15th September 2012: What I’m Reading

What I’m reading this weekend:

 

Evgeny Morozov on The Naked and the TED (The New Republic). The Khannas’ use of Technik comes from Oswald Spengler’s Man & Technics (1931) which I read as an undergraduate. Morozov is scathing about populist futures consulting and writing in a way that resonates with strategic foresight colleagues and that recalls Mark Dery’s writings for 21C and other publications. I read Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970) in the office of Newcastle’s This Is Not Art festival.

 

Situational Awareness (Ritholtz). Money manager Barry Ritholtz makes some excellent points about how to prioritise daily work and to cut through the noise and unimportant/non-urgent tasks.

 

Anatomy of a Campus Coup (New York Times). Andrew Rice’s profile of the University of Virginia crisis involving president Teresa Sullivan is a glimpse of the Machiavellian politics and patronage systems that university administrators work in, daily. The role of trader Paul Tudor Jones and disruptive innovation proponent Clayton Christensen are a harbinger of what is to come in higher education. The “high-finance mentality” of private equity and hedge funds is reshaping university boards and driving cost reduction initiatives.

 

How Michael Jackson Made Bad (The Atlantic Monthly). Joseph Vogel analyses the media backlash and record industry politics that led Jackson to experiment with technological innovation. “Study the greats, and become greater.”

 

Who Wants To Be A Billionaire? (Vanity Fair). The inside track to the startup incubator Y-Combinator and its opportunity evaluation and venture capital screening processes.

 

Obama’s Way (Vanity Fair). Michael Lewis’s profile combines his interviewing and narrative gifts with some shrewd insights worthy of Richard Neustadt about the decision-making challenges and processes of the executive branch.

 

Your Brain on Pseudo-Science (New Statesman). Coauthor Ben Eltham alerted me to Steven Poole critique of “junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry” including popularisers like Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer. Poole’s targets include popular writers and publishing marketing. Poole is on the mark about how to write a genre bestseller. There’s actually a deeper history here about what happens when pseudo-scientific methods diffuse from their original context into sales, marketing, and self-improvement arenas. For instance, neurolinguistic programming (NLP) was originally developed by Richard Bandler and John Grinder as a methodology to model human excellence: “embedded commands” came from their study of Milton H. Erickson’s clinical hypnotherapy. Go back to the original research and run your own experiments.

31st July 2012: Jonah Lehrer’s Resignation

Imagine author Jonah Lehrer has resigned from The New Yorker  over fabricated Bob Dylan quotes:

 

The discovery of the fabricated quotes came only weeks after Lehrer apologized last month for recycling some of his previous work—sometimes nearly verbatim—in his other work, including articles and blog posts.

 

Lehrer’s publisher has already pulled Imagine‘s print edition from Amazon.com.

 

This is a problem of writing Malcolm Gladwell-style populist books: the ‘rush to publish’ and to get on the consulting and seminar circuit can derail research and fact-checking processes (and, despite positive reviews). This is one reason why I prefer authors like Steve Coll and William D. Cohan who each have a strong research process. A recent example is David Crist’s book The Twilight War on the United States-Iran relationship: Crist did over 300 interviews for the book. Interestingly, Lehrer originally wanted to become a scientist.

26th June 2012: How and When To Blog For Academics

Monash colleague and fellow PhD student Andrew Zammit tweeted me about this Felix Salmon piece on Jonah Lehrer, blogging, and self-plagiarism:

 

Firstly, think of it as reading, rather than writing. Lehrer is a wide-ranging polymath: he is sent, and stumbles across, all manner of interesting things every day. Right now, I suspect, he files those things away somewhere and wonders whether one day he might be able to use them for another Big Idea piece. Make the blog the place where you file them away. Those posts can be much shorter than the things Lehrer’s writing right now: basically, just an excited “hey look at this”, with maybe a short description of why it’s interesting. It’s OK if the meat of what you’re blogging is elsewhere, rather than on your own blog. In fact, that’s kind of the whole point.

Secondly, use links as shorthand. Kouwe and Lehrer were both brought down by the fact that they felt the need to re-write what had already been written elsewhere. On the web, you never need to do that. If you or someone else has already written something well, just link to that, rather than feeling the need to repeat it.

Thirdly, use the blog to interact with your peers, rather than just primary sources. There are hundreds of great science and ideas blogs out there already; start reading them, and be generous about linking to them. Your readers will thank you. When you see an article you wish you’d written, link to it and say so. When someone finds a fantastic paper and writes it up in a slightly incomplete way, credit them with the great find, and then fill in the blanks. When two or three people are all talking about the same thing, sum up what the debate is, and explain where you stand.

Fourthly, iterate. Lehrer is a big-name journalist at a major publication: when he writes stuff, people respond, often on their own blogs, and often with very keen intelligence. Link to those people, learn from them, converse with them via the medium of blog, and use that collaboration and conversation to hone and further develop your own ideas. Treat every blog post as the beginning of a process, rather than as the end of one.

 

I’ve previously argued that today’s academics should blog. My reasons why mirror Salmon’s observations:

 

1. Blog to capture initial ‘seed’ ideas. Some academics struggle to get ideas for journal articles. They may follow the route of turning old conference papers into articles or relying on old data-sets. In contrast, I have enough article ideas for the next five years. I looked over unreleased material from the past 10 years and found possible ideas for 80-100 potential articles in various fields: media, foresight, counterterrorism, and technology. In some cases, I have fragments and outlines of these potential articles. In other cases, my online work dwarfs the number of published articles I have. Blogging regularly provides a way to capture these initial ‘seed’ ideas and to see over time whether or not they are worthy enough to become articles or if they just remain fragments. It provides a way to test and play with ideas that can be discarded quickly. Try and ‘fail fast’. It allows further thought than the 140 characters of a Twitter tweet. I sometimes have to remind people that Sir Tim Berners-Lee envisioned the World Wide Web as a communications medium for researchers to share information and not just to share Facebook posts.

 

Some academics have two counter-arguments that are relevant. First, blogging wastes valuable writing time and has little impact. Second, blogging usually involves half-formed or fragmentary ideas. I argue below that blogging helps academics to write more and can have specific impacts that are not yet measured by promotions committees but that are very real and observable. As a developmental editor the problem I encounter with academics is not the workloads model but rather their lack of a regular writing regimen, time management, and project management skills. I know this is the case because academics with these skills can still work within the constraints of the workloads model to achieve the outputs required by their Minimum Standards of Academic Levels criteria in their job contracts. I suggest that blogs are treated as part of the ideation process — and that the drafting and re-editing of doctoral dissertations and journal articles is treated as a separate, parallel process.

 

Some academics still don’t take this view seriously. Their focus is on A* and A level journals and perhaps major book publishers. I respect that view and I know how much hard work goes into that material, and the high standards of research design that are required. Unfortunately, some university administrators use this focus as a performance goal without understanding the time and effort involved. I see a big gap between the rhetoric and the academics who can actually achieve these goals. For example, I have seen CVs with many publications that, on closer examination, turn out to be vanity book publishers and questionable international journals: a sucker’s game. I also disagree with the ‘scarcity’ view that underpins some academic publishing. I’m comfortable with showing the ‘messiness’ of research as it unfolds. Academics can still have a minimalist blog or social media presence to alert other researchers and the general public to their work. Many people do not have access to institutional journal subscriptions but might read and value an article version that is deposited in a university repository.

 

2. Blog to monitor a discipline or epistemic community. Tufts University political scientist Dan Drezner recently joked that political scientists were now more ‘relevant’ because they blogged. Zammit’s own site has an extensive blogroll and interesting articles such as one on jihadism datasets that I wouldn’t probably have known about had he not taken the time to write about them. I now scan Tadas Viskanta’s blog Abnormal Returns on a daily basis when assessing market conditions for my portfolio. I have learned from the Research Whisperer and Thesis Whisperer blogs. I have dialogued with friend and colleague Roy Christopher on writing, rewriting, and how academia can kill writing: an important discussion for professional self development. Spending an hour a week means that I’m across what these experts and communities are up to. Their blogs also capture different kinds of information than the searches I do on the Scopus and Web of Science databases, and in the relevant academic journals in my fields of research.

 

3. Blog to control your public expertise and also to raise the visibility of published articles. I’m a research administrator so my employer university hasn’t given me a public webpage on their site. Instead, I’ve cobbled together a web presence through this personal site; profiles on Twitter, Academia.edu, Google Scholar; and sites like The Conversation. I comment about research in-progress and post relevant news items. I try to turn each article’s publication into a personal ‘release’ event similar to music and film. Blogging has led to several productive collaborations, to higher article citations by international research teams, and to the opportunity to do blind peer review for several international journals. It enables me to comment on new developments not covered in an article. This is a ‘work around’ for the significant delays in journal publishing and also maintains the ‘currency’ of individual articles.

 

4. Keep your major projects separate. I try and blog several times a week or spend 10-15 minutes compiling a daily links list. (I did that for eight years at Disinformation — see the 1998-2003 site archives — so I can do so very quickly.) I also have several articles and a PhD draft that are in-progress. For me, the blog serves as a daily exercise to get writing and to capture relevant information that won’t necessarily be included in the articles or PhD. I found that drafting, re-drafting and understanding quality scholarship in a field is pivotal to the PhD, whilst understanding current debates and editorial formats is crucial to journal publishing. It’s OK to keep your major projects separate or ’embargoed’ if it helps you to complete this research. Just use blogging and social media as a tool to develop your writing prowess and to self-promote your expertise and research outputs.

18th June 2012: Fairfax Cuts & Jonah Lehrer

Google’s Knowledge Graph is going to catalog the internet (The Atlantic Monthly).

 

Isaac Chotiner hates Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine (The New Republic).

 

Jonah Lehrer on Daniel Kahneman (The New Yorker).

 

Fairfax cuts 1900 staff; FXJ share price rises (The Age).

 

Ben Eltham on the Fairfax cuts (ABC).

 

Imagine Entertainment to adapt George Orwell’s 1984 (Deadline).

 

How to get a job in academia when you finish your PhD (The Thesis Whisperer).

 

Cocaine Incorporated (New York Times Magazine).