Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

Thomas Pynchon‘s new September 11 novel Bleeding Edge (London: Jonathan Cape, 2013) is now out and has a subplot featuring the Montauk Project conspiracy theory. The Counterpunch and Atlantic Monthly reviews mention the Montauk allegations. Pynchon likely found out about the conspiracy from an interview that Alexandra ‘Chica’ Bruce and Richard Metzger did for the Disinfo Nation television show (Channel 4, United Kingdom) which was later included on the Disinformation DVD and Disinformation: The Interviews book. (Both were on-sale prominently in St. Marks and other New York City bookshops.) Richard has blogged at his site Dangerous Minds about how the interview came about. Montauk fits Pynchon’s worldview and the themes of earlier, very influential novels like Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49.

 

For me, Bleeding Edge evokes the period between the 2000 dotcom crash and the September 11 terrorist attacks, when I first edited the Disinformation website. I wrote about both incidents; as well as experiencing others like Enron’s collapse and the 2000 United States election outcome. I visited New York City between 20th and 25th September 2001, in part to visit author Howard Bloom. Pynchon’s subplots involving the darknet DarkArcher and stockmarket speculation echo some PhD-related work I am doing on the strategic subcultures of event arbitrage hedge funds: several ‘shorted’ airline stocks as the September 11 terrorist attacks unfolded.

 

The plausible Montauk-Disinfo-Pynchon connection highlights how subcultural ideas and memes can diffuse into mainstream society. Author Robert Anton Wilson likened this to strange loops. Author Don Webb described it as a fictive arcanum.

Discovery Channel’s Faux Documentaries

Discovery Communications (NASDAQ: DISCA) has unearthed a new revenue stream: faux documentaries on pseudo-scientific and occulture topics. Slate‘s Chris Kirk observes:

 

These faux documentaries, which can best be described as anti-educational, seem to have grown more common on in recent years. The Disney-owned History channel, for example, has earned criticism for airing pseudoscience programs like Ancient AliensUFO Files, and the Nostradamus Effect instead of programs about, you know, history.

 

I originally wrote about this for the alternative news site Disinformation when Fox broadcast its Lunargate documentary in 1999. I was skeptical: the main reason for Fox’s decision appeared to be the combination of cost-effective content, a large audience, ratings, and profitable licensing markets. At the time, Disinformation’s founder Richard Metzger was shooting the Disinfo Nation television series for Channel 4 which would later be pitched to the SyFy Network in the United States. The series led to a DVD and book, and to straight-to-DVD and streaming video releases. There’s a long history of these documentaries: Jacques Bergier and Louis Pauwels created the genre with The Morning of the Magicians, and I recall Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World book and television series from the 1980s.

 

Today, I treat such work as an information and sociological model of rumours, and psychological receptiveness to fringe ideas.

4th October 2012: In A Lonely Place

In A Lonely Place (1950)

 

We had broken up for about a year when I saw Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place (1950). I had restarted a ‘lapsed’ undergraduate degree at La Trobe University, majoring in cinema studies and politics. I thought of you during Dr. Geoff Mayer’s class on Pre-Code cinema when he examined the origins of Hollywood’s ‘fallen angel’ image, and its influence on contemporary femme fatales. It was in Mayer’s film noir class that I saw In A Lonely Place. Afterwards, I saw our relationship in a new light.

 

In A Lonely Place explores the rise-and-fall arc of a brief, romantic relationship between screenwriter Dixon “Dix” Steele (Humphrey Bogart) and neighbour Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame). Steele is suspected of murdering nightclub girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart) and his relationship with Gray unravels. Ray deals with popular themes in film noir: early Cold War paranoia; Hollywood cynicism; the dark heart of some personal relationships; and the suspicion of major characters as unreliable narrators. Today, In A Lonely Place is regarded as a film noir classic.

 

Ray’s film evokes a larger truth about the Romantic ideal of living with a writer versus its day-to-day realities. Significant others might initially approach this as the opportunity to live with a cultural creative or to be their muse. Gray and Steele’s initial whirlwind courtship reinvigorates their creative work and they become a dyadic couple. But the Atkinson murder investigation makes Gray suspicious about Steele. Writer’s block also shatters their domestic harmony: both Gray and Steele suffer from decision regret. Steele never develops a habitual routine to write. A writer stuck in their material can become irritable, moody, and withdrawn to live with: absent. D.T. Max’s recent biography Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story (New York: Viking, 2012) evokes these feelings about the late author and critic David Foster Wallace, who struggled with depression, and self-loathing about his giftedness and family.

 

Our relationship spanned an early, formative period of my academic and journalism career (publications). We met and started dating as I wrote a New Journalism account for Perth’s REVelation Magazine (now a film festival) of Noam Chomsky’s 1995 lecture tour in Australia. In the next three years, I wrote eight published articles on topics ranging from profiles of maverick quantum physicist Jack Sarfatti and computer scientist James Martin, to a roundtable on artificial intelligence and an influential profile of memetics in advertising. I had other, then-unpublished material, including profiles of the progressive rock band King Crimson and author Philip K. Dick (in archive boxes and not available online yet); a rejected profile of roboticist Hans Moravec; and private, initiatory self-work (in the Gurdjieff Work and the Temple of Set). We broke up soon after REVelation and 21C both fell apart. I had an interview with Terence McKenna accepted for REVelation; and an interview with space migration exponent Marshall Savage edited for 21C. During our break-up and its aftermath I finished a profile of designer Jeffrey Veen. Collectively, the published work was around 40,000-50,000 words with a similar amount of unpublished material.

 

All writers can suffer from the cognitive bias known as ‘positive illusions’. It’s us versus our emotions, thoughts, and a blank page: being in a (potentially) lonely place. As Gray discovered about Steele, we can carry our in-progress writing around as a projective identification onto others. We enter a liminal, subjective state that can be superimposed on others and the objective world. If not inspirational muses then we may look for initiatory allies and significant others to share in the unfolding creative process, to read our work, and to keep us tethered to the everyday world. At its extremes, a writer can venture deep into their material and may not come out of it. David Foster Wallace spent a decade writing drafts and redrafts of his novel The Pale King before he committed suicide in 2008.

 

You were disinterested to read what I wrote. Fine, I thought, you don’t know or care who guerrilla ontologist Robert Anton Wilson was, when I interviewed him for REVelation. You were not going to read or do the exercises in Prometheus Rising. But we had common, shared experiences and polarities. At that period of my life, I wanted to share the exploratory promise of self-change with you and others. When the self-change occurred it wasn’t what I wanted or had hoped for: I learned that you can help to create the conditions for change but that personal growth is different for each individual. Eventually, you found a new fiancé: an ‘indie’ musician who was more emotionally direct and expressive with you than my writing was.

 

In A Lonely Place taught me that creative work and its choices will usually have personal costs. Gray and Steele’s relationship did not survive the rumours and suspicions about Atkinson’s murder. Director Nicholas Ray and actress Gloria Grahame’s marriage fell apart during filming. I have mixed feelings about the creative work from this period: you felt I became absent and did not pay you enough attention. 21C’s print edition had cultural cachet: to be published in my early twenties alongside cultural critics like Greil Marcus and Mark Dery was an honour. It’s one reason why Richard Metzger (now running the popular blog Dangerous Minds) asked me to write for the alternative news site Disinformation in 1998 and how I became its site editor in November 1999 (1998-2003 site archive). But you didn’t stay for this journey. You decided beforehand that pursuing these dreams was not feasible when the publisher cheque never comes, your credit card defaults, the telemarketing stop-gap job becomes too unstable, and the realtor sells out your rental house from underneath you. After some difficult experiences I agreed with Richard Metzger to “Find the Others” (quoting Timothy Leary) in new, emerging internet subcultures.

 

REVelation, 21C, and Disinformation gave me the opportunity to do deep background research on the countercultural topics of interest in my early-to-mid twenties. I got to work with leading writers, editors, designers, marketers, and publishers. Disinformation made me part of the dotcom era’s internet history and I had to create a public persona to deal with fans’ expectations. The reality was that I sat in rooms for eight years with computers as the site changed and the company evolved. I made new friends and gave lectures at This Is Not Art (TINA) between 1999 and 2004: the youth arts festival we had heard about one afternoon on Triple J radio (as TINA’s precursor, the LOUD Festival). I took our break-up and turned it into my first peer reviewed academic article on the Nine Inch Nails album The Fragile (1999).

 

Most importantly, I served an ‘apprenticeship’ period — 10,000 hours of deep/deliberate play/practice — to develop expertise. Florida State University psychologist K. Anders Ericsson articulated this approach to talent development whilst Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Geoff Colvin‘s Talent Is Overrated, and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code popularised it. REVelation, 21C and Disinformation gave me the opportunity to discover who I was as an emerging writer. TINA enabled me to share these insights with others. I learned about meso-cosmoi; how cultural transmission works; the creative synergies of high performance teams; and the significance that writing can have on your audience. I helped attract an audience for Disinformation’s other book and DVD projects, and promoted the Disinfo.Con 2000 ‘happening’.

 

Recently, I calculated the content and value I created during this ‘apprenticeship’ period versus the actual income earned. It was a sobering valuation exercise. (Read Valuation, Sources of Value, or Value Maps for more details.) My freelance journalism period occurred mainly from late 1994 to early 1998: 1500 hours on magazine articles ($A750 to $A1750 per article), interviews, and two book proposals. I did two editorial stints for Disinformation (November 1999-August 2002 and April 2003-February 2008) at $US100 per week salary, or $US42,000 in total. Over 8 years, I spent between 6,000 and 8,000 hours on editing the site; writing articles, news items, and a daily newsletter; responding to emails; handling site redesigns; representing the company in interviews; and from 2005, participating in weekly teleconferences. Add several thousand hours for two Masters degrees, and you get Ericcson, Gladwell, and Coyle’s 10,000 hour target to develop expertise. The per-hour salary of $A6.67 for freelance journalism or $US5.25-$US7 for Disinformation was on par with an entry-level administrative or sales job. However, the body of work produced continues to be of interest and value to others.

 

The downside was a lesson in offshore economics and cost reduction strategies that many white collar jobs will face in the hyper-competitive future. I left money on the table: I could have negotiated better deals; not signed away rights and potential royalty streams; used process redesign to manage time and task; and not have overestimated the length of my publishing career. Some other mistakes: The ‘standard’ magazine contracts controlled reprints, ancillary markets, and new technologies. For Disinformation, my editorial salary was fixed no matter how much content I produced whereas freelance contributors received $US50 per article or dossier. The salary also remained constant over 8 years. As an offshore contractor, I lost money on currency exchange rate fluctuations and inflation; and did not get end-of-year bonuses, salary benefits or superannuation. Disinformation’s successful expansion into book publishing and DVD distribution meant I had a continued salary but I never had an equity share in the company (so I didn’t share in its growth). I failed to translate my internet work into regular contributions to book anthologies, successful book proposals or projects with other publishers. When I became a university researcher on internet futures my bosses became anxious about Disinformation instead of leveraging this relevant industry experience.

 

For some of Disinformation’s core audience there was always a tension between its countercultural ideals, its marketing image, and its existence as a profit-oriented entertainment company. I got and responded to email flak about this. Today, I have taken the lessons from this period into providing research management advice; a PhD project (2011 proposal); and using event arbitrage, behavioural finance and market microstructure analysis to trade a small Australian equities portfolio. Some disgruntled Disinfonauts view this as a sell-out but it’s more an evolution from this earlier period. I changed who I collaborated with; I set writing limits; I found exemplars in academia (Alastair Iain Johnston, Jack Snyder, Marc Trachtenberg, and Robert Jervis); and investigative journalism (William D. Cohan, Steve Coll, and Lawrence Wright) to carefully study and model. You might have seen the baseball film Moneyball which is really about competitive advantage, negotiation, and valuation. Oakland A’s coach Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) turned a career arc from being a hopeful ‘star’ and then a ‘failed’ baseball player into a second act: mistakes became an invaluable learning resource.

 

Every day, I try to do the same.

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.

14th February 2012: Chaos Theory

 

Chaos theory and the complexity sciences have come up in several recent discussions. In one exchange, I found Peter J. Carroll‘s writings to be ill-defined and unclear. In another exchange, different underlying epistemologies were discussed. Richard Metzger and Jason Louv were influenced by contemporary chaos magic: to do rituals and to create sigils in the tradition of Austin Osman Spare. I went in a different direction: studying chaos theory (James Gleick; Edward Lorenz; Benoit Mandelbrot; and others); then reading about how such models can affect your life (e.g. Steven Strogatz’s Sync or Albert-László Barabási’s Linked); and more recently, looking at dynamical systems, mathematics and simulation modelling in the context of financial markets. For me, contemporary chaos magic is but a shadow of the scientific vistas of chaos theory and the complexity sciences.

25th November 2011: Reconstructing Disinfo.com Dossier Archives

I recently started a Google Scholar personal profile. I spent a day importing most of my academic publication history from the past decade. (There are a few gaps, such as some unpublished work I did on Clayton Christensen and Google for the Smart Internet Technology CRC in 2006-07. I’m reworking that material for peer reviewed journal articles.)

The biggest challenge was what to do with my Disinformation material, which was never peer-reviewed nor published in an academic journal.

I edited the site on a daily basis in two stints: November 1999 to August 2002, and April 2003 to February 2008. I took over from co-founder Richard Metzger who had launched the site on 13th September 1996, and Russ Kick took over from me in the interim, before launching his Alternewswire project. The first period is archived here whilst The Wayback Machine has a snapshot of Disinfo.com’s historical evolution here.

21C publisher/editor Ashley Crawford put me in contact with Metzger in mid-1998 after an RU Sirius profile. Metzger suggested I write some dossiers – partly as a therapeutic outlet to get over 21C‘s print demise and a messy relationship break-up. I emailed him profiles of Anton LaVey, George Gurdjieff, memetic engineering and space migration. When Razorfish acquired The Disinformation Company, Metzger and publisher Gary Baddeley tapped me to edit the site whilst they worked on the Disinfo Nation series for the United Kingdom’s Channel 4. 2000 and 2001 were my most productive years.

By mid-2002 I was burnt out and had turned to archival material from my La Trobe University student newspaper Rabelais, 21C and other sources. I also experimented with event-driven news reportage using lessons from information visualisation, values systems theory, media studies and political science. One day whilst drafting a dossier on the philosopher Peter Ouspensky I realised that I just couldn’t write anymore. Metzger and Baddeley had watched the content decline and reached a similar conclusion.

When he took over the daily editing responsibilities, Russ Kick brought a different, current issues sensibility to the site (Metzger excelled as a curator which he continues to do at his new project Dangerous Minds). My 2003-2008 period shifted away from writing original material to daily news coverage, as I completed graduate school and worked full-time as a researcher for the Smart Internet Technology CRC. Baddely wanted the site to be more blog-like and user-driven. I wrote a final editorial message to Disinformation’s readers that summed up the new user-driven direction, which the site continues with today.

I never kept a daily list of the specific dates that dossiers were published on. We lost several dossiers during site transfers. The early content management platforms did not have the functionality of today’s WordPress and Movable Type blogs. For instance, there were no version control or  rollback features, so articles may have been published at earlier dates than the current site version might suggest. From 1998 to 2002 I did compile an editorial master list of possible topics for the freelance contributors to explore, keyed to an old site topic structure: the Disinformation archives are thus only one of several possible sites that could have eventuated over the 1998-2003 period.

I am reconstructing a timeline of rough year dates, in order to get the bibliographic and citation data of the Disinformation dossiers and articles archived in Google Scholar (and possibly into Swinburne University’s research bank). The initial printout of the relevant dossiers and articles comes to 5 pages — larger in size than the academic research I’ve subsequently done. The material varies from excellent to failed experiments and deadline-driven messes.

It feels strange to re-engage with this material for archival and citation purposes — it feels like another lifetime ago.

PhD: Academic Publications & Scholarly Research History

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.

Worth Reading

The moment we found a Bosavi woolly rat (with thanks to Leon Wild).

The New Yorker‘s Sasha Frere-Jones on Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails’ final tour.

My 2008 presentation on Reznor and Radiohead’s strategies during ‘label shopping’ negotiations.

What Reznor possibly wished he had produced and why it leaked to BitTorrent.

Sears Holdings chairman Edward Lampert responds to Barron’s.

TNR‘s Peter Boone and Simon Johnson on the next financial crisis.

Johnny Rotten revives Public Image Ltd.

Richard Metzger’s new site Dangerous Minds.

Calling All Nations

Several weeks ago I noticed new graffiti on street signs in the Melbourne suburb Northcote from an unknown group: the Saracen Soldiers.  A block away from the most prominent graffiti two houses displayed nationalist flags in their front windows.  It could have been coincidence or maybe a signalling game to establish psychological turf.

At the time I thought of the ominous graffiti in Philip K. Dick‘s posthumously published novel Radio Free Albemuth (1985).  The grafiti also reminded me of the wanna-be teenage mercenaries in Leo Berkeley‘s film Holidays on the River Yarra (1990), who are recruited by a racialist organisation to engage in graffiti, brawls and other low-level politically motivated violence.

Two nights ago police fatally shot 15-year-old Tyler Cassidy during a confrontation in Northcote’s All Nations park.  Earlier that evening, Cassidy left home after a family argument then stole two knives from Northcote’s Kmart store.  Four police were called to arrest Cassidy and Victoria Police will now investigate what happened next.  As Rosie X observes, several media outlets speculated about Cassidys membership in the nationalist group Southern Cross Soldiers (SCS) and posed a ‘suicide by cop’ explanation for Cassidy’s death.

There are a couple of interesting things to note about blogosphere and media coverage.

Journalists described Cassidy’s online life as “subterreanean” – a mix of Sherry Turkle‘s theories about online identity fused with cyberterrorist fears – yet did not link to Cassidy’s MySpace page or mention the SCS sites above.  In contrast, Richard Metzger observed to me in 1998 that Disinformation had a different strategy: it would link to white supremacist groups such as Aryan Nations so that readers would understand their ideological worldview.  This got Metzger into trouble with several anti-racialist organisations who confused him with Tom Metzger of White Aryan Resistance.

Anarchist and anti-racialist bloggers knew SCS for months before Cassidy’s death as a white supremacist gang or youth network. The SCS band has copied Rahowa‘s white separatist music as a recruitment strategy.  The social network Bebo has pages for SCS recruitment and the SCS bandJacques Ellul would be proud: SCS (and perhaps Cassidy unwittingly) use a blend of Australian historical imagery for in-group identity and integration propaganda (“Aussie pride”, the Southern Cross flag, conflation of national identity with ethnicity) with agitation propaganda that is aimed at specific out-group enemies (Italians, Lebanese, anyone who does not meet SCS’s criteria for being Australian).

Several questions: How many other pages are there?  Who has been monitoring them?  What if any threat assessments were made?  Will anyone get an opportunity to conduct a sociometry analysis of SCS’s online social network before the pages are pulled (Marc Sageman established a benchmark with his study of Salafist cells that may have had weak ties to Al Qaeda).

Bloggers and journalists alike noted that police might have de-escalated the incident if they were armed with a Taser electroshock weapon.  The incident captures why there is a tactical role under specific circumstances for law enforcement personnel to use non-lethal or less-lethal weapons that could have saved Cassidy’s life.  The four police will likely receive critical incident debriefs and stress counselling.

A few days after Cassidy’s death Northcote remains largely subdued apart from occasional police sirens in the distance.  In contrast. Greece has faced a week of riots after the shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos which may spread to Europe.  As a ‘paired study’ – SCS’s street gang violence, the shootings of Grigoropoulos and Cassidy, and the divergent reactions – illustrate the late sociologist Charles Tilly‘s distinction between individual aggression (Cassidy), brawls (SCS) and scattered attacks (Greece) as different types of collective violence.

Tilly’s urban sociology in the 1960s foresaw how today’s social network sites may be used to coordinate street violence.  Perhaps police intelligence analysts would benefit from a few hours with Tilly’s masterful study The Politics of Collective Violence (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003) to pre-empt any SCS revenge attacks for Cassidy’s death.  SCS might then remain the purveyers of bad hip-hop/rock/metal hybrids (not exactly Australian), poorly designed web sites and street graffiti: the opportunist yet ineffectual extremists that Dick and Berkeley tried to warn us of . . . and that Greece and Europe may face again.