Syntagma Digital
Editor, John Evans

DIARY: Sherpa Brown, Annoyment, Conrad Black, NHS fat, Ted and the IMF, Bloggers’ earnings

Monkey Gordon Brown appeared on Andrew Marr’s programme this morning in a slightly new mode. He spoke in a slangy lowland Scots accent, replete with glottal stops and chummy vernacular. If this is his core-vote strategy, things must be much worse than we thought.

It may also serve the purpose of creating yet another dividing line between ordinary Gordon and the well-spoken Conservatives.

One aspect of his usual performance remained: his speak-by-numbers approach to answering questions. He often sounds as if he’s using a foreign-language phrase book, every clause and sentence lifted wholesale from the manual and awkwardly bolted together.

As a rough guess, I’d say there were at least a couple of dozen downright lies in the half-hour interview. Claim after questionable claim spewed out of his mocking, pudding-like face. He no longer cares that everyone believes he’s a liar — he’s known it for years.

Overall, he confirmed his place in the political ecosystem: as a lowly technical details man.

In the run-up to last year’s London G20 summit, he slipped into tech-mode during Prime Minister’s Questions, no doubt to confuse David Cameron. He listed various protocols and formulations of the kind used by the army of international “sherpas” to prepare the ground for their masters. It was a “neo-classical endogenous growth theory” moment.

Sherpas are second-tier civil servants specializing in some branch of governmental procedure. They are confined to the back-rooms so as not to steal the thunder of the bigwig politicians who arrive at summits just to wrap up the package for public consumption.

Gordon Brown is a sherpa and nothing more. He has been promoted several notches above his level of competence. It shows. It always has.

As so often happens in British politics now, few spoke up until he had blunderingly wrecked the country.

And the agony goes on until late spring.

* * * * *

Annoyment of the Week
A Gordon Brown Free Zone

After our glorious “barbecue summer”, we are now one-third of the way through our “mild winter”, and entering “one of the warmest years on record”. At least according to the once-admired UK Met Office.

Are there no fine British institutions left that the Labour government has not destroyed? By forcing every decision into an ideological straitjacket, they have perverted the functioning of whole tiers of our national life.

Politics exists for “the resolution of conflict”, not for micromanaging voters’ behaviour. “Progressive” means dumbed-down Marxist equality by stealth or decree. Harriet Harman is its poster image.

When David Cameron says the Conservatives are a progressive party he should be aware he’s leading it down the road to perdition.

Another marketing ploy? Well, those who will not vote Tory don’t know what it means, while those that will are thoroughly sick of the word and its malign effect on their lives.

Do drop it, Dave.

* * * * *

Conrad Black, writing in The Spectator from a prison cell in Coleman, Florida, has this commentary on the financial and economic crises:

“The Americans borrowed trillions of dollars from China and Japan, to buy trillions of dollars of non-essential goods from China and Japan while officially requiring trillions more to be squandered in worthless mortgages. With the exception of a couple of obscure contrarian economists, no one saw it coming.”

Quite! Give that man a key.

* * * * *

The NHS has had its budget trebled in 10 years. As a result, more people have declared themselves sick, with no discernible increase in outcomes.

In fact, the NHS is a very sick institution itself. Anyone passing through its portals is in real danger of picking up a virulent disease, or dying of neglect or avoidable error.

Money has not cured the NHS of its death spiral for the simple reason that the elements at fault within it have multiplied several-fold thanks to the massive input of extra funding. The people running it believe in the very things that are killing it. They are blind to its potential strengths. More money is choking and squeezing its effectiveness.

On the fringes, government agencies run expensive ads telling people to go to their GP for minor complaints — just in case. Aren’t GP’s surgeries crowded enough with coughers and snifflers? As a means of spreading disease, they are ideal incubators.

Other “public-service” ads spread fear and trembling about a raft of serious conditions. The current one showing a woman having a stroke, with a burning hole in her head, is offensive and beyond negativity. My mother died of a series of strokes, as have many others, so this intrusion into our consciousness is cruel and unnecessary.

We know these ads are there just to burnish the reputation of ministers: “Look what we are doing for you!”. However, they almost certainly have the opposite effect. It’s known that folk who concentrate on an illness out of fear or expectation of getting it, are more likely to succumb than others who believe they are healthy.

The NHS is now in the business of creating illness, not ameliorating it. It’s become a fat, dirty, disease factory.

With spending cuts the order of the day, the NHS has more fat on its bones than is good for it. It should not be “protected” but slimmed down into a much more effective organization. Split up and offering a basic, no-frills service, it would have a chance of being really useful rather than a pain in the nation’s neck and a burden on its pocket.

The genuine cuttable fat in government lies in schools and hospitals and the quangos that circle them like vultures. If we spare them the knife, they will never regain health and competence.

And another government will have failed the country, the genuinely sick, and under-educated.

* * * * *

Edward Heath, it’s reported, almost went to the IMF for a loan in 1974, beating Labour’s Denis Healey to the thought by two years. The socialists have borne the approbrium of that humiliating act ever since.

Not surprisingly, Healey is crowing and telling the Tories to shut up about his involvement. While he’s at it, he could call on Brown and Balls to button it over a wide range of issues dishonestly megaphoned.

Heath ran a bizarre economic policy that swung from prudent to reckless in a couple of years — ring any bells? The result over the 1970s is what you get when the two main parties have the same economic policies.

If you can’t tell the difference between them, they’ll wreck the country in precisely the same way.

* * * * *

A bit more from Jason Calacanis, writing in Syntagma during 2006. This is mainly about bloggers’ pay:

Bloggers can do 2-4 posts an hour from what I’ve learned. If someone is an expert on the subject they can do more in fact.

So, if the number is $4/5 a post and folks do three posts an hour on average, you’re looking at $12-15 an hour. That’s $480 to $600 a week for a 40 hour week which is $25/30k a year. For part time work from home $12-15 an hour isn’t so bad, especially if you’re writing about something you love (most of our bloggers were writing their blogs for free before they joined WIN [Weblogs Inc]).

Now, our bloggers are making much more money than this right now, but we started in that same range.

The problem is that the journalists writing about blogging are established and living in NYC/SF/LA and making $50-80k a year. For them the idea of starting over again at $30k a year is horrible and bloggers are being taken advantage of. However, when I was running Silicon Alley Reporter people started at Conde Nast at $25-30k!

You don’t hear the bloggers complaining because for them they are getting paid to write about their hobby–their passion.

Getting paid to write about the movies if you’re a movie fan with a day job is amazing… getting paid to write about movies if you’re A.O. Scott at the NYT is what you expect.

I wonder how many bloggers are making even that kind of money at the start of 2010.

John Evans

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DIARY: Fannie Brown & Freddie Darling, Fatblogging, Farage farrago, Google Books, Originative intellectual workers

We can all agree on two things, I believe: Labour is going to lose the next election, and there will be a new leader of the Labour party at some point within a year.

Labour Candidates

So, who will it be? The hoary old list of candidates is beginning to look raggedly threadbare now. Alan Johnson has proved himself lacking in weight. David Miliband needs a very long time in the oven. Harriet Harman is the suicide-note candidate. Ed Balls should join a circus.

Ed Miliband is hopelessly wrong on the climate. James Purnell lacks bite and mastery. Jon Cruddas is the heir to Foot.

But, hold your donkeys. While the rest of the field has shrunk in stature, one man has gained authority hand over clunking fist.

I refer to Alistair Darling.

He was the man who declared the economic crisis as it was: “the worst in 60 years” while Brown was trying to soft-soap the nation with lies. Darling it was who stood up to Brown during the disastrous reshuffle and established himself as Chancellor of the Exchequer until the General Election.

After a shaky start in the job — probably the worst learning curve in politics — he has now emerged as the most confident minister in the Cabinet. On Saturday afternoon he commanded the respect of economic journalists from around the world with his performance at the G20 news conference.

One thing above all singles him out: he is prepared to speak the truth and engage in the nuanced debate most of us want to hear. Imagine Gordon Brown at the same occasion: PMQs writ large, a bellowing performance of self-praise and obfuscation.

For this diarist, Darling is now the most persuasive voice in the Labour party. Don’t rule him out as its next leader.

He won’t beat David Cameron. He may be yet another Scotsman, but that hardly matters when talent and honesty are the lodestones the country needs.

You heard it here first.

* * * * *

Last year, the American tech blogosphere was drowning in “fatblogging”.

It was started by Jason Calacanis, the man who sold a bunch of blogs to AOL for $30million and a seat on the board. It had its own website and anyone could participate by tagging their posts “fatblogging”. I am not proud to admit that I put up a few myself.

Now the British Tory blogosphere is descending into the same swamp of oleaginous twaddle.

Iain Dale (It’s worse than I thought) — who has looked more than chubby of late on Sky News — has declared himself 18 stone and rising, and desperately in need of motivation to pare down the pounds.

Tory Radio (Iain Dale is a big fat loser!) has reciprocated, claiming even greater avoir dupoisage in what is developing into an “I bet I’m fatter than you are” battle of the sumos. When Eric Pickles declares himself, I’ll be convinced this is going somewhere.

Weighing in at a toned 12 stone, I confess to a wish to lose 7lbs to get back to my best fighting weight. I have to say, 18 stone is one hell of a burden to carry around.

For example, the Sunday Times, at its bulkiest, peaks at 3lbs on the kitchen scales. The difference between 12 and 18 stone represents 28 copies of the ST.

Imagine carrying 14 under each arm. Not only would you need exceptionally long arms, but also the physique of Arnold Scwazziwatsit to bear the bundle home.

I merely point this out to bring some realism to the debate.

* * * * *

Nigel Farage, the exotic leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), has resigned his post and will fight the Squeaker Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, for the Parliamentary seat of Buckingham in the General Election.

This is important because?

Well, it’s one in the eye for the wretched Labour MPs who thought it deft to promote this little man as a raspberry to the Tories. Not deft, not even daft, just infantile.

When the nation needs leadership, Labour’s intellectual giants, including Brown, who must have signed this off, deliver sub-Big Brother type tactics.

Won’t we be glad to see the back of them! If Farage, whose basic EU thesis I agree with, can see off this minnow, he will have earned the nation’s gratitude.

I suspect, though, it will be seen as a stunt by the good people of Buckingham. “Better the devil you know” always plays well when the stakes are high.

* * * * *

Google Books is an online digitization programme for absorbing all the books in the world within the Google “cloud”. Is that good or bad?

It depends where you’re coming from.

If you have an out-of-print work that earns you nothing, you may be glad of some residual income, or a slew of new readers. On the other hand, if you have a new book coming soon, as I have, you may find the juggernaut a trifle overbearing.

There’s a huge battle going on right now over internet copyright. Whatever line you draw as an “originative intellectual worker” will inevitably be breached before long. Google is using its muscle to get a grip on a very unstable situation.

Frankly, I don’t know what the outcome will be. I’m a little bit appalled that my book may be sucked into someone else’s system without my consent, yet recognize the pressures for this to happen.

It’s both about money and not about money. Writers have to earn a living, but also need to be read.

Where do we draw the line?

Like the musicians, I suspect we don’t have a clue.

* * * * *

Quote of the week
Here’s an extract I like from H.G. Wells’s autobiography on “originative intellectual workers”.

“Most individual creatures since life began have been ‘up against it’ all the time, have been driven continually by fear and cravings, have had to respond to the unresting antagonisms of their surroundings, and they have found a sufficient and sustaining interest in the drama of immediate events provided for them by these demands. Essentially, their living was continuous adjustment to happenings. Good hap and ill hap filled it entirely. They hungered and ate and they desired and loved; they were amused and attracted, they pursued or escaped, they were overtaken and they died.

“But with the dawn of human foresight and with the appearance of a great surplus of energy in life such as the last century or so has revealed, there has been a progressive emancipation of the attention from everyday urgencies. What was once the whole of life, has become to an increasing extent, merely the background of life. People can ask now what would have been an extraordinary question five hundred years ago. They can say, ‘Yes, you earn a living, you support a family, you love and hate, but, ‘what do you do? . . .’

“In studies and studios and laboratories, administrative bureaus and exploring expeditions, a new world is germinated and develops. … We originative intellectual workers are reconditioning human life.”


John Evans

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Silicon Valley and the credit crunch

Doubt and Fear So far during this Crisis we’ve been discussing the crashing of big banks and financial institutions.

Today, the collapse of flatpack furniture giant MFI in the UK illustrates that the rot has set in on Main Street too. This has a long way to go yet.

But what about startups? These are small businesses with embryo staffing arrangements, usually depending on borrowed, credit card or venture capital funds to pay the bills.

Web 2.0 star and now a venture capitalist himself, Jason Calacanis, writing in Jason’s List — an email list for bright business folk — believes that up to 80 percent of them are on the point of going bust:

It’s my believe that the economic downturn will be much worse than it is today, and that 50-80 percent of the venture-backed startups currently operating will shut down or go on life-support (i.e. 3-4 folks working on them) within the next 18 months. Make a list of every Web 2.0 startup to raise an A or B round and cross 80 percent of them off the list, because they will not make it to their next round of funding or profitability.

I know many such startups personally, particularly tech and internet businesses, and this assessment is devastating. It’s also nothing but the truth in all its stark outline.

Around six months ago, we predicted here that another dotcom bust could not be ruled out. It can’t, but there’s always hope before it happens that some features peculiar to tech startups will not be in the direct path of the storm.

The first thing to note is that the internet is a much maturer place to do business now. Many more people depend on it than back then. It’s also stuffed full of very big players indeed, companies that will ride out the crash on a large cushion of cash — Microsoft and Google, for example.

It’s the overextended startups that will splutter to a halt, fall into mothball mode, or their owners will simply walk away and do something else.

The dotcom collapse earlier in the decade had the effect of destroying the paradigm it was built on: that internet businesses didn’t need to make any money at all, just puff themselves up for an IPO on the stock market which would make the founders very rich.

It was a classic bubble that burst with an inevitability that took believers by surprise, but never fooled more experienced observers.

The problem was that entry costs, even then, were very low compared with similar bricks-and-mortar operations. The potential was obvious, but people simply went mad with the hubris of it all.

The current bursting bubble in house prices — one of the biggest asset classes out there — is apparently similar but much more infectious in that it penetrates to the very core of the financial system and affects everyone, not just a few thousand geeks who thought they had reinvented the world.

If you were involved with the online world at the start of the century you’ll know how it felt to go under with a bang. It must feel eerily similar now.

Small-to-medium businesses with no debt, some cash reserves and crucially no need for further rounds of funding — like Syntagma Media — will survive, if they play their cards right. The danger is that their server companies won’t and they find themselves suddenly cut off.

This Crisis will affect everyone in different ways. It would be a prudent move to assess any business’s configuration to determine its weak points. That could save their skin.

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Calacanis dumps blogging

“It’s with a heavy heart, and much consideration, that today I would like to announce my retirement from blogging.”
Jason McCabe Calacanis

Jason Calacanis Hold the front page? Well, yes, maybe — at least of the Silicon Alley Reporter, the U.S. trade magazine he founded.

Jason Calacanis is more widely known as the man who sold a network of blogs for around $30m to AOL a few years back. He is one of Web 2.0’s highest flyers in the sense that he turned big thoughts into big bucks. He now runs his own hand-rolled search engine, Mahalo.

His resignation “post” (as purists still call them) is worthy of Victorian melodrama, leading to charges of link-baiting — a common way of driving traffic to blogs. Naturally, he denies this, claiming never to have soiled his hands with such practices. Perish the thought.

He will, he says, replace his blogging activities with a private email list comprising roughly 1000 subscribers, all drawn from a group he calls “insiders”. These are intelligent, tech and business types of the kind most often found in Silicon Valley, California. So if you’re an Albanian circus performer with limited English, don’t bother to apply.

Why this move, and why now? Obvious answers include:

1. blogging has had its day.
2. attention spans are getting shorter, hence Twitter.
3. good bloggers often work as hard as journalists for little pay.
4. blogging has failed to build a reputation for quality.
5. spam comments have brought the system to its knees.
6. blog comments have let in demons from the outer darkness.

And there are many more reasons than those.

For good writers with something original to say, blogging has become a downward-leveller, rather than an enabler, as originally intended by weblog pioneers like Dave Winer. If you are a serious blogger, most readers will assume your opinions are prejudices, and ranting your principal method of communication. Otherwise, why don’t you write for The Guardian or Scientific American?

Commenters will lead you to believe the worst of the human race, which is why the traffic lights at the top of this site read “Comments OFF, Email ON.” Signs like this are becoming more prevalent around the “blogosphere” as people start to audit their return on capital from blogging.

The email list system is more like a private forum in which selected subscribers discuss topics in a “thread,” in this case the leader of the group’s weekly email. As a method of publishing to a coterie of like-minded individuals who are able to develop the arguments and refine them in a civilized fashion, the list has much to commend it. It’s also very cheap — no paper, printing and postage costs, or time-overhead batting away the daft, stupid, nasty and positively evil intruders.

For an author writing a nonfiction book with closely-argued chapters, it would be an excellent way of fact-checking the material and the logic of its presentation bit by bit, without having to submit it to academic specialists for verification before publishing.

In Jason Calacanis’s case, I would suspect he just wants to express himself in writing without all the hassle from trolls and oddballs.

In the end, the wisdom of crowds is no such thing because the most reckless, outspoken elements inevitably rise to leadership positions, drowning out more measured voices.

Meritocracy — the spirit of excellence, with decisions taken at points of maximum competence — always needs nurturing in cell-like establishments.

Let’s face it, the world is too big for any one individual to make much of an impact without vast wealth or political power. The blogosphere has become so enormous, comprised of multitudes of tiny, discrete pieces that it takes on the laws of quantum physics rather than the world of direct contact with our peers that humans crave.

There’s no worse tragedy than to have communicated widely for years only to discover that the throng out there still doesn’t know what you’ve been talking about.

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Google Wars — business as usual

We have fielded a lot of emails in the past three days about the still developing situation between internet giant Google and text-link buying agents, like

To recap, Google has conducted a manual search of mainly networked sites to penalize commercial publishers who sell links via the agencies, or who have hand-rolled ads without rel=”nofollow” in the code. The code stops Google’s robot from following the link to its source, thus avoiding clocking up a backlink for the buying site.

The more ranked backlinks a site has, the higher its PageRank. Google has been progressively lowering the rankings of sites on which perceived mal-dispositions are found.

For example, Syntagma — which we expected to rank 6 by now — has dropped to 3 in the latest round of carnage. Our site Fifty-Something Women — which has around 20 text links of various sorts — has fallen from 5 to 2. This gives the artificial impression that the site has low traffic and puts off some ad buyers who respect Google’s approval.

Google claims the ads are skewing the results of its search engine, replacing relevancy and authority with the ability to purchase links, i.e. buy authority and relevancy rather than earn them through merit.

There is some force in that argument, although the contrarian view is that Google itself is now skewing its own results by retreating from its pure search criteria.

Also, many observers believe Google is attempting to crush the businesses of the astonishingly successful agencies that sell the links. Its own text-based system Adsense, has undoubtedly taken a knock from TLAs in recent months, especially on low-to-medium trafficked sites, which do poorly on the Google system.

Whatever the facts in this case, Google has created the monster from which it is now suffering.

A mere 15 years ago, at Silicon Valley’s Stanford University, founder Larry Page saw literary citations as a software opportunity for the web. Nowadays, it’s hard to see beyond the system he produced, first BackRub, a way of measuring backlinks to articles and sites, and then PageRank, the most addictive element in web oneupmanship. Has that system really served us well?

To generate Googlejuice you have to cite and cite regularly and relevantly. The blogosphere, in particular, is a madhouse of clickability. The genius of Google is that it didn’t just transfer the bane of academic publishing, the citation system, onto the web, but that it discovered how it could profit enormously from the process.

Is it now pulling the rug from under other companies who are using its innovative scheme to build businesses on the web?

The link, or citation, system is behind the present controversy in the search business. The wonder is that Google tolerated the SEO — or Google gaming — system for so long. The sudden rush to penalize publishers has a rather thuggish feel about it, particularly as the broken bit in this chain lies within the software of the companies that broker the ads.

Jason Calacanis, formerly chief of Weblogs, Inc, which sold to AOL for a reported $30m, has put up a good piece in which he explains how he created the interlinking system between blogs and also hosted the first text link ads.

Where are we now?
We are now at the point where we have to decide. Do we take the ads down, or leave them up and suffer the consequences, the extent of which is not yet clear?

At Syntagma, we have sites which are 90 percent plus dependent on text links. We are therefore going to sit this out and observe what happens. We will keep faith with our advertisers. Business as usual.

However, we strongly urge the brokerage companies of text links to do deals with Google on this matter. Not only is their business model in grave danger of being blown out of the water, but it may be that small tweaks in their software will be enough to allow Google room to compromise.

After all, there are a lot of enraged publishers out there, who feel they have been badly let down by the giant of the internet. Uncle Google has suddenly turned into the wicked stepfather.

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