20th February 2012: Wall Street Afterlives

William D. Cohan‘s reportage is insightful about Wall Street culture and transactions. Cohan’s latest Financial Times piece fuses elegaic reflections on his career and interviews with former Masters of the Universe. On his personal experience:

I know these feelings of dislocation, shame and inadequacy intimately. After a 17-year career on Wall Street – where I rose to be head of the highly regarded media and telecoms M&A business at JPMorgan Chase before being slowly stripped of my responsibilities after September 11 – the bank dismissed me in January 2004 as part of an ongoing “reduction in force”. Despite two graduate degrees from an Ivy League university and years of exponentially increasing remuneration, I was left in the unenviable position of caring for a wife and two small children with no hope of finding anything like the work I had been doing at the pay I had been receiving. In the months after my firing, nasty nightmares often startled me awake. Out of desperation and a lingering desire to fulfil my original dream to be a journalist, I began writing my first book – The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of Lazard Frères & Co.


Cohan cites Bloomberg data that 200,000 Wall Street people lost their jobs in 2011. The majority were in back-office positions (that have been outsourced), and 40,000 were in trading and transaction roles. Cohan profiles former managing directors who joined boutique firms; IPO specialists who pursued their religious faith; and investment bankers who fell from grace. Many of Cohan’s interviewees refused to go on the record with comments for fear of damaging their job prospects.


Cohan’s article is a powerful corrective to the image of Wall Street that MBA presentations and trading books portray.

19th February 2012: Ending American Interventionism?



Foreign Policy‘s James Traub argues in a New York Times op-ed:


Whatever policy the Obama administration or its successor adopts toward China, the broader East Asian region, unlike the Middle East, is filled with stable, and largely democratic, states. The United States does not have to defend liberty and justice there. Regime change, democracy promotion and nation-building will be off the table. So, for that matter, will war.


Traub traces this trend through the Clinton administration’s humanitarian interventions in the Balkans and the Bush administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The new Wilsonism of this period is now in decline, due to domestic and budget austerity pressures, Traub argues. The United States will rely on a range of grand strategic instruments — diplomatic, economic, informational — rather than just military force projection.


Traub’s view contrasts with National Interest‘s Nikolas Gvosdev and Ray Takeyh, who believe the new Wilsonism is on the rise. In their view, the Obama administration has simply changed its declarative reasons for intervening in Libya (but not in Syria or Bahrain).


Expect this debate to unfold — along with a parallel debate on the extent and scope of United States decline — as the 2012 election year continues . . .


Photo: youngadultscrisishotline/Flickr.

18th February 2012: Human Capital & Superstar Economics

We Are All Witnesses (Nike)


Crikey‘s Ben Eltham has caused a debate with his insightful analysis on Michael Brand, the new director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales:


The sheer amount of money washing around global art markets helps us to understand how a gallery director such as Brand can be worth nearly half a million dollars a year. There is in fact an international market for top curators, many of which can all expect to earn comfortably more than the rates Australian galleries pay.


Eltham and I did a similar analysis in 2010 of Australia’s film industry. Successful fund managers also have a similar dynamic due to the 2 and 20 norm: 2% of total asset value (management fee) and 20% of any profits.


I read Eltham’s analysis the same day as sections of the late Fischer Black‘s book Exploring General Equilibrium (Boston: MIT Press, 2010). Two relevant sections stood out immediately on human capital:


What is special about human capital is that people mostly own their own human capital, with all of its specific risks. They could diversify or hedge out some of these risks by trading in shares of physical capital, but as Baxter and Jermann (1993) note, they generally don’t. (p. 69).


The normal career path involves many job changes — some within a single firm, and some between firms . . . Careers advance faster in good times than in bad, as investments in human capital, particularly through learning by doing, pay off. (p. 102).


Black’s macroeconomic analysis provides some context for Eltham’s critique of Brand’s salary. In two paragraphs, Eltham summarises Brand’s “first-class academic credentials” and “stellar career path.” Brand’s career advanced quickly because he made a series of excellent choices about selecting and delivering on projects, changing galleries, and building a significant body of exhibition work. In doing so, Brand diversified his human capital in a similar fashion to the professors I know who have changed universities in order to get promoted.


For Eltham, global art markets provide the context for “a top international director like Brand” to command a premium. The reason, Black suggested, was that “Uncertainty in both tastes and technology makes investments risky, and gives us a frontier of choices among different combinations of expected payoff and risk” (p. 126). The Art Gallery of New South Wales is willing to pay Brand a premium to lock-in his expertise and make the optimal choices for future art exhibitions.


Brand’s situation contrasts with university academics who lack the benefits of superstar economics. Academic contracts are defined by a university’s minimum standards for academic levels (MSALs) and by promotion committees. Academics rarely have control of their intellectual property or a share in future revenues from their work: they are forced to assign these rights to global publishing conglomerates. The market for competitive grants is a government-controlled oligopoly that requires a substantive publication track record. Academics who don’t build this cannot hedge their own human capital risk (or exposure to disruptive innovations). Collectively, these conditions place a cap on academic contracts in contrast to Brand and fund managers. The exception is professors who gain in a ‘winner-takes-all’ environment whilst their colleagues are on short-term contracts.


Things may change if International Creative Management, Creative Artists Agency or WME work out how to extract greater value in human capital from academic superstars.

18th February 2012: Design Patterns & Counter-Terrorism Studies

Design Patterns


UX designer Barry Saunders writes:


It occurred to me that unless you’re maintaining a massive software project or training new designers, maintaining a pattern library and keeping track of copious UX design resources is often just busywork. That material is more useful when it’s in your subconscious, not in your documents folder.


I first encountered the design patterns literature in 2006 whilst researching agile software development for the Smart Internet Technology CRC. Some of this work informed an internally circulated analysis (PDF) of Clayton Christensen‘s disruptive innovation framework. I did Scrum training, interviewed a few experts, and read Christopher Alexander, Gregory Bateson, and Ward Cunningham on pattern languages. The CRC never published any of this work.


At the time, I was thinking about doing a PhD in counter-terrorism studies at Monash University. I had an initial chat with Pete Lentini about using pattern languages to model the common strategies in the counter-terrorism literature. I could see how the design patterns could be reused in teaching and intelligence analysis. I spent part of 2007-08 identifying about 60 patterns in the literature (sample patterns: backchannel; deep politics; forbidden knowledge; private universe; Tower of Babel); writing a design patterns template for a repository; and wrote a ‘draft zero’ of 152,000 words (a loose, fragmented collection of notes).


It soon dawned on me that this was potentially a massive project with loads of reading and a repository that itself would be the length of a normal PhD dissertation. I shelved the patterns repository project in 2010 and re-scoped the PhD around strategic culture (proposal PDF). I might revisit the project once I have early career researcher status.

18th February 2012: Tim Weiner’s FBI Book

Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner (Penguin)


Legacy of Ashes author Tim Weiner has a new book out: Enemies: A History of the FBI (New York: Penguin USA, 2012). Weiner’s research fits a critical tradition of intelligence studies, and also the ‘journalists as investigators’ model that Barry Saunders and I wrote about in a 2009 conference paper. For me, the academic challenge is: when do I get the time to immerse myself in Weiner’s reportage?

17th February 2012: Academic Entrepreneurs & Intellectual Property

The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeven recently started an important debate about academic blogging in the Australian community of international relations (IR) academics. It raises issues about communicating IR and national security knowledge to a broader audience. Roggeven’s post attracted responses from Professor Nick Bisley (La Trobe University), Dr. Nicholas Farrelly (Australian National University), and myself. In an overview, Roggeven also mentioned the role of intellectual property in either fencing off or facilitating the dissemination of academic research. A response to several points that these authors raise:


1. The academic entrepreneur may be an empowering self-image. Benjamin Cohen suggests in International Political Economy: An Intellectual History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) that those who conceptualised IPE in the 1970s were intellectual entrepreneurs. Lisa Stampnitzky‘s influential 2008 PhD on counter-terrorism studies (PDF) juxtaposes the efforts of core academics, think-tank pundits and journalists as idea entrepreneurs. Richard Slaughter, Sohail Inayatullah, and others played similar roles in the formation of academic futures studies and strategic foresight. At its extreme are former academics like David E. Shaw and Jim Simons who left academia to fund ultra-secretive quantitative hedge funds. The mid-ground is held by academics like Clayton Christensen, Andrew Lo and Robert Shiller who separate their basic research from commercially-oriented applied research and institutional vehicles.


2. Universities and the higher education sector face disruptive innovations. This point came up in a Twitter exchange I had with Ken Wark. Canadian academic David Robinson emphasised the death of universities in New Matilda. Nick Bisley mentions several factors: aging demographics, small numbers, avoidance of “semi-digested thought bubbles”, time, and research incentives which emphasise peer reviewed journal articles over other contributions. I see all of these factors on a daily basis as a research administrator who teaching staff confide in. The Golden Age for professors that Robinson yearns for does not exist for the mid-level or early career academic who is on a casual or short-term contract. I see people trapped in poorly working administrative systems and broken processes that a Six Sigma consultant would reengineer.  Today’s undergraduate students have grown up in a world where the corporate ideals are firms like Apple and Google, whereas many universities are closer to a Yes Minister public service. In this environment, academic blogging is embraced by a minority — usually digital media academics — who see it and social media platforms as a creative tool for self-liberation.


3. Open publishing can enhance peer review processes. Nicholas Farrelly and co-author Andrew Walker extol the power of public blogging to improve the quality of academic research and to create feedback loops with different audiences. Blogging can do so, under specific conditions. Peer review depends on the field, its norms, the specific academic journal, the editorial panel, and the developmental awareness of the reviewers. Unfortunately, the one-way nature of blind peer review in the Australian Research Council competitive grants process and in many journals can lead reviewers to write nasty, brutish, short feedback. This dynamic often disappears when the reviewers’ identities are known to all parties or where the authors have a rejoinder process to clarify the feedback. Blog publishing platforms are perfect for this — but research incentives, metrics and journals prevent the public circulation of drafts for comment outside a conference, seminar, or peer group. An academic with a personal webpage in 1998 had more freedom than an academic does today: publishers have serious restrictions on public dissemination that didn’t exist a decade ago. Institutional repositories are a positive development.


4. Bloggers often have to fight to do academic blogging. In 2003-07, I was a senior researcher at Swinburne University in the Smart Internet Technology CRC. Its brief was to explore the internet’s possibilities – but this didn’t extend to research management or to how it published its own research. The work I did had to navigate institutional capture and commercial embargoes. At the same time, at night I edited the US-based alternative news website Disinformation: we daily published stories and an email newsletter, and I got immediate feedback from readers. “We own you,” was the CRC’s response. Towards the end of my CRC contract, I convinced the CRC to let me write a daily, public blog about relevant news items, trends and developments. It lasted about six weeks before I left: I wrote more timely and public information than the CRC had published of my research in the previous year. Bisley’s “semi-digested thought bubbles” can have more relevance in a climate of time-based competition. Blogging — like regular writing — is not about scarcity and can help you to self-reflect and to write more productively. It’s closer to being a like a good DVD extra or director’s commentary than a finished motion picture film: it can give insight into the creative process and inspire dialogue with others. Apart from writing a PhD, I already have enough journal article ideas for the next four years.


5. Academics need to know — but often don’t — about intellectual property. Sam Roggeven raises the role of intellectual property (IP). In reality, most academics face a ‘stacked deck’ about IP. Teaching staff face complex workload models that are calculated retrospectively, to gain research time. International publishers usually demand that the IP be assigned to them for academics’ journal articles (unless they advocate open publishing).  The articles are needed for competitive grants and for convincing promotions committees about your research track record. Getting research incentive money for published articles depends on knowing how the institutional system works, on your Faculty’s policy, and whether or not you have a full-time academic contract. Some academics try to play the system: ancillary income via consulting and speakers bureaus; publishing in obscure conferences; or going to academic conferences that are really junkets. Research administrators can spot these strategies from looking at the data. Many academics have no idea about how to translate their research into an entrepreneurial venture. This frustrates the IP specialists, lawyers, and research administrators that I know. Areas that have a more laissez-faire approach to IP — like digital media — are more likely to embrace academic blogging. Despite these challenges, it’s possible to still blog about your initial ideas and the writing process, and to craft the insights for a good academic journal. A blog also gives you the visibility for academic citations and helps to build the international research networks needed to advance your career.

17th February 2012: Mediascapes, Conscientisation and Personal Foresight

Several months ago Dr. Jose M. Ramos called for contributions to a special issue of the Journal of Futures Studies on media and futures studies.


I wrote a paper – Mediascapes, Conscientisation, and Personal Foresight (PDF) – rejected by both Futures (Elsevier) and JFS. I had three goals: (1) respond to the debate about mediascapes and futures work; (2) reflect on personal ‘shaping’ experiences in the media that have also contributed to foresight practitioner work; and (3) contribute to theory-building on conscientisation and foresight. The paper contained personal details about my editorial stint with Disinformation and other stuff I rarely talk publicly about.


Futures felt the paper belonged in a digital culture journal. JFS reviewer one wrote: “This is a rambling, overly detailed resume/autobiography. In my judgement it is not a JFS article.  It is poorly written, does not define key terms.” JFS reviewer two wrote: “Although this is quite an interesting read it does not belong in an academic Futures journal.  Firstly, it has little directly Futures content, any connections being limited to quoting a few authors in the field.  Secondly, it is little more than a personal journey, or to be less charitable an ego-trip.”


Whilst I take both reviewers’ comments on-board, they minimised the article’s second goal (auto-ethnographic reflections as a criterion to develop personal foresight). Both reviewers engage in self-policing the field’s boundaries and journal content (an important editorial function – but one where authors and reviewers may have different mental models). Problems like defining key terms can often be solved with a single sentence or two. Both reviewers overlooked the deep connection posited between futures and conscientisation frameworks. I hope others can extract some value from the article: I have other material to write. The experience informed these suggestions on how to handle article rejections.

16th February 2012: Academic Blogging

fred and academic blogging


The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen contends that Australian academics would benefit from blogging their research (in response to The Australian‘s Stephen Matchett on public policy academics).


I see this debate from several perspectives. In a former life I edited the US-based alternative news site Disinformation (see the 1998-2002 archives). I also work at Victoria University as a research administrator. I’ve blogged in various forums since 2003 (such as an old LiveJournal blog). In contrast, my PhD committee in Monash’s School of Political and Social Inquiry are more likely to talk about book projects, journal articles, and media interviews.


As Roggeveen notes, a major uptake barrier is the structure of institutional research incentives. The Australian Research Council’s Excellence for Research in Australia (ERA) initiative emphasises blind peer reviewed journal articles over other forms. Online blogging is not included as an assessable category of research outputs although it might fit under ‘original creative works’. Nor is blogging included in a university’s annual Higher Education Research Data Collection (HERDC) outputs. University incentives for research closely follow ERA and HERDC guidelines. The ARC’s approach is conservative (in my view) and focuses on bibliometrics.


I know very few academics who blog. Many academics are not ‘intrinsic’ writers and are unused to dealing with developmental editors and journals. University websites often do not have blog publishing systems and I’ve seen several failed attempts to do so. Younger academics who might blog or who do use social media are often on casual or short-term contracts. The ones who do blog like Ben Eltham have a journalism background, are policy-focused, and are self-branded academic entrepreneurs.


Roggeveen is correct that blogging can potentially benefit academics — if approached in a mindful way. I met people like Richard Metzger and Howard Bloom during my publishing stint. I am regularly confused with QUT social media maven Axel Bruns — and we can now easily clarify potential queries. Blogging has helped me to keep abreast of sub-field developments; to build networks; to draft ideas for potential journal articles and my PhD on strategic culture; and has influenced the academic citations of my work and downloads from institutional repositories.


Problem is, HERDC or ERA have no scope for soft measures or ‘tacit’ knowledge creation — so blogging won’t count to many universities.


That Roggeveen needs to make this point at all highlights how much the internet has shifted from its original purpose to become an online marketing environment. Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal HyperText and CERN (1989) envisioned the nascent internet as a space for collaborative academic research. The internet I first encountered in 1993-94 had Gopher and .alt newsgroups, and later, web-pages by individual academics. Regularly visited example for PhD research: University of Notre Dame’s political scientist Michael C. Desch and his collection of easily accessible publications.  It’s a long way from that free environment to today’s “unlocking academic expertise” with The Conversation.


Photo: davidsilver/Flickr.

16th February 2012: Ari Kiev & Trading Psychology


I’ve been reading the late trading and sports psychiatrist Ari Kiev during my daily work commute. Kiev achieved influence in the 199os through a series of books for Wiley Finance on stress and trading psychology, and work for SAC Global Investors LLP. You can read an example of his insights here. But I didn’t know of Kiev’ early work on depression and suicide prevention. Above is the first of an 8-part seminar on Kiev’s trading insights.