Dabbler Diary – Janus Face

Happy New Year!” we say to one another, but do we say it in optimistic expectation or in fearful hopes: beseeching Fate that 2014 is not the year when one’s ordained calamity strikes? A bit of both, but increasingly the latter as we accumulate more new years, I suppose. We must doublethink and be Janus-faced about this and many other things; anyway we don’t have much choice in the matter, 2014 is here and already churning away. New Year’s Eves were fun for me around the turn of the millennium, with added spice in December 1999 because we all thought the Y2K bug might destroy civilisation. Boy, what a letdown that was, but it taught me a lot about humankind’s capacity for prognostication, particularly of the millennial kind. I prognosticate that in 2014 many unplanned events will occur, some of them with notable consequences and some without. Happy New Year!

***

We have a leaky roof so for the Christmas period our house has been adorned with festive scaffolding. It took us the best part of a year to find someone who was actually prepared to do both quote for and then turn up to do the job, and what we eventually found was John. The salient facts about John are: (1) he grew up amongst working-class white mining folk in what is now Zambia but was then Northern Rhodesia, (2) he has done every kind of building and construction work it is possible to do, (3) he is able to talk at quite some length about points (1) and (2), and also about the technical elements of fixing our roof (there being a staggering quantity of these. Despite it being mid-terrace and therefore very small there are apparently all sorts of coping stones and something-something-ridges and whatnots up there), and (4) he looks really old, moves like someone who ought to have been long retired from manual labour by now, and has an enormous white beard. Every time I watch him clamber painstakingly up the ladder I feel a wrinkle of concern creep o’er my brow. Should be really be on top of a roof at his age? It wouldn’t be very nice for some child to come skipping along the pavement on Christmas Eve, full of the joys of the season, only to trip over the splattered and bloody corpse of Santa, now would it?

***

I had to chuckle when I read Nick Cohen venting about the ‘racketeers’ of Mumsnet, who invited him to do an unpaid broadcast.

A finer example of a man pissing in the wind would be hard to find. Racketeers? To put it in the simplest economic terms, Nick has greatly overestimated the Ricardian rent value to the owners of Mumsnet of his eloquent opining ( i.e. how much more valuable an hour of Nick’s eloquent opining is than an hour of opining by the best available ‘marginal’ or free opiner) – that value being precisely zero, which is the offer they fairly and openly made to him.

In wider terms, Nick seems to think that Mumsnet had a strategy to gain large audiences by somehow tricking contributors into supplying free content. But the truth is bottom-up, not top-down: the internet has just allowed curious niche entities like Mumsnet (and, to a much lesser degree, The Dabbler) to gain large audiences even though they have no money to spend on content, by giving a platform to those who either can’t sell their work or who want to write more than just what they can sell. (Those audiences, I can tell you, do not translate into cash.)

But you know all that. An interesting question here is what the future holds for people of Nick’s profession – that is, people who express moral outrage in return for money – in the face of competition from people prepared to express moral outrage for free. Nick is pessimistic, but in fact, I think the future is quite bright. Twitter and blogs have provided an opportunity for the best pundits to cement reputations, find their natural audiences and gain large personal followings, and to be valued in themselves rather than being, essentially, salaried commentjockeys paid to fill the pages between the tittle-tattle in the front and the stuff in the back that used to actually sell newspapers (i.e. the horseracing, the crossword, the horoscopes and the telly). This new-found status might or might not lead to financial rewards – that will probably depend on the individuals being clever about using their platforms to flog books and talks to their online constituencies – but anyway, presumably nobody ever went into the moral outrage profession purely because they want money, even if that’s where they end up.

***

On Christmas Eve I was in the girls’ bedroom, trying to convince E that the world would be a more felicific place if only she would submit to her afternoon nap, when C came scuttling up the stairs to say that she had posted her letter to Father Christmas ‘up the chimbley’. ‘Ah, well done’, I said, carefully. ‘Can you show me exactly where you put the letter, just so I can make sure he’ll get it?’

After they’d gone to bed it took poor Mrs Brit an age of fiddling with a pair of extra-long barbecue tongs to fish it out from behind the electric fire.

***

Just before Christmas I was sitting at the hospital bedside of a dear friend, jabbering away, when we were approached by a sizzling Latina with dark eyes and cascading brunette curls and an outrageous accent. She reminded me of Sofia Vergara’s Colombian trophy wife character in the US sitcom Modern Family (Google her if you dare). So warm and tactile was this lady’s greeting that for a brief, impressed moment I took her for my friend’s mistress. But then she said (lasciviously) that my friend could ‘spend Chreeestmas at hhhhome’ and I realised that she was, in fact, the doctor.

‘Well there’s one bit of luck for you, at least,’ I remarked after Doctor Sanchez had left. ‘God bless the NHS and all who immigrate to work in her.’ 2014 is of course the year when we fling open our doors and heartily welcome our comrades from Romania and Bulgaria. On immigration I find myself once again Janus-faced. It is a democratic disgrace that the EU governments allowed migration to so rapidly transform towns and neighbourhoods without consulting electorates. But on the other hand, we need plentiful young immigrants for the good of our economic health and long dotages. The ideal would a steady flow, spread evenly around the country and gradually absorbed, rather than flash floods and spring-up ghettos. We don’t live in an ideal world, of course, but we could live in a slightly better one.

(Incidentally, I’ve sometimes seen much made of the theory that in the US people identify as ‘African-Americans’ or ‘Italian-Americans’ etc, whereas we have ‘British Asians’, and this nomenclature is supposed to reveal a healthier attitude to integration and patriotic priority on the other side of the Pond. But if that’s the case, why aren’t there ‘Mexican-Americans’ or ‘Colombian-Americans’ – they all just seem to get lumped together as ‘Hispanics’.  The theory sounds like yet another load of cobblers to me.)

***

Cricket produces great sports writing, even occasionally on the anodyne BBC website. Four-fifths of the way through the horrorshow Tom Fordyce did a good job of capturing the particular agonies inflicted on the England cricket team Down Under:

No other sport extends the torture like Test cricket. If a big-name tennis player had blown his Australian Open chances so comprehensively at the adjacent Rod Laver Arena he would have been gone in half a day. If a top-ranked golfer falls apart at a major, he is spared further humiliation by the quick mercy of the cut.

England’s agony has gone on, day after day, like that same golfer being forced to play round after failing round, an Open every week, duffing drives and missing putts, swing in pieces, galleries guffawing.

As a rule we don’t appreciate Golden Ages until they’re over, but I have honestly cherished every moment of the Vaughan-Strauss-Cook ride which finally conked out in such spectacular fashion this winter. All things reach an end, though I didn’t expect this one to be brought about by Mitchell Johnson…Wasn’t the mind-scrambling demon fast bowler supposed to be a thing of the past?

The special cruelty of cricket is that it is a team game made up of individual games, so it burdens its players with the worst pressures from both worlds: batsmen play alone, yet each also carries the weight of the team (this nearly unique feature might be one of the reasons for the apparently disproportionate number of cases of mental health problems in the game). Perhaps that’s also why, like boxing, it produces such good sports writing – it attracts good writers, aka voyeurs, who are gripped by watching men doing things they’re rather glad they don’t have to do themselves.

(One other point to take from this Ashes catastrophe: the importance of good timing when it comes to retirement. Graeme Swann is one of England’s greats but his rat/sinking ship act has tainted his glory and you’re a very long time retired from a professional sporting career.)

***

The indispensable Dave Lull points me to this article which quite rightly calls for science and industry to ‘bring the Dabblers back’. In it we learn that:

the Girl Scouts once offered a fascinating merit badge: the Dabbler badge. This allowed a young scout who wanted to do a little bit of everything to not only generalize, but to be recognized for that achievement. Perhaps it’s time for the academic and business equivalent of the Dabbler badge: a way to acknowledge and foster those dabbling in different ideas, all the way from gradeschool to late career.

The Dabbler badge apparently looked like this. If anybody fancies having a go at designing an updated Dabbler badge for proper use here on The Dabbler itself, please do send to the usual address editorial@thedabbler.co.uk

Brought to you by Dabbler Editions – original e-books for Kindle. Buy Blogmanship: The Art of Winning Arguments on the Internet Without Really Knowing What You Are Talking About now, and look out for more exciting titles in 2014.
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About Author Profile: Brit

'Brit' is the blogging name of Andrew Nixon, a writer and publisher who lives in Bristol. He is the editor and co-founder of The Dabbler.

29 thoughts on “Dabbler Diary – Janus Face

  1. jeffguinn@me.com'
    Jeff Guinn
    January 6, 2014 at 08:18

    … sizzling Latino …

    Latina. You are at risk of giving those who don’t know you momentarily the wrong impression.

    I’ve sometimes seen much made of the theory that in the US people identify as ‘African-Americans’ or ‘Italian-Americans’ etc …

    African-Americans, yes. Mexican-Americans, too. But the net got cast so widely that it came to include anyone within several generations of a native Spanish speaker, with Portuguese included out of sheer ignorance; hence, Hispanic.

    Italian-, Greek-, German-, Polish-, Japanese-, Chinese-, Indian-American, hardly ever.

    • Brit
      January 6, 2014 at 09:00

      Good spot, Jeff.

  2. wormstir@gmail.com'
    January 6, 2014 at 09:54

    I find it annoying that the media tries to force people to take a black/white stance on the romania&bulgaria topic. Surely most sensible people, whether left of right leaning, are PRO immigration of qualified professionals, no matter where they come from, but ANTI unqualified unemployable people coming here with little chance of offering any benefit at all to the country. Its not that controversial really

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      January 6, 2014 at 22:21

      Except for the cultural element, ie numerous towns being unexpectedly transformed into Little Polands with a rapidity that has generally bewildered locals. The London/Westiminster attitude to any attempt by the locals to express dissatisfaction about this can be summarised by Gordon Brown’s ‘bigoted woman’ remark.

  3. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    malty
    January 6, 2014 at 10:17

    In the dim and distant past, pre scaffoldite that is, the roof could be fettled by a man with a ladder and a small van, a Joe Brown sit harness, twenty feet of washing line and a some tiles which he drizzled over the roof. The job was on time and the costs within budget with minimal damage to the garden. Then along came an entire legion of Martin Bryces complete with city and guilds in health and safety and a tendency towards sociopathic behaviour. Ergo the arrival of the age of the scaffold, escalating costs and good little earners.

    As for young Cohen, methinks he should quit whinging and get a proper job, one that exercises his talent rather than his pet lip.

    Regarding the immigration wheeze, six percent of the German population are of Turkish extraction and approximately three hundred thousand misc Bulgarians and Romanians are living in Germany including a rather fetching lurcher I know, called Sila, a Romanian rescue dog she has the rather irritating habit of licking one’s privates and will head for the hills at the sound of a car backfiring, she will, if not restrained, attempt to swim across the Rhine at Rodenkirchen, not for one moment would I suggest that this behaviour is symptomatic of all Romanians.

    Or would I?

    Happy new year all.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      January 6, 2014 at 22:35

      I’ve actually grown to like the scaffolding. It provides shelter from the endless rain while I’m endlessly putting out the endless recycling.

  4. bensix@live.co.uk'
    January 6, 2014 at 11:14

    I sympathise with professional bloviators who are asked to sacrifice their time and energies for nothing, and hope that the naifs who are prepared to accept such conditions are so few that the practice must change. Such commentators occupy an awkward position, though, in which they write as if they are crucial to the functioning of civilisation yet provide no grander service than mild entertainment for the middle classes. That is an unreliable market.

    The fuss that the government makes over EU migration seems cynical inasmuch as they focus on the migrants whose settlement would be hardest to oppose. As I’m working in Poland I’m biased towards Poles but it also rankles with me that some of our most successful migrants tend to be the whipping boy when the subject comes up.

  5. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    John Halliwell
    January 6, 2014 at 16:32

    ‘As a rule we don’t appreciate Golden Ages until they’re over, but I have honestly cherished every moment of the Vaughan-Strauss-Cook ride which finally conked out in such spectacular fashion this winter.’

    It reminds me so much of a previous golden age:

    ‘Oh no, not again.’ These words were regularly uttered on freezing winter mornings during the 1958/9 Ashes series by a fifteen year old cricket nut after learning, through shortwave radio, that Peter May’s not so merry band had been blown away, yet again. It was so cold! Our ornamental brass monkey cracked. “How about a fire, mam, it’s 6 0’clock and England are batting? “England is batting, John, and don’t be daft; have you seen the price of nutty slack?” How could it be possible: the England team had been by far the finest in the world for the previous four or five years. How could they fail so spectacularly when they had May, Cowdrey, Graveney, Bailey, Evans, Trueman, Statham, Tyson, Laker, Lock? It didn’t make sense. Hammered 4-0 with one draw. E W Swanton, with admirable restraint, wrote: ‘It was a tour which saw all sorts of perverse happenings – from an injury list that never stopped (and culminated in only 12 out of 18 being fit to fly to New Zealand), to the dis-satisfaction with umpiring and bowlers’ actions that so undermined morale. From various causes England gave below their best…’ Perhaps this explains it:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_cricket_team_in_Australia_in_1958%E2%80%9359

    ‘Oh no, not again,’ I seem to have muttered these words throughout the recent Ashes series as I fast-forwarded the Sky HD box to find the fours, sixes and wickets (I just can’t make it through the night any more). Oh those wickets, English wickets, often in great clusters. I just don’t understand it. It’s 1958/9 all over again; the end of an era. The consolations? Sky HD, central heating; and the freedom not to have to give a damn about the price of nutty slack…..

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      January 6, 2014 at 22:25

      Consoling, John, very consoling.

      As Frank Sinatra put it:

      There isn’t much that I have learned
      Through all my foolish years
      Except that life keeps runnin’ in cycles
      First there’s laughter, then those tears

  6. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    George
    January 6, 2014 at 18:09

    One did used to hear Mexican-American (or simply Mexican, or Chicano). Through the beginning of the 1980s, persons of Hispanic surname in the states were most likely able to trace their ancestry back to Mexico. But in my little corner of Washington, DC, those whose cradle language is Spanish probably are from El Salvador; though pretty much all of Latin America is represented,

    And really, the hyphenated American thing does not get used that much outside “African-American”. It may be on the stationery of some organizations, but you will mostly hear Irish, Italian, Polish, Scotch.

  7. Gaw
    January 6, 2014 at 21:14

    Describing op-ed journos as “people who express moral outrage in return for money” feels shockingly accurate.

    Isn’t this a unique arrangement? Others who regularly set about expressing moral outrage tend to earn their money in ways that aren’t directly related to this expression – vicars, MPs, pub landlords, taxi drivers, scientists.

    Perhaps one day we’ll find it very strange that people made their living solely through the free-floating expression of moral outrage.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      January 6, 2014 at 22:28

      Funnily enough, Nick Cohen was effusive in his praise for Norm Geras’ unpaid blogging:

      The great service Normblog and its comrades on the Net provided was to break down the gates and allow fresh arguments in new intellectual spaces. New alliances brought contrary opinions and new sources of information to the reader. For someone writing from a similar position at the time Normblog began, I cannot over-emphasise how important it was to realise that I had comrades out there.

      Put like this, it sounds easy. Norm recognized faster than most that the old media world was breaking down, and embraced the possibilities the Web was offering.

      http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/nick-cohen/2013/10/norman-geras-rest-in-peace-comrade/

      • mail@danielkalder.com'
        January 7, 2014 at 01:20

        I thought Cohen’s main beef was that Mumsnet actually charges some people to provide them with content.

        • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
          January 7, 2014 at 08:50

          It’s the same beef he’s been chewing for ages.

          I suppose what might confuse some old skool hacks is that the web has blurred the lines between editorial and advertorial. But then again, it’s not rocket science:

          A mega-website has an audience; a writer has content. If the content is more valuable to the website than the audience is to the writer, the writer can charge. If the audience is more valuable to the writer (for example, if they are trying to flog a book to it), the website can charge. If that’s a ‘racket’ then everything’s a racket.

          The error Mumsnet made was in thinking that because Nick Cohen deals in moral outage on issues he falls into the ‘campaigner’ category, so they made him that kind of offer; whereas in fact he is in the ‘take terrible personal offence and impugn them as racketeers on his Speccie blog’ category.

          • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
            malty
            January 7, 2014 at 10:59

            By definition moral outage requires a target that is immoral, many of the targets for today’s moral outragers are figments of their imagination, Cohens stance as the hammer of the non-liberal liberals leaves the reader with one thought, who gives a shit.

      • Gaw
        January 7, 2014 at 18:57

        As is happening with depressing regularity, I’m wondering what Norm would have said about the issue. He really was a man of enlightenment.

      • mail@danielkalder.com'
        January 8, 2014 at 02:17

        I agree with the general point about moral outrage, but I do find the bullshit peddled by the likes of Mumsnet, i.e. that writers should “do it for the exposure” more than a little bogus, and any sap who falls for it is selling himself short. Cohen’s point, that it might meaningfully work in about 1 in 100,000 cases, is probably accurate.

        • Gaw
          January 8, 2014 at 08:12

          Like Brit, I don’t really follow the ‘doing it for the exposure is bullshit’ argument.

          It’s one that doesn’t seem to apply to just about every interview you come across on TV, radio and in the press – almost without exception nowadays all interviewees have something to sell or a cause to push. They’re doing it for free and time is money – but there is obviously an economically sound justification.

          I can’t see why getting exposure from a website is any different. And Brit has explained (just above) the economic forces that dictate the direction in which the money flows.

          • mail@danielkalder.com'
            January 9, 2014 at 05:12

            For sure if I had a book to plug I’d do as much free publicity as I could on radio, TV, or a website. I have done so in the past and in the absence of anybody really knowing anything I think it is as good a strategy as any. In such cases there is an object in the marketplace and I want people to know about it. But it only really works in the first month or two after publication, and even then it’s very scattershot.

            Where it becomes bullshit is when “exposure” is extended to not directly selling a particular book/TV show/whatever, but simply “exposure for the author.” That’s just bollocks- if I write a piece about topic Y but my book is about topic Z, and more to the point, is not the focus of the piece, then nobody is going to bother to track it down. Nobody knows, nobody cares, there are far too many distractions out there.

            I write for cash, I write for pleasure, sometimes I am lucky enough to combine both. I will do things for free to promote my books/projects, but any writer who hopes that by sounding off about some bollocks on mumsnet that he/she will accrue anything significant in terms of money from enhanced royalties or even attention is likely in for a disappointment.

            Nothing to prevent anyone from thus wasting their time, of course and it is indeed a sound business strategy for the likes of mumsnet to lure in naifs with false hopes and trendy Internet marketing blather.

          • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
            January 9, 2014 at 08:56

            That might well be true, DK, though we’ve moved onto practical territory rather than the grounds of principle on which I’m quite certain Nick Cohen wants to fight for the writer.

            Or then again it might not be true – depends on each case, and I wouldn’t want to impugn Mumsnet specifically for ‘luring naifs’ without more evidence about exactly what they charge and what they promise.

            However, caveat emptor applies in all transactions. Anyone in business who has tried to launch a new product knows that all forms of advertising and PR – sponsoring things, buying data for mailshots etc – are nearly always crushingly disappointing, and nearly always the reason for this is not
            that the data is garbage, but simply that you’re trying to sell a product that nobody wants to buy. That’s a tough one for writers to take, of course, because their product is very personal, but there it is.

          • mail@danielkalder.com'
            January 10, 2014 at 01:43

            I am all about practicality in these matters. Cases will vary, and there are no doubt some exceptions that occur from time to time, but they are very rare and as a rule the Mumsnet model as described by Cohen is, I repeat, utter bullshit and a con from the content producer’s perspective.

            Unless, of course, said content producer’s goal is merely to participate in useless public blather. If he or she seeks only to enjoy that dubious delight, then it may work out fine for all parties.

          • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
            malty
            January 10, 2014 at 10:20

            It used to be called a loss leader. It’s application depended mainly upon the strength of the order book…desperate for business (M&S post Xmas)…drop prices sharpish. Full order book (Apple Inc)…screw ‘em. Or, attempting to break in to new markets…need to tempt the buyers. These little tweaks should be second nature to any entrepreneur, corp sized or Fred in his shed. If not, stay out of the kitchen baby.

          • Mail@danielkalder.com'
            January 11, 2014 at 02:32

            I agree, which is why if I had somethjng to sell directly, I would do it. Whereas confronted with a request to work for free for a totally nebulous and unspecified benefit, a magical unicorn, I would say, please don’t waste my time with your request, which is bollocks. It all depends on what is to be gained, which I think we actually all agree on.

    • k.sheehyw@gmail.com'
      Mary
      January 7, 2014 at 15:56

      One can also turn a living these days expressing moral outrage about the writers who express moral outrage. I have occasionally expressed my moral outrage at a hack’s moral outrage at another commenter’s moral outrage but often find I can’t remember accurately the originating moral outrage.

      • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
        malty
        January 7, 2014 at 16:36

        Compound interest indeed Mary.

  8. Gaw
    January 6, 2014 at 21:27

    The Girl Scout Dabbler badge seems to feature a basket case containing a variety of blunt weapons – I think I can spot a hammer, a truncheon, a piece of lead piping and I believe that’s a ‘shinai’ (used in Kendo). I’m not sure we need to update it for the site.

    • Worm
      January 7, 2014 at 08:45

      comment of the year so far! :D

  9. Davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
    David
    January 10, 2014 at 13:56

    If I dare to Google her? Isn’t some measurable percentage of the internet devoted to sharing pictures of her through Google. Independent, one must suspect that, if she didn’t exist, Google would have invented her.

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