17th October 2010: Education of a President

Today’s reading: Peter Baker’s New York Times profile of President Barack Obama including photos and an interview excerpt. A nice birthday shot of National Security Council senior director and author Samantha Power. Baker’s interview techniques include a Dickensian timeline approach: getting the ‘present’ Obama to revisit a ‘younger’ self with lessons. Obama concludes on campaigning, policies and timing: “I start slow, but I finish strong.”

Refining the PhD chapter structure and sub-points. 474 pages of typed notes to sort through. 210 pages of handwritten notes. Revisiting Patrick Porter‘s work on strategic culture. There’s enough for several projects here, and for academic papers.

Tim Mansfield has just ‘tweeted’ that chaos theoretician and fractals discoverer Benoit Mandelbrot has passed away. Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s page simply states: “A Greek among Romans.” Mandelbrot’s philosophy — along with Taleb, Edward Lorenz, Douglas Hofstadter, and Alain Badiou — has impacted my personal life. Glimpses appear throughout some of my mid-to-late 1990s journalism and individuation work prior to joining the news/subculture site Disinformation, and during Masters studies. I later found people are either skeptical or receptive to Mandelbrot and Lorenz’s ideas; or understand them illustratively rather than how their principles may be applied in contemporary, everyday life. Perhaps I should have gone mid-2005 into innovations in financial engineering and created some futures, options and swaps with non-Gaussian conditions (Kevin Davis PDF).

16th October 2010: FV Compounding

Playing Jack Wheeler’s lectures on Corporate Finance for Healthcare Administrators, on present value (PV), future value (FV), and compounding formulas.

Newly minted Professors Terry Flew (QUT) and Ken Wark (The New School), and others are debating Graeme Turner’s Australian article on the ‘scorched earth’ experience of humanities academics at regional universities. Two thoughts:

(1) University administrators compare publication points from full-time teaching staff versus institute-based researchers. This leads to resource allocation concerns.  Institutes are often established around a research team, demonstrable expertise, or as a strategic goal. Do the administrative, operational burdens and financing costs of an institute structure deliver on the KPIs? In other words, is this the best structure — organisationally — and investment vehicle to achieve the KPIs and strategic goals? Often not: this means the institute structure is ‘rolled back’ into a university faculty or program. The projected FV benefits do not arise, compared with other PV options, or ways to undertake the same activities in a more effective and efficient manner.

(2) Danny Butt observes that many US universities have extensive alumni networks and private equity endowments. My experience at several universities is that this fund-raising and ‘rainmaking’ is a gap, and institutions vary in their solutions: professor-driven industry collaboration, chancellor-led bequests, ‘named’ foundations, and alumni departments modelled on commercial fund-raising. FV is possible and requires PV investment in the annual budget cycle, and then sales-driven results: “Always be closing.”

The challenge for new academics: developing an individual ‘program of research that can lead ‘iteratively’ to ‘targeted’ publications, collaborative teams, and funding (university, industry, grant-making agencies, or self-funding), despite what local conditions are faced. This requires focus, timing, patience, and the ability to adopt a stance that musician and producer Robert Fripp calls a “small, mobile, intelligent unit.” Awareness of patronage networks: read Yamamoto Tsunetomo‘s Bushido commentary Hagakure.

There’s hope of a different kind of FV pay-off: congrats to coauthor Ben Eltham and his wife SJ on the arrival of their daughter Eurydice.

8th October 2010: Weekend Viewing

Charles Ferguson has created an informative, well designed site for his global financial crisis documentary Inside Job (2010) that includes a glossary, list of non-interviewees, and background research material. IMDB has several clips here. Ferguson’s previous documentary No End In Sight (2007) on Iraq is also excellent. Ferguson’s career trajectory from researcher to documentary film-maker echoes that of international relations theorist James Der Derian and ‘action foresight’ proponent Jose M. Ramos.

The New Yorker‘s annual ‘Money’ issue (11th October 2010): Steve Coll, Nora Ephron, Malcolm Gladwell, John Seabrook, James Surowiecki, and others (subscription required).

The Orb and David Gilmour‘s album Metallic Spheres (2010): Pitchfork’s review tweaked my interest . . .

6th October 2010: Société Générale v Jérôme Kerviel Revisted

A French court has ruled that Jérôme Kerviel has to pay €49 billion in restitution to Société Générale (New York Times coverage here).

Bloomberg covered the ruling live and its camera cut back-and-forth between experts and the waiting camera crew. Experts discussed the media’s ‘rogue trader’ narrative and how Kerviel compared to Bernie Madoff (PBS Frontline special) and to Nick Leeson (my analysis two years ago here). They suggested the court ruling had a political dimension designed to shield French banks.

Academics will use this ruling to write several journal articles: (1) how the ‘rogue trader’ narrative has become a journalistic short-cut with on-call experts and trading room anecdotes, rather than indepth analysis about the governance problems at financial institutions; (2) a comparative analysis of cases, including the cohort effects of placing Kerviel amidst Madoff and Leeson; and (3) a critique of why Kerviel is singled out yet Société Générale’s senior management avoids criticism over trading room incentives that influence unethical behaviour.

For case studies read John Marthinsen’s Risk Takers (2nd ed) (Pearson/Prentice Hall, Boston, 2009) on the misuse of financial derivatives in trading, and the failure of organisational risk management systems. Thomas Kaplan has compiled a New York Times gallery of rogue traders.

5th October 2010: Malcolm Gladwell on Social Network Activism

A year ago cultural policy researcher Ben Eltham and I delivered a conference paper (PDF) and presentation (PDF) on divergent views of Twitter’s role in Iran’s 2009 elections. The paper’s comparative approach and mention of United States diplomacy and psychology operations policies caused a furore in the peer review process. The paper later became our most downloaded, read, debated and cited paper yet.

Malcolm Gladwell enters the fray in a New Yorker piece about activism and social networks:

A few months after that, when student protests rocked Tehran, the State Department took the unusual step of asking Twitter to suspend scheduled maintenance of its Web site, because the Administration didn’t want such a critical organizing tool out of service at the height of the demonstrations. “Without Twitter the people of Iran would not have felt empowered and confident to stand up for freedom and democracy,” Mark Pfeifle, a former national-security adviser, later wrote, calling for Twitter to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Our paper’s view was slightly more nuanced and tried to offer multiple perspectives. Twitter’s market valuation and public visibility soared because of event-driven stories like Iran’s elections and the social network’s ‘net responder’ role during California and Victoria’s 2009 fires. Its self-organising capability and viral nature enabled Western activists, international non-government organisations, and media to monitor Iran’s elections. However, those same features enabled Iran’s Basij paramilitary to hunt down protestors during the uncertainty about the election’s outcome. Twitter’s social network platform also fulfilled what neoconservative strategists had been looking for since at least late 1998 and publicly since 2000: a ‘next generation’ replacement for radio and satellite television broadcasts into Iran, usually from a Los Angeles-based diaspora to Tehran students.

Gladwell updates our paper’s findings:

In the Iranian case, meanwhile, the people tweeting about the demonstrations were almost all in the West. “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right,” Golnaz Esfandiari wrote, this past summer, in Foreign Policy. “Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.” The cadre of prominent bloggers, like Andrew Sullivan, who championed the role of social media in Iran, Esfandiari continued, misunderstood the situation. “Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”
One of the problems Gladwell notes is that Web 2.0 innovation exponents like Clay Shirky can get too close to their own ideas: ‘weak-tie’ networks rely on a cascade that can create its own problems. Another is that the 1960s civil rights movement mode of activism relies on ‘strong tie’ networks: people with resilient, strong, personal friendships who are willing to face danger. Gladwell’s insight is echoed in civil rights documentaries like Robert Drew’s Crisis: Behind A Presidential Commitment (1963) about Alabama Governor George Wallace’s confrontation with President John F. Kennedy over the enrolment of two black college students, Vivian Malone and James Hood. Contemporary researchers like Jose M. Ramos have found a similar gulf between ‘strong tie’ activism’ that is ‘in the flesh’ and ‘weak tie’ activism that pervades online social networks. Gladwell also makes some interesting comparisons between the vulnerable ‘network logic’ of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Al Qaeda, and the hierarchical, intergenerational violence of Germany’s Red Army Faction. Has he read Jeremy Varon’s recent history Bringing The War Home (University of Californa Press, Los Angeles, 2004)?

Eltham gave our paper a melancholic, realist conclusion: for all the #IranElection tweets, the Basij targeted, arrested and killed real people.

4th October 2010: The Girl Who Played With Fire (2010)

Low-key. Understated. Television series episode.

The critics’ consensus: Daniel Alfredson’s second film of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy lacks the visceral dynamism of Niels Arden Oplev’s Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009). Oplev’s film introduced non-readers to Larsson’s alter egos –  bisexual hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and Millennium investigative journalist Mikael Blomvist (Michael Nyqvist). Their collaboration evoked off-the-shelf parallels with past heroes and franchises; and their fusion of cryptography, digital image processing and archival research neatly fits the ‘self-image’ of techno-savvy ‘convergent’ journalism now taught in many university media programs. Fire doesn’t have the revelatory three act structure, and by filling in Salander’s backstory Alfredson destroys some of Larsson’s mystery.

There’s a good reason for this and why ‘convergent’ journalism students should watch Fire. Preferably twice.

Fire has two dominant themes: (1) facing a dark personal past; and (2) the ethical consequences of journalist and editor decisions on freelancers, researchers and story sources. The first narrative arc spans Salander’s renewed friendship with Miriam Wu (Yasmine Garbi), her encounters with lawyer-guardian-rapist Nils Bjurman (Peter Andersson) and enforcer/hitman Ronald Niedermann (Micke Spreitz), and her decision to confront the shadowy entrepreneur Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov). The second narrative arc unfolds when Blomvist, editor Erika Berger (Lena Endre) and Millennium‘s editorial team decide to publish a sex trafficking article by freelancer Dag Svensson (Hans Christian Thulin) that may implicate Swedish politicians and social elites including Bjurman. Svensson’s background sources include his girlfriend (Mia Johansson) who has just completed a PhD in gender and women’s studies. The two narrative arcs begin to intertwine when Svensson, his girlfriend and Bjurman are murdered and Stockholm police chief Jan Bublanski (Johan Kylen) investigates Salander as the ‘lead’ suspect.

Alfredson and scriptwriter Jonas Frykberg fill this police procedural with small, telling details about the joys and perils of investigative research. Svensson’s girlfriend celebrates the completion and publication of her PhD in tones that All But Dissertation candidates and ‘PhD widows’ will appreciate. Her discussion with Svensson about her research design, questionnaires and source protection strategies are the kinds of conversations that occur in university committees on human research ethics. Notre Dame’s Carolyn Nordstrom, Columbia’s Ray Fisman, and Berkeley’s Edward Miguel illustrate how such research is undertaken using inference and mosaic theory, such as Fisman and Miguel’s use of diplomats’ parking tickets to analyse patterns of political corruption (PDF). Sometimes those moments of H.P. Lovecraft-like revelation come in quiet, mundane settings such as during data collection or in a university library.

Fire moves slowly because even if the network’s outlines are known it’s the causal links, rigour of investigative methods, and the quality of evidence that is crucial to a successful prosecution and shutdown. The dilemmas that Millennium‘s editorial team face after their deaths — the ‘decision to publish’ and how to do so — are very real, as is their step-by-step process of using social network analysis to map a covert trafficking network. Blomvist’s ‘deep background’ interview with Gunnar Bjork (Ralph Carlsson) about Salander’s childhood abuse and the machinations of the Russian GRU intelligence agency — all strictly ‘off the record’ — reflects the investigative techniques of journalists such as Seymour Hersh, Lawrence Wright and Steve Coll. As Blomvist understands, ‘classified’ information can remain secret because its disclosure would reveal governance failures in the intelligence agencies and security police, and would upset the bureaucratic power dynamics. (Or reveal plot points cribbed from antipsychiatrist Thomas Szasz.) Lisbeth’s journey to confront Zalachenko likewise involves Cold War spying tactics: dead drops, disguise, evasion, surveillance, investment funds, and front companies. This tradecraft isn’t usually taught in ‘convergent’ journalism courses and yet it’s what is needed to uncover what Peter Dale Scott calls the ‘deep politics’ of systemic corruption. It’s found in documentary films rather than blogs: Jose Padilha and Felipe Lacerda’s Bus 174 (2002) in which the backstory to a Brazilian bus shooting reveals poverty, prison violence, and death squads; or the closing minutes of an interview with a Russian pilot about the cargo’s identity and purpose in Hubert Sauper‘s devastating Darwin’s Nightmare (2004).

“I should have done this a long time ago,” Salander demurs, as she leaves Wu’s hospital bed to find Zalachenko. “They’re chasing the wrong lead,” Blomvist exclaims frustratedly, to Berger and Bublanski. With these reflections, Blomvist and Salander struggle to find a way out of their personal labyrinths. If Blomvist had cooperated with Bublanksi and Stockholm’s police, would Salander’s fate have differed? For those who know real-life cases the solace may lie in a haunting, single line email that Salander sends to Blomvist: “Thankyou for being a friend.”