April 2009 Archives

Author's note: Vale J.G. Ballard. This interview was originally published in REVelation magazine (Summer, 1994): 96-97. Archived links from Disinformation version (2000).

J.G. Ballard has a unique place in Twentieth Century literature. Imaginative fiction writer and cult figure, his life has often been as nightmarish as the stories he writes. Born on November 15th, 1930 in Shanghai, Ballard's childhood changed from living in a house with nine servants to being interned by the Japanese following the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

His experiences of surviving acute food shortages and dysentry formed the basis for the 1984 novel that brought Ballard widespread recognition - Empire of the Sun, later filmed by Steven Spielberg.

"As far as I was concerned, Empire of the Sun was a breakthrough book, but there have been people who have been generous to my material from the beginning," Ballard says, explaining the difference in his earlier styles.

"The real problem is that imaginative fiction unsettles a lot of people who prefer naturalistic novels that reflect everyday life. Imaginative fiction has never been too popular, but that's changing."

"When magic realism came from South America, people realised that it creates a wonderful, imaginative world, particularly as TV does the everyday stuff better than novels do. After Empire of the Sun, I was dealing with a whole new audience."

Nuclear proliferation expert Fred Kaplan and other analysts are writing about North Korea's third missile test launch and Kim Jong-il. Here's the Masters research thesis I wrote in 2006 on Jong-il's nuclear program viewed through Herman Kahn's early work on game theory, threat scenarios and Cold War era nuclear warfare. I finished it just as North Korea made its second missile test launch on 4th July 2006.
Congrats to QUT's Axel Bruns who now spearheads the Smart Services CRC's Social Media program and is likely to become a Chief Investigator in the ARC's Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation. The significance of these appointments is that Bruns has the academic track record as an internationally recognised expert to make a strong research business case to government policymakers, grant-making agencies and institutions for large-scale social media-oriented research.

Bruns' career illustrates how to navigate the academic research game: it has changed from conference papers and solo projects to team-based projects in competitive institutional contexts. Bruns co-founded the online academic journal M/C Media & Culture in 1998 which became an important open publishing journal in digital media studies and criticism. His PhD thesis cemented his academic credentials, and led to Bruns' produsage theory of user-created content. This work has underpinned a publications record, collaborations such as Gatewatching with emerging scholars, and streams at the Association of Internet Researchers and Australian and New Zealand Communication Association conferences. Thus, in a relatively short time, Bruns has positioned himself as an internationally recognised scholar on digital and social media innovation.

The next generation of digital and social media researchers can learn from Bruns' example and career-accelerating strategies.
Slate's Jacob Weisberg recently surveyed a range of sociopolitical issues from nuclear proliferation to the China Century where the expert consensus might be wrong.

Weisberg's survey sample includes macroeconomic aggregates (home ownership, asset investment classes, international competition), geostrategic stability (China, nuclear proliferation), and longrun environmental issues (climate change, fossil fuels). In each, Weisberg contrasts a prevailing view, hypothesis or expert with a challenger.

Below are some thoughts on Weisberg's analyses and observations on research methods in journalism

· Selection and Framing of Experts: Weisberg mentions the late realist Samuel P. Huntington's thesis on political order in changing societies, to raise concerns about China's near-future macroeconomic growth. He also refers to neorealist Kenneth Waltz's views that nuclear proliferation is inevitable. Huntington and Waltz both represent dominant traditions within international relations theory, and neither are as new or radical as Weisberg seems to portray. The selection and framing of experts is crucial: it would be even more interesting to compare their views with other schools of thought, such as liberal democratic, critical or constructivist theories, which have different deductive premises and levels of analysis. After all, neoconservative fears about Iraq were not just that nuclear weapons acquisition was a defensive action, but also the security orientation of 'Axis of Evil' regimes and their potential connections to non-state actors. Perhaps Weisberg could have checked with a nuclear proliferation specialist such as Graham Allison or Jessica Stern. Equally, a China specialist might convincingly show that Hu Jintao's Chinese government is aware of Huntington's thesis and has plotted a different future trajectory

· Heretics & Mavericks: Weisberg cites Freeman Dyson as a heretic of climate change models, although Dyson's scientific expertise is primarily as a physicist and cosmologist. Other mavericks such as the late Federal Bureau of Investigation counterterrorism expert John O'Neill and United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter were ostracised in organisational politics, whilst economist Nouriel Roubini strengthened his reputation by foreseeing the global financial crisis. Perhaps it's also a matter of luck, timing, and having an effective image makeover.

· Incomplete Deductive Arguments: Weisberg observes that market analysts are re-evaluating house ownership, stock investments and the global competitiveness of car manufacturers. Yet the common assumptions that Weisberg mentions are really incomplete deductive arguments with hidden premises. First, home ownership does not necessarily lead to greater community involvement, and the negative factors mentioned (financial risk, labour market mobility, commute time) are weighted during the purchase decision or emerge later in decision regret. Second, evaluating and comparing the risk premia of bonds versus stocks requires further details on the time horizon, sampling frame, weightings and volatility. Shocks such as the 1973 OPEC oil crisis, the 1995-2000 dotcom bubble, the 1997 Asian currency crisis and the current global financial crisis may affect the comparison of bond and stock returns. Third, although the Detroit Three have cut costs and launched several international joint ventures, their debts and liabilities are partly the result of earlier decisions. Weisberg's argument that these balance sheet issues are the Detroit Three's main barrier is not really new: asset management and private equity firms have targeted them for over two decades in their acquisition, reengineering and turnaround attempts. Perhaps that's why the Obama administration has hired media banker Stephen Rattner.

· Inferences from Small Samples: In his sections on long-run stocks, climate change and fossil fuels Weisberg quotes from a single academic study. Whilst this establishes a challenger hypothesis it also probably means that the sample is too small for inferences that would establish a definitive Kuhnian paradigm shift in a knowledge field. Weisberg would have a more robust argument if he referenced meta-analyses which evaluated a group of studies for their sample size and other effects.

Worth Reading

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The emergent theme: mastery of craft and practitioner awareness as vehicles to engage constructively with inter-group, stochastic processes.

· Nu Testaments: James Parker posits that the high-profile religious conversions of Korn's Brian 'Head' Welch and Reginald 'Fieldy' Arvizu are the flipside of drug abuse and nu-metal touring. Will they appear on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew? Will they join the 25th anniversary tour of Christian heavy metal band Stryper?

· Newsted on Metallica: 'I never looked back': Good advice from the ex-Metallica bassist on how to handle life after leaving a super-team: make an independent course, don't live in the shadows of past successes, and keep the door open for future one-off collaborations. Update: Metallica.com's 3am message and Blabbermouth's coverage of Metallica's Rock And Roll Hall of Fame induction.

· Inside a Hedge Fund Meltdown: Hedge fund trader Victor Niederhoffer gives his side of the story about the Refco transaction that led to his 'blow up' during the 1997 Asian currency crisis. What a difference a few hours could have made . . .

· Impossible Frontiers: Andrew Lo's research sits at the nexus of quantitative finance and practical experience in running a hedge fund, AlphaSimplex. This paper (abstract) co-written with Thomas J. Brennan suggests limitations in the Capital Asset Pricing Model, which determines an appropriate mix of risk and return for a diversified market portfolio, and has implications for funds which rely on short-selling to generate alpha, or investment returns above the market benchmark and vetted for risks.

· Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference 2009: view the keynote panels and read the conference guide.

· Double Standard? CEOs who want a bailout often adopt the rhetoric of Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad's book Competing for the Future (1994): government money is necessary for industry survival. James Surowiecki's 'paired study' of the US auto and banking industries shows why the Obama administration's private equity advisers are pulling the plug: years of firm mismanagement, no profit margins, variable future cash flows, poor liquidity, and international competitiveness.

· Why Your Boss Is Overpaid: Tim Harford's article was an 'aha!' moment on how individual incentives, status hierarchies and infra-group rivalry can sabotage teams. The second 'aha!' moment was to grasp how the Australian Government's recent changes to performance measures in the academic research game are likely informed by tournament theory.

· Henry Rollins' diary entry 29th March 2008: Some very useful advice on patience and the writing craft: 'I know a year and a half sounds like a long time and it is but not when it comes to a book. Trying to write has taught me about patience. I remember many years ago, I was living in NYC and working on Get In The Van. I had come back from practice and went back to work. My chair was a bed and my desk was a steamer trunk with a box on top of it. I was transcribing writing out of a notebook and it hit me that in a year, I would still be working on this same book. There is yet another book project that I will start preparing for second draft raking soon if I can get clear on other projects.'

· Xeper as an Operative Secret: Don Webb's short essay reveals the Temple of Set's initiatory raison d'etre: individual, self-willed becoming. He omits, but has mentioned elsewhere, one powerful psychological framework to achieve this life-orientation (Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi's research on creativity, flow and positive psychology) and a very good fictional example of the method and its potential results (Gully Foyle's transformation in Alfred Bester's The Stars, My Destination).

· Event Arbitrage (HBS 9-208-090, 2007): Outlines a two-day M&A simulation and provides details on the market microstructure, merger announcements and transactions. Also explains how to value a 'negative stub' alternative investment strategy.

· Managing Learning and Knowledge at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) (9-603-062, 2002): Summarises the lessons learnt from the Apollo moon missions, the Space Shuttle program, and the high-profile failure of several satellite missions in the mid-to-late 1990s. NASA's KM and organisational challenges included shifting from a heavyweight, waterfall style of project management to the Faster, Better, Cheaper program; the looming retirement of senior staff with organisational memory, and technology solutions which failed because culture, team, and knowledge transfer issues were not addressed. Details a project management office solution which included a budget line item, intranet/portal development, a debriefing process for decision trees and project failures, and a leadership development program. A major outcome is NASA's Lessons Learned Information System which parallels the US Army's Center for Lessons Learned.

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