May 2010 Archives

For the past five years I've been working on 'draft zero' of a PhD project on counterterrorism, intelligence, and the 'strategic culture' debate within international relations theory and strategic studies.

The project 'flew past me' during a trip to New York City, shortly after the September 11 attacks, and whilst talking with author Howard Bloom, culture maven Richard Metzger, Disinformation publisher Gary Baddeley, and others. An important moment was standing on the roof of Bloom's apartment building in Park Slopes, Brooklyn, and seeing the dust cloud over Ground Zero.

The 'draft zero' is about 240,000 words of exploratory notes, sections, and working notes; about 146,000 of these words are computer text, whilst 80,000 is handwritten (and thus different, and more fragmentary).

In the next couple of weeks, I'll write about the PhD application process, and the project when it gets formally under way, to share insights and 'lessons learned'.

For now, here's a public version of my CV and academic publications track record (PDF).

This is part of the background material prepared for the target university's formal application process. In the publications section, the letter and numbers relate to Australia's Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) coding for the annual, institutional process of Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC); and the 2010 final rankings of peer reviewed journals for the Australian Research Council's (ARC) Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) program. Universities and research institutions in Australia use the ARC, ERA, HERDC and DEEWR codings for bibliometrics, inter-institutional benchmarking, and to inform the strategic formulation, development and review of research investment portfolios.

In November 2009, the Australian cultural policy author Ben Eltham and I published a conference paper and presentation on Twitter's role in Iran's 2009 election crisis. One of our conclusions was that as a social network platform Twitter can be prone to rumours and two dynamics: information cascades (people making the same choices) and rational herds (a form of social learning in which individuals self-organise into groups, usually on the basis of shared affinities, identity or preferences). We cited Christopher Chamley and Mark Schindler's work, whilst Cass Sunstein has written important work on how information cascades and rumours spread.

Collectively, these authors observe the tendency for people to forward and filter information without checking the pertinent facts, evaluating the motives of their source, personalising the 'other', and also not considering the original, appropriate context.

One of the best examples of this phenomenon is the pre-Twitter career of financier and philanthropist Michael Milken (personal site). In the early 1970s, as a young analyst at the leveraged buyout firm Drexel Burnham Lambert, Milken foresaw a new market in high-risk securities that blue-chip investment firms would not touch: high-yield or 'junk' bonds of debt-laden companies. As depicted in Connie Bruck's excellent book The Predator's Ball (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), a source for Adam Curtis' must-see documentary The Mayfair Set (BBC, 1999), Milken became a major driver of the 1980s private equity boom. Despite being implicated in the Ivan Boesky arbitrage case, and being barred for life from the securities industry, Milken has subsequently reinvented himself through the Milken Institute think-tank and other activities.

The power-users of social networks like Facebook and Twitter may joke about gaining 'world domination'. As a self-styled 'Master of the Universe', Milken actually achieved this goal, if only for a brief time. Consider the strategic dimension of how Milken did so. As a true innovator, he foresaw new markets and macroeconomic trends a decade before others did. He developed powerful, financial innovations in debt securitisation, mergers and acquisitions, and risk arbitrage. He built a loyal and private network, together with the organisational capabilities to leverage deal-flow. He also controlled the public dissemination of market information through conferences and media interviews. He understood the subtle power of crafting and framing a media image around themes which appealed emotionally to people --- entrepreneurship, freedom, and being the revolutionary vanguard --- which Curtis argues was really a personal agenda to cement Milken's influence, power and social status. Many of Milken's strategies tapped the dynamics of rumours, information cascades and rational herds, apparent in the 1980s private equity boom.

Perhaps this is why Milken tried (unsuccessfully) to convince Bruck not to publish her book.

"I've privatised world peace!"

In the early first act of Iron Man 2, Industrialist-turned-philanthropist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), the then-CEO of Stark Industries goes on a well-orchestrated charm offensive. He gets on the front cover of Forbes, Rolling Stone, Wired, USA Today, and other major publications. He spars with rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), whose private military contractor Hammer Industries has major problems in getting its prototype weapons systems to market. The exchanges between Stark, Hammer and Senator Stern (Gary Shandling) at a Washington DC news conference are some of the funniest about civil-military relations since Herman Kahn's stand-up comedy in Air Force talks about Cold War nuclear deterrence.

After their Monaco battle, Stark confronts villain Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) in a police holding cell. As a Russian political realist, Vanko will have nothing of Stark's carefully cultivated public image and theatrics. Paraphrased from memory, Vanko tells Stark: "Your family's reputation is built on lies and stealing others' work. You're doing this [charm offensive] because your family has killed many people, and now you feel guilty about it." In other words, the utopian vision of Tony's father Howard Stark --- part World Fair 1939, Walt Disney and Buckminster Fuller in a 16mm demonstration film --- has shaky foundations.

Vanko is cast as the film's villain because he knows Stark Industries' secrets and why the hopeful communitarian vision that Stark promotes has a big dose of personal hypocrisy. Stark says one thing in public and does the opposite in private. Both 'hero' and 'villain' have understandable motivations. The character structure is typical for scriptwriting manuals on Hollywood blockbusters and genre franchises: Hammer playing a comedic, ineffective sub-villain who offsets Stark and Vanko, whilst Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow and Lt. Col James 'Rhodey' Rhodes (Don Cheadle) are Stark's allies. Vanko's Cold War back-story could have put Iron Man 2 on the same level of villain genesis as the X-Men (2000) prologue.

Some reviewers feel that Iron Man 2's second act is too low-key. For me, it involved character development over breathless action scenes: director Jon Favreau introduced 5 or 6 major characters, including Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) of Shield. In retrospect, Iron Man 2 will be viewed as both a franchise sequel, and as a transition film in the broader Marvel Universe, which leads into Kenneth Branagh's Thor (2011) and Joss Whedon's The Avengers (2012).
As a young student journalist in 1994, I was given the opportunity to interview the Australian artist Vali Myers. We talked about her life in New York, and at a wildlife sanctuary in Il Porto, Italy. "The Sicilian dons treated me better than the New York City art dealers who tried to rip my work off as cheap postcards," she explained. A true witch, Myers encountered the authentic Sicilian Mafiosi. In contrast, most of us live with a third-hand cultural stereotype: Mario Puzo's Godfather novel and Francis Ford Coppola's film trilogy, which has shaped our understanding of loyalty, honour, and inter-group conflict.

The word 'loyalty' is traced to the Old English word treoth or Troth, which means 'truth' or 'pledged faithfulness'. I first encountered Troth in the Gurdjieff Work and then in writings of American runologist Dr. Stephen Edred Flowers, who has observed that this is the Northern, Germanic equivalent of Puzo and Coppola's ideal. Loyalty thus has a far deeper and richer context than popular stereotypes may portray, and has deep Indo-European roots.

Flowers makes several points about Troth in the context of a Traditionalist discussion. What follows is a personal interpretation, so go to the original sources. Flowers contends that the quality of Troth that guides personal conduct is often missing in contemporary civilisation, in that many activities can involve subtler forms of lying. In part, the Traditionalist critique observes that 'outer seeming' can become estranged from 'inner being'.

Troth also suggests a type of knowledge, sense-making and perspective: the ability to discern truth from falsehood, out-of-context quoting and disinformation. Finally, Troth is observable --- in people's conduct, how their networks evolve over time, in their work or artifacts of their inner states, and in why people make decisions, not just the surface-level effects or what other people infer.

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