12th April 2012: Charli Carpenter on Transnational Politics & IT


Foreign Policy‘s Dan Drezner praises this International Studies Association 2012 presentation by Charli Carpenter:


To be blunt, however, if this is the standard to which future international relations teaching pedagogy will be held… then the future is going to kick my ass.


Web 2.0-savvy academics will already be familiar with tools like Camtasia Studio and Apple’s Final Cut Pro video editing software. Carpenter does a great job in highlighting how Web 2.0 technologies are changing IR teaching and scholarly communication. However, if she was an Australian academic, Carpenter’s video would be marginalised by the Australian Research Council‘s emphasis on journal articles: it might be eligible under the ‘creative works’ category.

11th April 2012: How Academia Kills Writing

I recently had some productive exchanges with Roy Christopher and Axel Bruns on academic writing strategies. Christopher wrote-up his insights:


I am sympathetic to all of these conditions, but I have found it important to cultivate the ability to write at any time, in any circumstance — even if it’s just collecting thoughts about something. I keep a pen and paper in my pocket at all times, pen and pad by my bed, notebook(s) in my backpack and all over the house. I do find that I need large chunks of uninterrupted time to surmount larger writing tasks, but the ubiquity of computers, portable or otherwise, makes writing anywhere a much more viable option. [emphasis added]


Christopher’s insight led to an email exchange on the barriers that academia poses for writers. I think about this a lot in my current university gig as a developmental editor. I also work with a talented copy-editor. Here are six ways that academia kills writing:


1. Perverse incentive structures. Christopher and I are both intrinsically motivated writers who approach it as a craft. We blog, write journal articles and in-progress PhD dissertations, and Christopher has several book projects. In contrast, some academics I know write only for performance-based incentives. They play games such as writing fake conference papers, sending book manuscripts to vanity publishers, and publishing in obscure international journals. This leads the university research administrators to change the incentives structures. It also introduces scoping problems into competitive grants: the journal article(s) only get written if the money is awarded. It’s very rare that I find an intrinsically motivated writer: maybe an Early Career Researcher who has just finished their PhD, or a senior academic intent on making a contribution to their field or discipline. I wish academics had a more hip-hop or punk sensibility and just did the work, regardless of the institutional incentives.


2. Misuse of university research metrics. The Australian Research Council‘s Excellence for Research in Australia shifted the research conversation to performance and quality-based outputs. This also lead to games such as poaching academics who had ERA publishing track records. However, it also sometimes led to a narrow focus on A* and A-level journals without changes to the workload models or training investment for academic skills and robust research designs. Not everyone is Group of 8, Harvard or Stanford material, or at least not at their career stage. Metrics use must be counter-balanced with an understanding of intellectual capital and development strategies. To-date the use of ERA and Field of Research metrics is relatively unsophisticated, and it can often actually de-value academic work and publishing track records.


3. A failure to understand and create the conditions for the creative process. The current academic debate about knowledge creation swings between two extremes. On the one hand, budget-driven cost-cutting similar to GE’s Work-Out under Jack Welch or private equity turnarounds. On the other, a desire to return to a mythical Golden Age where academics are left alone with little accountability. Both views are value destructive. The middle ground is to learn from Hollywood studios, music producers, and academic superstars about the creative process, and to create the conditions for it. This means allowing time for insights to emerge or for academics to become familiar with new areas. It means not relying on conferences and being pro-active in forming collaborative networks. It means treating academic publications as an event and leveraging them for maximum public impact and visibility. Counterintuitively, it can also mean setting limits, stage gates, and ‘no go’ or ‘abandon’ criteria (real options theory can be a useful tool). This is one reason why Christopher and I sometimes exchange stories of the strategies that artists use: to learn from them. This is a different mentality to some university administrators who expect research publications to emerge from out of nowhere (a view often related to the two barriers above).


4. Mystifing the blind peer review process. What differentiates academic research from other writing? Apart from the research design, many academics hold up the blind peer review process to be a central difference. Usually, a competitive grant or a journal article goes to between two and five reviewers, who are often subject matter experts. The identities of both the author(s) and the reviewers are kept secret from each-other. Supposedly, this enhances the quality of the review process and the candour of the feedback provided. Having studied the feedback of 80 journal articles and 50 competitive grants, I disagree. The feedback quality is highly reviewer dependent. Blind peer review provides a lack of transparency that allows reviewers to engage in uber-critical reviews (without constructive or developmental feedback), disciplinary in-fighting, or screeds on what the reviewer wished had been written. Many academic journals have no rejoinder process for authors to respond. These are problems of secrecy and can be avoided through more open systems (a lesson from post-mortems on intelligence ‘failures’).


5. Being set up to fail through the competitive grants process. A greater emphasis on research output metrics has prioritised success in competitive grants. Promotions committees now look for a track record in external grants for Associate Professor and Professor roles. Australian universities do not often have endowed chairs or institutional investment portfolios — so they are more reliant on grant income. Collectively, these trends translate into more pressure on academics to apply for competitive grants. However, success is often a matter of paying close attention to the funding rules, carefully scoping the specific research project and budget, developing a collaborative team that can execute on the project, and having the necessary track record in place. These criteria are very similar to those which venture capitalists use to evaluate start-ups. Opportunity evaluation, timing, and preparatory work is essential. Not meeting this criteria means the application will probably fail and the grant-writing time may be wasted: most competitive grants have a 10-20% success rate. Some universities have internal grant schemes that enable new academics to interact with these dynamics before applying to an external agency. In all cases, the competitive grant operates as a career screening mechanism. For institutions, these grants are ‘rain-making’ activities: they bring money in, rather than to the individual academic.


6. A narrow focus on A* and A-level journals at the expense of all other forms of academic writing. The ARC’s ERA and similar schemes prioritise peer reviewed journals over other forms of writing. (This de-valued large parts of my 18-year publishing history.) The 2009 and 2010 versions of ERA had a  journal ranking list which led many university administrators I know to focus on A* and A-level journals. I liked the journal ranking list but I also saw it had some perverse effects over its 18 months of use. It led to on-the-fly decisions made because of cumulative metrics in a publishing track record. It destroyed some of the ‘tacit’ knowledge that academics had about how and why to publish in particular journals. It de-valued B-ranked journals that are often sub-discipline leaders. It helped to create two groups of academics: those with the skills and training to publish in A* and A-level journals, and those who did not. It led to unrealistic expectations of what was needed to get into an A* journal like MIT’s International Security: a failure to understand creative and publishing processes. The narrow emphasis on journals ignored academic book publishers, CRC reports, academic internet blogs, media coverage, and other research outputs. Good writers, editors and publishers know differently: a high-impact publication can emerge from the unlikeliest of places. As of April 2012, my most internationally cited research output is a 2009 conference paper, rejected from the peer review stream due to controversy, that I co-wrote with Ben Eltham on Twitter and Iran’s 2009 election crisis. It would be excluded from the above criteria, although Eltham and I have since written several articles for the A-level journal Media International Australia.


Awareness of these six barriers is essential to academic success and to not becoming co-dependent on your institution.

11th April 2012: Supafest Fallout Lessons

P Diddy signing at hmv 150 Oxford Street, London, 2011


Australia’s urban music festival Supafest is in trouble. Co-headliner Missy Elliott claims she wasn’t actually on the Supafest bill. Co-headliner P Diddy was also axed and counter-claimed on Twitter that the festival organisers had never paid him or fulfilled the contract. Elliott and Diddy mobilised their Facebook and Twitter followers to contact Supafest, which did not reply.


The fallout from Supafest has several lessons for the winner-takes-all economy. Both artists leveraged their social media contingent as pressure in a negotiation situation. This is similar to how merger arbitrageurs make strategic leaks to the financial media during hostile acquisition attempts. The fallout also illustrates two fundamental strategies of effective artist management. Diddy’s strategy is to walk away from Supafest unless the necessary and sufficient conditions of the contract negotiations are met. This preserves his market-making power as a superstar. Elliott’s strategy is to protect her branding and to ‘shift the blame’ to Supafest’s organisers for what she claims is misleading advertising. Elliott claims this occurred because of a breakdown in negotiations with Supafest. Effective artist management looks for the upside and breakout opportunities, and hedges the talent from exploitative and loss-making situations. Just ask U2.


Photo: hmvgetcloser/Flickr.

11th April 2012: Academic Skills Externalities

A gem from Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias:


But it seems to me that to the extent that the training is transferrable the employee is gaining something of real value, and the employer now has the ability to reduce cash compensation accordingly. Employers need to choose between paying a premium for already-trained workers, or paying lower wages to less-trained workers but bearing training costs. [emphasis added]


Some Australian universities are shifting the training costs back onto academic staff. An entry-level lecturer role (Academic Level B) now requires a PhD, a teaching degree (unlike US universities), and a publication track record. Five or ten years ago these requirements were necessary for a senior lecturer role (Academic Level C). New academics usually gain training through the rigour (or not) of their PhD program and collaborations with senior academics in their discipline or school. Early Career Researcher grants, membership of a professional association, and research incentive scheme money for publications also provide some training opportunities. Academics whose skills underpin their research programs have more employment flexibility.


Yglesias explains an important aspect of academic salary negotiation and skills development. Some Australian universities pay relatively lower wages to academic staff, in part due to enterprise bargaining agreements. Universities may hire new academics at strategic points like just before PhD conferral so that the institutions can pay lower wages and underinvest in training. Usually, the rationale is value-driven and knowledge extractive: universities get the most highly qualified academics for their human resources budget. The training budget is a ‘nice to have’ or comes from central and faculty resources.


But, over time, this strategy leads to two divergent groups: academics who plateau mid-career and take on administrative and teaching loads, and superstar academics with training who either get rapidly promoted or who defect to other universities. The first group provides a pool of staff that has to deal with heavy administrative and workflow systems. This actually prevents the institution from doing the business process reenginering to remain competitive. The second group provides the institution with visibility. They have greater input into incentives design and managerial decision-making. A ‘success to the successful’ dynamic occurs.


In a winner-takes-all environment, perhaps the successful academics will have to become their own player-managers, be aware of and use institutional incentives, and be adept at contract and salary negotiation.

7th April 2012: John Shirley’s A Song Called Youth

A Song Called Youth


John Shirley‘s incredible cyberpunk trilogy A Song Called Youth is back in print. I reviewed the previous edition for the late digital culture magazine Artbyte in February 2001 (pp. 82, 84). The Responsibility to Protect or R2P doctrine and author Howard Bloom influenced my Artbyte review:


In 2029, the ongoing Third World War has left Europe in ruins, and Russia is rumored to be threatening a final nuclear strike. America is recovering from a depression caused by Arab-terrorist computer “hacktivists.” The Second Alliance International Security Force, a NATO-hired private peacekeeping force, is secretly using the geopolitical conflict to implement apartheid in Europe. Only the New Resistance knows the real agenda: Project Total Eclipse, a global eugenics program.


John Shirley’s millennial revision of the 1985 trilogy, A Song Called Youth, far surpasses its original cyberpunk label in creativity and gritty neorealism. The complex multistrand narrative chronicles the New Resistance’s mission to topple the Second Alliance by sabotage and guerrilla media warfare, or “culture jamming.” Meanwhile, Senator Henry Spector’s iron-fisted Public AntiViolence legislation spawns live televised executions of dissidents by public lottery contestants. In the decade and a half since the trilogy first appeared, Shirley’s premonitions of post-Mafiocracy Russia and a broadband internet (the Grid) have come true. God help us if his vision of ready-for-prime-time exevcutions proves prophetic for the increasingly privatized “prison-industrial-complex.”


Shirley gives credible descriptions of current mind-control psycho-technologyies, fundamentalist militias, and the way in which social Darwinism might become a dangerous sociopolitical tool. Throughout, he questions the Enlightenment notion of eternal progress: the aging space colony FirStep’s utopian promise ends in hierarchical warfare.


Likewise, Shirley’s ensemble cast features unpredictable, irrational, and deeply flawed characters, including a shadowy social Darwinist, a brainwashed assassin, a rogue CIA operative, and battle-weary guerrilla fighters. Unlikely alliances are formed and individuals betrayed, and Shirley doesn’t hesitate to kill off several major characters during assassination attempts and skirmishes.


Jettisoning high-tech hyperbole for hard-core ideas, John Shirley reaffirms his influential status as cyberpunk’s firebrand political conscience. A Song Called Youth is a wake-up call, urging us to prevent the 21st-century holocausts that could spring from the nightmare coupling of genetic and social engineering. Now, who will fight the future?

6th April 2012: Over Now

Layne Staley


The Atlantic Monthly‘s David De Sola reflects on the 10th anniversary of Alice In Chains singer Layne Staley’s death:

But Staley sounded like no one else. His ability to project power and vulnerability in his vocals, as well as the unique and complementary harmonies he created when singing with Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell, made for a style that would get copied for years after Alice in Chains became a household name. [emphasis added]


I wrote about Staley’s death in 2002 for Disinformation: has a decade really passed? Alice In Chains’  Dirt (1992) had an indelible impact on my university student cohort – but I ‘stayed away’ from the grunge romance of heavy drug experimentation.


I saw Staley live once: 30th October 1993 at Melbourne’s Festival Hall with Suicidal Tendencies as support. My memories of the gig are of the acoustic opener ‘Nutshell’ (the band as shadows behind a sheet); a violent mosh that blurred most of the gig; and drummer Sean Kinney smashing his drum kit in frustration at Staley, whilst new bassist Mike Inez played Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘No More Tears’ riff, and guitarist Jerry Cantrell ran an impromptu riff competition with audience members.


By the time of MTV Unplugged (1996) and the film clip for ‘Get Born Again’ (1999), Staley’s descent into harrowing drug addiction was self-evident. His body of work stands as the most evocative of the mid-1990s drive to kinderfeindlichkeit: youth devouring itself. The band’s view of these events would wait until and AIC’s Black Gives Way To Blue (2009), and the late Mike Starr’s appearance on Celebrity Rehab series 3 with Dr. Drew Pinsky in 2010. RIP Layne.


Photo: Paulie Wants A Cracker/Flickr.

5th April 2012: Jack D. Schwager’s Market Wizards



Jack D. Schwager‘s book Market Wizards is mandatory reading for traders and out in a new, 2012 edition. Brenda Jubin’s review explains Market Wizard‘s impact, its interviewees, and its influence amongst traders. Schwager interviewed a diverse range of traders about their motivations, strategies and market insights. Schwager’s new book Hedge Fund Market Wizards will be published in May.


Market Wizards also reminds me of the fourth volume of interviews with futurists and strategic foresight practitioners that Richard Slaughter, Sohail Inayatullah, and Jose M. Ramos compiled for The Knowledge Base of Futures Studies.

2nd April 2012: Bridging The Academic/Policy Divide

Foreign Policy‘s Dan Drezner on academics and policy wonks:

I think the academic/policy divide has been wildly overblown, but here’s my modest suggestion on how to bridge it even further.  First, wonks should flip through at recent issues of APSR and ISQand hey, peruse International Organization, International Security, and World Politics while you’re at it.  You’d find a lot of good, trenchant, policy-adjacent stuff.  Second, might I suggest that authors at these journals be allowed to write a second abstract — and abstract for policymakers, if you will?  Even the most jargonesed academic should be able to pull off one paragraph of clean prose.  Finally, wonks should not be frightened by statistics.  That is by far the dominant “technical” barrier separating these articles from general interest reader.


I get APSR and ISQ mailed every few months, and am still working my way through their research designs. I read International Security and World Politics for PhD research. A lot of the policy-relevant journals were B-ranked in the Australian Research Council‘s Excellence for Research in Australia 2010 exercise.

2nd April 2012: Michael T. Klare on the World’s Last Resources


PAWSS director Michael T. Klare in Rolling Stone on the world’s last resources:

When you look at what’s being developed today, whether it’s the deep oceans or the Arctic or shale gas and shale oil, you’re seeing levels of investment costs and danger that are unprecedented, and levels of environmental risks that are unlike anything we’ve seen before. You wouldn’t go to these lengths if easier resources were available.

My 2005 Masters essay on Klare’s research program (PDF).

1st April 2012: The Man Who Broke Atlantic City

Mark Bowden’s Atlantic Monthly article on blackjack master Don Johnson is a compelling read:

When casinos started getting desperate, Johnson was perfectly poised to take advantage of them. He had the money to wager big, he had the skill to win, and he did not have enough of a reputation for the casinos to be wary of him. He was also, as the Trop’s Tony Rodio puts it, “a cheap date.” He wasn’t interested in the high-end perks; he was interested in maximizing his odds of winning. For Johnson, the game began before he ever set foot in the casino. [emphasis added]


Johnson made $US17 million legally in a few months from his competitive strategy. From an email to a trading colleague:

It’s worth reading the Atlantic Monthly article a few times, carefully. Its author Mark Bowden is a top investigative journalist who wrote Black Hawk Down and he has an eye for important, revealing details. A lot of what Johnson did is necessary for successful trades. He knew the casino industry and its politics. He knew mathematics and quantitative research design as a former race jockey. He had a separate day job. He cultivated his skill at making decisions under uncertainty and fast-paced judgments. He was a good negotiator and had a sense of timing. He waited for casinos to come to him with a deal and then negotiated a statistical edge that limited his losses and that had a significant upside. Then, when he saw a breakout opportunity, he piled in and played hard — across several casinos. He didn’t waste the money he won on assets that actually drain money, like a new house or lifestyle status items. Instead, he leveraged the attention he received as a masterful blackjack player. These are all important lessons that one relearns in trading and in creative projects.