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.

20th May 2010: On Michael Milken


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.

6th May 2010: Iron Man 2


“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).

5th May 2010: On Troth (Loyalty) and Decisions

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.


Practice-based disciplines use various methods to create the conditions of Troth: mentoring, professional associations, codes of ethics, and sensitivity to patterns of contexts and situations. The Media Alliance ethics guidelines for Australian journalists, the CFA Institute‘s framework for financial analysts, the CPA Australia rules for accountants, and research ethics guidelines in universities are detailed examples. Each of these attempts to remanifest the positive aspects of Traditionalist forms, such as (Medieval) guild structures or the transcultural transmission of knowledge from teacher to student. For individuals, these structures impose a check on potential ego-inflation, and guidance on how to navigate ethical dilemmas.


Historically, societies have granted these professions a social contract, because Troth implies a custodian role. It’s a little like how US government officials and armed forces swear allegiance to defend and protect the US Constitution as a document that manifests an ideal, rather ‘loyalty’ to an individual President or political administration. Thus, whilst Troth certainly involves being ‘true’ to family and friends, in its fullest sense it reaches out to something bigger and perhaps more abstract than the individual who has ‘bounded’ rationality. In the professional code of ethics suggested above, these may be the media, capital and investment markets, stakeholder reporting, and the integrity of medical and university research. In short, the Freedom given also implies a Demand: the willigness to act when circumstances require you to do so. The challenge is: what circumstances, how to act, with whom, and to what end?


Flowers understands this tension, so did Myers, as probably do Puzo and Coppola. Many people however do not, perhaps because they mistake principles for force or violence. Perhaps this is why there is so much debate and confusion about Machiavelli‘s book The Prince, which is really about loyalty, leadership and is credited, along with the Treaty of Westphalia, with conceptualising the sovereignty of nation-states. Although the popular image of him does not capture this, Machiavelli understood that strong-willed people who have their own visions and worldviews will inevitably clash and polarise, if their respective worldviews are not mutually appreciated or accomodated. The English magus Aleister Crowley and the journalist William T. Vollmann reached similar conclusions. Vollmann went so far as to write an extensive ‘moral calculus’ on this, that takes Machiavelli’s insights into a transcultural realm.


In writing The Prince as a guide for leaders on how to cultivate Troth or loyalty in their followers, Machiavelli built on Thucydides‘ insight that people are self-motivated by “fear, honour and interest”. Both Machiavelli and Thucydides foreshadowed the current interest in cognitive biases (anchoring, framing and positive illusions), and in particular, why high-valence issues often lead to escalated or polarised situations that were avoidable.


In contrast to this ‘classicist’ tragic awareness, popular stereotypes to problem-solving emphasise vengeful anger. The operatic finale of Coppola’s first Godfather film where Michael Corleone’s enemies are gunned down remains a powerful example. Asymmetric and guerrilla warfare is sometimes proposed as an alternative: David Ucko conveys how this really works. For a different view, consider the Camorra in journalist Roberto Saviano‘s book and Matteo Garrone‘s film Gomorrah. In both of these, and in Coppola’s two later films, the Mafiosi are in an alliance-style ‘balance of power’ situation more like what Thucydides and Machiavelli perceived, and which has dominated the international relations school of political realism. Rather than revenge, these works explore the role of political patronage for family and institutional survival. This is why, for example, even Lost‘s Smoke Monster or the embodiment of Evil is a patron who has allies, coherent and explainable goals, and a worldview.


Individuals choose their own Troth over false allegiances, collectivity, and the whims of political patrons. This may initially be branded as ‘disloyalty’ yet is observable, over time, if it is really just separate life orbits. Thucydides and Machiavelli understood that this individuation process may be part of what differentiates some emerging leaders from being followers. Muzafer Sherif’s Robber’s Cave experiment reached other similar conclusions about the predictability of inter-group conflict: it’s a small world; the person you write-off today or feel angry with may have been helpful tomorrow, if the conflict and frustrations had just been handled differently. Sherif found two major reasons for this: the power of in-group views of a polarised out-group, and the escalation dynamics that entrench stances.


On an historical and societal scale, this individuation process is what partly what drove the Reformation and the founding of the United States. Do you really think that the Declaration of Independence authors were really that worried that King George III did the 18th century equivalent of blocking off their Facebook, Twitter and email account access? No: “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” — and in doing so the US Founding Fathers brought an ideal into being. If they had stayed at home and worried about expressing a valid worldview then history would have turned out very differently. Alexander Hamilton: “See you at the next MeetUp Duel . . .”


How do we differentiate patrons, teachers, allies and collaborators who are worthy of Troth?


Quality of attention. Understanding the individuation process and its stages. Allowing people to awaken and cultivate their own Troth rather than demanding ‘loyalty’ for patronage. Knowing their own fallibility and weaknesses. Having others to keep them in-check and grounded. Being able to ‘agree to disagree’ with others, rather than blow-up and alienate people and institutions. Being able and willing to mend fences. And, occasionally, perhaps going offline and doing something that has a small, real impact in the world, like saving an animal or helping a total stranger.