they should be as a result to an eight-year drought in the region, which has resulted in the dam losing 40% of its generating power.

Lost City Museum

With the construction of Hoover Dam, Lake Mead threatened a number of original dwellings of the ancient, mysterious Anasazi civilization. The museum showcases artefacts retrieved from the flooded sites, including pottery, tools, jewellery, and arrowheads. With distinctive black and white geometric designs, the pottery and potsherds are especially beautiful and representative of the rich Anasazi culture.

Grand Canyon

Cutting roughly across the landscape, the canyon is 277 miles long, a mile deep and roughly 10 miles wide and is arguably America’s best-known natural attraction. As the star of many films and documentaries, many of us feel we know it, and yet nothing prepares you for the real thing. It is utterly, completely, and unbelievably awe-inspiring. It takes about 5-6 hours to travel to the North Rim (the nearest to Vegas) by car.

Alternatively you can book yourself on one of the many helicopter tours of the Grand Canyon (try Air Vegas, Scenic Airways or Grand Canyon Tour Company) and expect to pay about $200-300 per person, which is well worth it for what is probably the best of all views, anywhere.

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Las Vegas – Top Tips for a Fabulous Stay

Las Vegas - top tips fpr a great stayThere is an incredible amount to see and do in Las Vegas, so make sure you make the most of your trip with these top tips.

Tipping is an essential part of the service staff’s pay check, and an equally essential way to ensure you get all the help, support and assistance you need, so don’t be stingy. A basic $1-2 tip is appropriate for doorman who gets you a cab, the shuttle or bus driver who helps with your bags, drinks waitress, and slot attendants. Service on food is usually about $3-5, depending on how attentive they are, ditto room service, while $5 would be a more appropriate for your chamber maid (daily, especially if you crave extra towels) and poker dealer (especially if you win).

Wear flat comfortable shoes and clothes that don’t over heat you. The hotels are so big you’re going to do a lot of walking.

Carry a water bottle and drink lots. Remember that Las Vegas is in a desert and that dehydration can be a risk.

Assume you will become disorientated, and plan accordingly, whether that’s having a central point to meet, always carrying a map and a phone, etc. Ne aware sometimes mobiles don’t work in some areas of the hotels.

Know how much you can comfortably spend (and lose) and STICK to it. Nothing like financial pain for ruining the memories of what should be the trip of a lifetime.

Do take advantage of hotel ‘comps’ if you plan on gambling.

If you don’t play, do take gaming lessons before you go so you at least understand what’s going on!

Do leave your valuables in the Hotel safe, not in your room, and keep your bag zipped closed and where you can see it.

Do grab a copy of ‘What’s On’, available in most hotels. Ask your concierge if you can’t find one, sometimes they go very quickly.

Do airfreight your extra purchases home if you get a little carried away with the shopping.

Do watch Robert DeNiro’s film, ‘Casino’, before you go, as well as ‘What Stays in Las Vegas’ and ‘The Hangover (No 1)’…

Don’t jay-walk. It carries a $95 fine and it’s also very dangerous. Always use the crossings.

Don’t plan on getting much sleep.

Don’t go when there’s a big conference planned.

Do get out of your hotel and plan in a trip to the Grand Canyon, it’s nature’s answer to Las Vegas!

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