A Short History of Financial Euphoria – Galbraith

113 pages, Penguin, 1993

Book Blurb

How is it that, with all the financial know-how and experience of the wizards on Wall Street and elsewhere, the market still goes boom and bust? How come people are so willing to get caught up in the mania of speculation when history tells us that a collapse is almost sure to follow?

In A Short History of Financial Euphoria, renowned economist John Kenneth Galbraith reviews, with insight and wit, the common features of the great speculative episodes of the last three centuries–the seventeenth-century craze in Western Europe for investing in an unusual commodity: the tulip; Britain’s South Sea Bubble and the eighteenth century’s fascination with the joint-stock company, now called the corporation; and, more recently, the discovery of leverage in the form of junk bonds. Along the way, Galbraith explains the newfangled types of debt that different generations have dreamt up, and he entertains with anecdotes about the ingenuity with which some of the more notorious charlatans have convinced people to invest in financial ciphers.

Galtraith calls this book “a hymn of caution” for good reason. He wars that the time will come when the public hails yet another financial wizard. In that case, the reader will do well to remember the Galbraithian adage: “Financial genius is before the fall.” The appearance of the next John  Law, Robert Campeau, or Michael Milken may well be, after all, a harbinger of disaster.

Author Blurb

john Kenneth Galbraith is the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics Emeritus at Harvard University and was the U.S. ambassador to India during the Kennedy administration. His works The Great Crash 1929, The Affluent Society, The New Industrial State, and Economics and the Public Purpose are landmarks of political and economic analysis.

Quotes from A Short History of Financial Euphoria

Foreword to the 1993 Edition

“Recurrent speculative insanity and the associated financial deprivation and larger devastation are, I am persuaded, inherent in the system.” “In London, tourists going down the Thames to the Tower will extend their journey to encompass the Canary Wharf development, perhaps the most awesome recent example of speculative dementia.” Perhaps in 1992 when Olympia & York went bust. But fast forward nineteen years to 2015 and it’s a different story: Canary Wharf was sold to Brookfield for 2.6 billion pounds. “They think it will be an estimated twenty-six years in Boston, forty-six years in New York and fifty-six years in San Antonio [for real estate to recover from the excesses of the late eighties].” Unbeknownst to Galbraith, who was writing in 1993, the market would recover remarkably quickly, in about twelve years. Then the speculative excess would begin again in the events that would lead up to the Great Recession of 2008.

Chapter 1: The Speculative Episode

“Speculation buys up, in a very practical way, the intelligence of those involved.” “The price of the object of speculation goes up. Securities, land, objets d’art, and other property, when bought today are worth more tomorrow. This increase and the prospect attract new buyers; the new buyers assure a further increase. Yet more are attracted; yet more buy; the increase continues. The speculation building on itself provides its own momentum.

Chapter 2: The Common Denominators

“The rule will often be here reiterated: financial genius is before the fall.” Although Galbraith was writing before the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management in 1998, his words are prescient. Two of the founders of LTMC, Myron Scholes and Robert Merton, would collect their Nobel Prize in economics several months before the fund lost close to five billion dollars. The real loss was an order of magnitude larger, since, assured by their genius of success, they had leveraged their assets, borrowing over 124 billion dollars to jack-up their returns. The Fed eventually had to intervene to stabilize the cascading disaster. “The final and common feature of the speculative episode is what happens after the inevitable crash. There will be scrutiny of the previously much-praised financial instruments and practices–paper money; implausible securities issues; insider trading; market rigging; more recently, program and index trading–that have facilitated and financed the speculation. There will be talk of regulation and reform. What will not be discussed is the speculation itself or the aberrant optimism that lay behind it.”

Chapter 3: The Classic Cases, I: The Tulipomania; John Law and the Banque Royale

First great speculative episode begins with first modern stock market in seventeenth century Netherlands: the Tulipomania. Tulipomania started in 1630 and crashed in 1637. First great speculative episode where we know names happens with John Law in France. In 1716 he establishes the Banque Royale, which issued notes to pay government expenses: Louis XIV had recently died, leaving the treasury bankrupt. The Banque Royale notes would be backed by the Mississippi Company, which would mine the unproven gold reserves in Louisiana. Instead of mining gold, income from the notes went to refinance the bankrupt treasury. The end came in 1720, when the Prince de Conti, annoyed by the ability to buy stock, decided to turn in his notes for gold. When the notes proved to be inconvertible, a run on the stock took place. Term “millionaire” originated with the Banque Royale bubble. In the aftermath of the bubble, “those who had lost their minds as well as their money and made the speculation spared themselves all censure.” The blame fell squarely on John Law and the Banque Royale rather than the spirit of speculation.

Chapter 4: The Classic Cases, II: The Bubble

Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford and John Blunt found the South Sea Company, a new-fangled “joint-stock company” in 1711. Like France in 1716, pressing government debt spurred financial innovation. The South Sea Company took over government debt from the War of Spanish Succession. In return, the government paid the company 6% interest and gave it the right to conduct British trade in the Americas. In 1720, the stock shot up from 128 to 1000 pounds. The success of the South Sea Company led to a rash of joint-stock companies being founded. Like with others bubbles, leverage amplified the losses and deepened the oncoming recession. Nice quote from Charles Mackay book:

In the autumn of 1720, public meetings were held in every considerable town of the empire, at which petitions were adopted, praying the vengeance of the legislature upon the South-Sea directors, who, by their fraudulent practices, had brought the nation to the brink of ruin. Nobody seemed to imagine that the nation itself was as culpable as the South-Sea company–the degrading lust of gain…or the infatuation which had made the multitude run their heads with such frantic eagerness into the net held out for them by scheming projectors. These things were never mentioned.

Chapter 5: The American Tradition

In Maryland and Southern colonies, notes against security of tobacco served as currency for two centuries in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A failed expedition in 1690 to take the fortress of Quebec led to Sir William Phipps issuing paper notes backed on gold. State banks begin issuing notes following the War of 1812 and the Second Bank of the United States was chartered in 1816 (the First Bank lost its charter in 1810 due to its refusal to issue easy money) to oversee the boom. In 1819, however, a collapse in housing prices ended the boom. 1837 witnessed the next American crash, which was, again, rooted in land speculation. This bust, did, however, leave behind a useful canal network. Insufficient reserves were a culprit: one New England bank had $500,000 in notes outstanding and a specie reserve of $86.48 in hand.

Chapter 6: 1929

1920s were a decade of excess, beginning with the Florida real estate boon which saw the rise and fall of Charles Ponzi in 1926. New York stock exchange prices started rising in 1924 before finally collapsing in 1929. Leverage was again a culprit, as speculators could chase stocks on 10 percent margin. Again, in the 1929 crash “nothing was said or done or, in fact, could be done about the decisive factor–the tendency to speculation itself.”

Chapter 7: October Redux

Financial memory of bubbles lasts twenty years. After that time, a new generation enters the scene, enamoured of its own innovative genius. After 1929, the next major bubble would surface in the 60s under the name of Investors Overseas Services, founded by Bernard Cornfeld. His pitch was: “Do you sincerely want to be rich?” The son of FDR, Sir Eric Syndham White (the secretary-general of GATT), and Dr. Erich Mende (vice-chancellor of the German Federal Republic) were all swindled. Leverage came back in the 80s in the form of leveraged buyouts, corporate takeovers, and junk bonds. The SEC report of the 1987 crash “found innocent those individuals, speculative funds, pension funds, and other institutions that had so unwisely, in naiveté and high expectation, repaired to the casino.

Chapter 8: Reprise

Individuals and institutions are captured by the wondrous satisfaction from accruing wealth. The associated illusion of insight is protected, in turn, by the oft-noted public impression that intelligence, one’s own and that of others, marches in close step with the possession of money. Out of that belief, thus instilled, then comes action–the bidding up of values, whether in land, securities, or, as recently, art. The upward movement confirms the commitment to personal and group wisdom. And so on to the moment of mass disillusion and the crash. This last, it will now be sufficiently evident, never comes gently. It is always accompanied by a desperate and largely unsuccessful effort to get out.

So, what can be done?

Yet beyond a better perception of the speculative tendency and process itself, there probably is not a great deal that can be done. Regulation outlawing financial incredulity or mass euphoria is not a practical possibility. If applied generally to such human condition, the result would be an impressive, perhaps oppressive, and certainly ineffective body of law.

The Review…

I like his style. Short sentences. Concise. He has thought the issues through for a long, long time. They are worked out in his head. At just over a hundred pages, this book reads fast and can be finished in one sitting. Galbraith writes with a dry sense of humour. It is almost as if he finds it amusing that the cycle of boom and bust will repeat again and again. In the first edition, he hopes that readers of his book will be inured against the cycle of boom and bust. Three years later in the 1993 edition, he is no longer so sure: he had overestimated the power of the rational mind to overcome the allure of wealth. All that glitters is gold.

This is an uncommonly common sense book. With all the soul-searching on the events leading up to the Great Recession, Galbraith’s A Short History of Financial Euphoria has something to say. He would say that: 1) rising house values were based on real factors, 2) once people got wind of how money can be made of flipping houses, the speculation began, 3) as the mania increased, speculators resorted to using more and more leverage, 4) when housing prices fell, as they do from time to time, there was a mad rush to get out, which led to a bust, 5) the blame for the bust falls on the speculators as much as it does on the banks or capitalism, 6) there was nothing that the regulators could have done, and 7) it will happen again, and soon.

What Galbraith doesn’t say is equally as interesting. While he says that busts can depress countries for years, he doesn’t say for how long. For example, take the Great Depression. The commonly cited doom and gloom statistic is that it took the Dow twenty-five years to return to 387, the high point in October 1929. There are many stock charts that illustrate this calamity. But factor in dividends (the stock chart doesn’t include dividends, which amounted to about 14% of the return) and deflation (even though prices were down, the purchasing power of each dollar went up because goods and services cost less), it took the Dow–drum-roll here–four and a half years to recover.

What Galbraith doesn’t say is that, during a bust, the best thing to do may be to do nothing. If you do do something, do not sell. Buy. With some patience, busts may be godsends. Keep some powder dry. Another example of a bust Galbraith gives is Canary Wharf. While Paul Reichman, the developer, did go bust in 1992, the Canary Wharf development recovered to become the main financial centre of UK and one of the main financial hubs of the world. His vision, if not his use of leverage, was vindicated. It’s the same with the Great Recession of 2008 or the Dot-Com bust of 2000: do nothing and investments will recover. While Galbraith’s book focusses on the human tendency to speculate and bust, that negative tendency is counterbalanced by the human capacity to work through crises to emerge stronger. It would be interesting to see how investors would have fared in each of the busts he discusses if they had simply held on and done nothing.

The other thing that Galbraith doesn’t talk about is why people pursue speculative excess. He does say that it is motivated by want of gain. And he does write about the notable incidents since the 1600s when speculators were wrong: Tulip Mania, the Banque Royale, the South Sea Company, and so on. But what if the speculators were not as misguided as he believe?–sometimes speculators win! Since the beginning of the bull market on March 9, 2009, Royal Caribbean Cruises is up 1911%, Apple is up 1715%, Alaska Air is up 1818%, and there are many others. To me, the true question to ask is whether speculation can be, in many instances, justified. If, on every occasion, rapid price escalation ends in a wailing and a gnashing of teeth, the answer is no. But that appears not to be the case. Many instances prove otherwise.

All in all, an excellent book in need of an indexer.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Deflation: What Happens When Prices Fall – Farrell

228 pages, Collins, 2004

Book Blurb

Deflation is one o the most feared terms in economics. It immediately conjures visions of abandoned farms and idle factories, and streams of unemployed workers standing in breadlines.

In this important new book Chris Farrell explains that deflation need not presage a collapse. In the process he provides new ways of looking at our economic and financial futures. More than an introduction to the subject, Farrell points out that deflation has always been a fundamental aspect of the business cycle.

As they did in 19th century America, deflation and fast economic growth can coexist. However, the impact on business, consumers, investors, policymakers–and you–is the subject of this incisive volume.

Author Blurb

Chris Farrell, contributing economics editor at BusinessWeek, is an award-winning journalist who started writing about the New Economy in the early 1990s. Chris is also economics editor for Sound Money, a one-hour nationally syndicated weekly personal finance call-in show produced by Minnesota Public Radio. He is chief economics correspondent for American RadioWorks, a regular commentator for Nightly Business Report, Marketplace, MSNBC, and CNNfn, as well as author of Right on the Money!: Taking Control of Your Personal Finances.

Deflation: What Happens When Prices Fall Review

Chapter 1

Parallels between the 1920s (automobiles, radios, electric power, appliances) and the 1990s (internet, new economy). Will the bubble pop? Is a Great Recession around the corner? Greenspan is worried. The Fed is worried. Deflation in 2002 affects 13.1% of all countries, quite a rise from 1.2% in 1996. Japan, which functions like a canary in a coal mine, has been, since 1989, the deflation nation. Run to the hills!

Chapter 2

Globalization and the internet encourage deflation by allowing third world countries access to join the global labour pool. Discount retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target wring out cost inefficiencies out of the retail supply chain promote deflation. In the 90s, General Electric CEO Jack Welch structured GE to handle the impending threat of deflation. From 1776 to 1965, price index level in US essentially flat.

Chapter 3

There is no empirical link between deflation and depression: deflation gets a bad rep from one occurrence. Unfortunately, that occurrence was the Great Depression. Prices stable in nineteenth century thanks to gold standard. Monetarism or the quantity theory of money developed by David Hume holds that changes in the quantity of money drive inflation and deflation. 0.8% deflation each year in Britain from 1875-1896. Even more in US: from 1870-1900 prices fell 1.5% annually. But these deflations were accompanied by rapid economic expansion and higher living standards. For example, wages in Britain went up 33% from 1875-1900 and 84% from 1850-1900. China and Japan’s recent deflation (the book came out in 2004) from 1998-2002 was also benign and accompanied by economic growth.

Chapter 4

Three pervasive and structural factor make deflation likely: 1) globalization (worldwide competition in previously insular markets, international trade goes up for 13% in 1970 to 33% in 2002), 2) rise of the information age increases productivity as industry learns how to use computers and the internet, and 3) rise of central bankers who target inflation. By targeting inflation at low levels (e.g. 2%), deflation is always around the corner. The gold standard is replaced by credibility in central banks. BRIC countries, at 6% of the G6 economies (2002), can exceed G6 in less than 40 years.

Chapter 5

Economic growth comes from neither spending nor saving, but innovation says Schumpeter and his disciples. Late nineteenth century politics dominated by monetary policy. Populists wanted inflation, debt relief, and bimetal standard. Free silver moment had high point in 1896 with William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Wizard of Oz is allegory of 1890s monetary policy: cowardly lion is Bryan, cyclone is depression-era foreclosures, wizard is President McKinley. Oz is ounce, the measure of gold and silver. Central bankers fear deflation because it redistributes income from debtors to creditors. Easier for Fed to control inflation (by raising rates) than to control deflation (can’t force nominal benchmark interest rate below 0%–but this conventional wisdom has changed since the writing of the book with negative interest rates in European countries and quantitative easing in the US).

Chapter 6

Money is a standard of exchange and a measure of value. “Credit” from Latin term credere “to believe.” Great moments in financial history: Bank of England established in late seventeenth century, preference shares and debentures aided capital flow for railway building in eighteenth century, investors could access home mortgages in the 1970s through securitization. “Substantial inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon,” says Friedman. CPI fails to capture improvements in quality. CPI struggles to incorporate new technologies. CPI fails to capture how homeowners are not buying the same basket of goods. If orange juice goes up in price, homeowners may buy apple juice instead. As a result, CPI may overstate inflation by 0.5 to 1.5% (is this an investable idea?–e.g. buy TIPS or real return bonds, which are based on an overstated CPI figure). Federal Reserve Board created in 1913 to address the 1907 credit crunch. J.P. Morgan had ended the credit crunch privately, people wanted the government to take this role.

Chapter 7

The great and often passionate interest that is evoked by practical questions relating to money and its value, can only be explained by the fact that the monetary system of a people reflects all that a people wants, all that it suffers, all that it is; as well as by the fact that a people’s monetary system is an important influence on its economy and on the fate of society in general. – Joseph Schumpeter

US economy fell by a third from 1929-1933. Real rate of interest during Great Depression (fall in CPI + nominal interest rate) reached 15% in 1931 and 1932. What caused Great Depression?–Keynes blames collapse in business confidence, Friedman and Schwartz blame the Fed, Termin blames fall in consumer spending, Schumpeter argues economy plagued by underconsumption, Bernanke credit contraction, Kindleberger fall in commodity prices, and Galbraith the bursting of the stock market bubble. Depression works good by wiping away speculative excess says Schumpeter, Hayek, Robbins, Mellon, and others of the liquidationist perspective. In 1931, 47 countries on gold standard, by 1936 gold standard was abandoned.

Chapter 8

More than half WWII soldiers coming back from war saw another depression. Instead they came back to a roaring boom. 1982 unemployment at 10% and inflation at 14% at 1980. 1970s inflation due to lack of credibility at Fed under Burns and Miller. But who could see inflation coming?–from 1800 to 1970 inflation averaged 0.4%. At Bretton Woods, gold fixed at $35 an ounce (interesting, if we input $35 into a US inflation calculator, $35 in 1944 would be worth $501 in 2018. An ounce of gold today goes for $1281. Gold has done well under a fiat currency). Government spending to GDP 8% in 1913, 21% in 1950 and 31% in 1973 (today, in 2018 it has breached 37%, government is getting bigger in relation to the rest of the economy). Paul Volcker takes a 2×4 to inflation!

Chapter 9

In 1956 the typical American works 16 weeks for each 100 sq/ft of house; in 2002 it is now 14 weeks for each 100 sq/ft of house (in Victoria in 2018, it has gotten worse: it costs about 60 weeks of work for each 100 sq/ft of house). Percentage of American who describe themselves has happy, despite rising economic indicators, has not moved in 50 years: widespread material abundance cannot overcome a sense lives lack purpose.

Chapter 10

Half of US households own stocks making deflation an important issue. Long-term Treasury bonds do well during deflation: Alfred Lee Loomis and Landon Thorne made a killing during the Great Depression by swapping stocks into T-bills. During mild inflation and deflation real returns of stocks and bonds are similar. But during pronounced deflation (>2.5%) stocks tank. In today’s deflationary environment (defined as a world in which central banks target inflation at 2% and technological innovation puts downwards pressure on prices), 3.5-4% economic growth possible. Couple this with a dividend yield of 1.6% (on the Dow), a real return of 5-6% is possible. Mathematics suggests, with bond yields at 40-year lows, little capital appreciation is possible in fixed-income, where a return between 3-4% is realistic. From 1991-1996 the stock market returned 17.9%. Traders who engaged in the highest levels of trading pocketed only 11.4%.

Chapter 11

The world needs more globalization to increase prosperity and keep a lid on inflation. Farmers make up 2% of the workforce today, compared to 20% in the 1930s, yet over last two decades they have gotten 300 billion in aid: why not, for example, outsource farming to developing nations? Reform the social security net by making health care universal. Simplify the tax code to reduce compliance costs.

Some Thoughts…

This is one of the more accessible books on deflation out there. Farrell’s view of deflation, however, is interesting. I think–but am not sure–that he’s claiming that we already experience deflation today. His argument runs something like this: we experience (mild) deflation because: 1) the Fed, to preserve credibility in the post gold standard world, aggressively targets inflation at 2%, which is almost like having deflation, 2) the CPI figure the Fed uses as a benchmark overstates inflation because consumers shop opportunistically and goods have more features, 3) globalization increases competition, driving down costs, and 4) technology wrings out cost-inefficiencies, driving down costs. With this view of deflation, Farrell dispels the commonplace notion that deflation is to be feared, a notion that we got from associating the Great Depression with deflation. Mild deflation (or inflation) contributes to global prosperity.

Is the deflation scenario investable? Farrell advocates holding a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds, and to continue investing in human capital (learning new skills, taking courses or certificate programs). His advice doesn’t stand out from what the crowd is saying, and I found this disappointing. I had been looking for tips on how to invest during deflation. The lack of specific advice and his definition of deflation (see above paragraph) stood out to me.

How would long bonds, the classic deflation hedge, have done from 2004 (when the book came out) to 2017? Plugging the numbers into the handy online asset mixer, long bonds would have returned 4.9%. How would the TSX Composite (including dividends) have fared?–7.9%. How would the S&P 500 have fared?–8.4%. So, in hindsight, Farrell was right to have advocated a diversified portfolio of stocks instead of the long bonds, the traditional investment of choice during deflation. I do, however, call to question whether the 2000s will be remembered as a deflationary period. As always, Farrell’s book serves as a reminder that the world of finance can always surprise you. In finance, “this time is not different” until it is. Take, for example, the widespread use of quantitative easing and negative interest rates that were, in 2004, unthinkable.

What I liked about Farrell’s book is how it recounts the history of the gold standard and the rise of the Fed when the gold standard ran out of gas. The narrative of how the Fed had to rise to contain inflation caused by profligate government spending makes sense. Before, when gold was the standard, the money supply was limited by the amount of gold. If governments spent recklessly, gold would flee the country. This was a sort of check to government spending. But in today’s age of fiat currencies, governments can print money. In a world of printed money, you have to find a way of making money more scarce so that money doesn’t flee your country: the answer is the Fed, which makes money scarcer by making it more expensive by hiking rates.

Another thing I noticed: it’s hard to make predictions. Farrell predicted that the BRIC countries, which accounted for 6% of the G6 economies in 2002, could exceed the economic output of the G6 economies “in less than 40 years.” Well, as of 2017 (fifteen years later), the BRIC countries already exceed the G6 economies by 50%!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition – January 2019 Update

Happy New Years, it’s time to ring in 2019 with the latest press release from assiduous competition manager Michael Armstrong!–

Exciting New Playwriting Opportunity!

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December 28, 2018. Victoria, BC, Canada

Hello fellow playwrights and theatre artists,

The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition is an exciting new playwriting competition dedicated specifically to the creation of contemporary tragedies. The competition is hosted by the Langham Court Theatre in Victoria, BC, Canada, and is sponsored by critic, Edwin Wong. We received our first submission on June 4, this past summer, four days after we opened the competition.

To date, we have already received over fifty plays from around the world. From Australia to Ireland, from New York to Los Angeles, from Toronto and London. As we move closer to our deadline of March 29, 2019, we expect the pace of submissions to pick up. We are well on our way to exceeding our expectations for this first iteration of our unique competition. Three judges, one each from England, the United States, and Canada, successful writers and critics in their own right, are looking forward to reading your plays.

If you have not yet entered our competition, we invite you to check us out at risktheatre.com for more information about our competition. Prizes include $8000 for first place and four runner-up prizes of $500 each. The winning playwright will also receive a stipend of up to $1000 to travel to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, for a professionally led workshop at Langham Court Theatre (our host) that will culminate in a staged reading. We have also approached several significant theatres in the US, Canada and England towards an agreement to read our finalists. More on this later.

In addition, all of the playwrights that enter the competition will receive a copy of our sponsor’s book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected by Edwin Wong, which is due out this February.

Thank you for your interest and support of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. Happy writing, wherever you are!

Yours truly,

Michael Armstrong. Playwright, Actor, Director.
Competition Manager
tragedycompetition@gmail.com

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft – Allen

2011, Penguin, 358 pages

Book Blurb

“The entire conversation took five minutes. When it was over, Bill and I looked at each other. It was one thing to talk about writing a language for a microprocessor and another to get the job done…. If we’d been older or known better, Bill and I might have been put off by the task in front of us. But we were young and green enough to believe that we just might pull it off.”

Paul Allen, best known as the cofounder of Microsoft, has left his mark on numerous fields, from aviation and science to rock’n’roll, professional sports, and philanthropy. His passions and curiosity have transformed the way we live. In 2007 and again in 2008, Time named him one of the hundred most influential people in the world.

It all started on a snowy day in December 1974, when he was twenty-one years old. After buying the new issue of Popular Electronics in Harvard Square, Allen ran to show it to his best friend from Seattle, Bill Gates, then a Harvard undergrad. The magazine’s cover story featured the Altair 8800, the first true personal computer; Allen know that he and Gates had the skills to code a programming language for it. When Gates agreed to collaborate on BASIC for the Altair, one of the most influential partnerships of the digital era was up and running.

While much has been written about Microsoft’s early years, Allen has never before told the story from his point of view. Nor has he previously talked about the details of his complex relationship with Gates or his behind-closed-doors perspective on how a struggling start-up became the most powerful technology company in the world. Idea Man is the candid and long-awaited memoir of an intensely private person, a tale of triumphant highs and terrifying lows.

After becoming seriously ill with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1982, Allen began scaling back his involvement with Microsoft. He recovered and started using his fortune–and his ideas–for a life of adventure and discovery, from the first privately funded spacecraft (SpaceShipOne) to a landmark breakthrough in neuroscience (the Allen Brain Atlas). His eclectic ventures all begin with the same simple question: What should exist? As Allen has written:

To me, that the most exciting question imaginable…. From technology to science to music to art, I’m inspired by those who’ve blurred the boundaries, who’ve looked at the possibilities, and said, “What if…?” In my own work, I’ve tried to anticipate what’s coming over the horizon, to hasten its arrival, and to apply it to people’s lives in a meaningful way…. The varied possibilities of the universe have dazzled me since I was a child, and they continue to drive my work, my investments and my philanthropy.

Idea Man is an astonishing true story of ideas made real.

Author Blurb

Paul Allen is the billionaire technologist and philanthropist who cofounded Microsoft with Bill Gates. He is the chairman of Vulcan Inc. and founder of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. He also owns the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers, and is co-owner of the Seattle Sounders pro soccer team. He lives on Mercer Island, Washington.

Idea Man

A few months ago, me and JS were chatting at work about what we can learn from good role models. I mentioned Warren Buffett and Elon Musk. From Buffett, I learned of optimism. For example, when asked how I’m doing, like Buffett, I answer, “Never better.” It gets the conversation flowing in the right direction. From Musk, I learned how important it is to be a showman when promoting your ideas. Great ideas need great presentation. There was a Tesla AGM a few years back. The issue with electric cars was that they take too long to charge. Musk came up with the idea of Tesla service stations where they would swap out your battery. On the big stage, he had a mock-up of a service station. An actor drove up a Tesla for a battery swap. On the video screen, he had another actor pull up to the fastest gas pump in LA to fill up an Audi. He set it up as a competition. While the Audi was being filled up, the first battery swap was complete. Then the second Tesla rolled up…then the third…the crowd went wild. That’s showmanship!

JS then mentioned his influences. One of them was Paul Allen, who had recently passed away (October 15, 2018, aged 65). JS suggested that we read Allen’s book Idea Man and compare notes. He had been impressed by Allen’s role as one of the founding fathers of the digital revolution and his subsequent ventures into the arts and sciences. I picked up a copy at the library and started reading. By the way, the library is the best resource in the world!

What can I say about Paul Allen’s character? Much of his success can be attributed to his perseverance. He spent three years talking to Bill Gates about the personal computer concept before convincing him to create a BASIC code for the Altair 8080 (in the 70s, the personal computer wasn’t such a sure thing: the standard model was for large institutions to rent out computing power to clients). Another of Allen’s strengths was that he was a good communicator. Till his last days with Microsoft, he would wander the halls and chat with programmers to work out solutions with them.  Allen spends much of the book talking about his fascination with ideas, and this is perhaps his strongest characteristic. It is his fascination with ideas that motivated him to revolutionize how we use computers. It is his fascination with ideas that motivated him to launch the SpaceShipOne venture, one of the first private attempts at spaceflight. It is his fascination with ideas that motivated him to team up with Carl Sagan to fund SETI. It is his fascination with ideas that motivated him to launch the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Allen reminds me of Goethe’s Faust, who defines himself by continually striving. Allen is like Faust, who, up to his dying day, can be found working on monumental projects such as reclaiming land by building a series of dikes to push back the sea.

Allen had his strengths, but he also had his weaknesses. He is not as dominant a personality as his peers and colleagues, such as Bill Gates and Clyde Drexler. As a result, one feels that sometimes he could have done better in negotiations. He comes across as learned, but he does not come across as someone fascinating. Innovators such as Musk, Jobs, or Gates come across as fascinating. Allen seems more down to earth. A good way to put it is that he surrounds himself with people more fascinating than himself. I’d have a beer with Jobs or Musk. But I’m not so sure if I’d like to have a beer with Allen.

Now the book is 358 pages long, and you can say quite a bit in 358 pages. There is one peculiar and glaring omission: nothing about his love life or relationships with women. He’s close with his mom, and quite close with his sister (who also takes leadership roles in his philanthropy projects), but there’s nothing about romantic relationships. From reading the book you’d think that all his life he’s either coding or playing guitar or pursuing space travel. That’s hard to believe. Remember that even Descartes, who locked himself in an attic to come up with the irreducible human axiom upon which to base all philosophy (which turned out to be “I think, therefore I am”) managed to get his maid pregnant. Perhaps his credo could have been modified to read, “I reproduce, therefore I am”? It would have been interesting to have read about Allen’s romantic relationships, and to learn about how they affected his thinking.

The takeaway from this book? Allen teaches us to pursue our ideas. He teaches us how powerful childhood is: it is during his childhood that he developed a fascination for programming, AI, space travel, and the hidden workings of the mind. He talks about mortality in the book (two brushes with cancer), and the book reminds me of my own mortality. His breakthrough year when he started programming BASIC to run the Altair was 1974, the same year I was born. Now Allen is gone. The time to want it all and to do it all is right now. This is something we can all take away from this book.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition – December 2018 Update

Stats, stats, stats!

Thank you assiduous playwrights for all your entries! Here are the vital statistics since the competition began seven months ago on June 1, 2018. Fifty-one plays have come in from three continents (North American, Europe, and Oceania) and five countries (USA, Canada, UK, Australia, and Ireland). Here’s the country breakdown:

USA 43 entrants

Canada 4 entrants

Australia 1 entrant

England 2 entrants

Ireland 1 entrant

Of the American entries, 29 are from the east and 14 are from the west. There is a concentration of dramatists in New York (nine entrants) and Chicago (four entrants) and LA (three entrants). Write away New York, Chicago, and LA!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 37 men and 15 women. While the balance may seem to tilt towards male writers, in a historical context, the numbers are quite progressive: prior to the twentieth century, I only know of one tragedy written by a woman. That play is The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry, written by Elizabeth Cary in 1613. The times, they are a changing!

The risktheatre.com website is averaging 16 hits a day this December. Most hits in a day was 196 back in June 2018 when the contest launched. That month also saw 2000+ hits. December 2018 is on pace for 500 views. So far, so good!

The inaugural competition will conclude on March 29, 2019. Three months left. My book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected is due out February 2019. This coincides nicely with the March date. Complimentary copies will be going out to all the hardworking playwrights who have sent in their scripts. Keep up the good work and thanks for contributing to the success of this one of a kind competition. The book isn’t necessary for the competition: the judges will be scoring plays based on the parameters found in the ‘Guidelines’ section of the risktheatre.com website.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Coherent Audio – Retro 15 Neo Be Speaker Review

This is a review of the “Retro 15 Neo Be” speaker. It’s a drop-dead gorgeous horn-loaded and hand-made speaker by Frank Fazzalari, founder of Coherent Audio, a small Canadian speaker manufacturer operating out of Stoney Creek, Ontario. The speaker measures 22″ long x 13″ deep x 34″ high. They sit on small stands which raise them 7″ off the ground. This places the tweeter at approximately ear height for seated listeners. On the rear of the cabinet there are two ports. Rear wave resonances are tamed by lattice slats inside the cabinet rather than the more commonly seen polyfill insulation. The front baffle sounds solid when you knock on it. The sides sound less solid. And the top sounds hollow. I believe Frank has tuned the cabinet by using panels of different thicknesses. Like Audio Note speakers, these cabinets are designed to resonate. This philosophy of cabinet design contrasts with the current craze to make cabinets as inert as possible by using multiple layers of composite materials or, in some cases, aluminum enclosures.

The speakers probably weigh close to eighty pounds–one person can move them, but with difficulty. The level of woodworking, from how the terminal posts are inset into the cabinet to how the model name is stamped into the cabinet, is superb. I think of these speakers as a piece of fine furniture that happens to convert electrical into sound energy. Size and finish wise, they bear a physical resemblance to the DeVore Orangutan O/96, another lovely and well-regarded speaker.

This is the demo pair from Coherent Audio’s booth at the 2017 Toronto Audio Visual Entertainment Show, otherwise known as “TAVES.” There they were powered by a Triode Amps 2A3 setup, a captivating combination of a lower power tube amplifier with a high efficiency speaker. Since there were no local dealers, I travelled to Toronto to have a listen. Also on the listening list at TAVES were the JBL Synthesis K2 ($80,000), the GoldenEar Triton Reference ($11,000), and various speakers by PMC. PMC champions transmission line cabinets where the rear wave of the speaker goes through a tuned labyrinth. They claim that this results in deeper and more integrated bass than either sealed or ported designs. I find this approach fascinating and wanted to have a listen. The GoldenEar Triton References were appealing because their low-end has been compared to that of the legendary Mirage M3s, a speaker I lived with and enjoyed for many years. They could produce subterranean bass that energizes the room. To be able to charge up a room is great fun. And the JBL I wanted to hear because JBL is a legend and the K2 was there attempt at a state-of-the-art horn design. Unlike the speakers by Coherent, GoldenEar, and PMC, I was not planning on buying the K2s. At $80,000 it was listening only! In the end, I purchased the Coherent Retro 15 Neo Be demo pair from Frank for $11,165 (CAD), shipping included. They were 3 months old, so they were pretty much new. At the time of writing this review, I’ve enjoyed the speaker for a year. This last year I moved, so I’ve also experienced how they perform in different settings.

At the heart of the Coherent Audio Retro 15 is a modified Radian 5215 15″ Neo Coaxial Speaker. These bad boys are designed for commercial applications, boast a 700 watt AES power handling capacity (!), and retail for $1200 (CAD) each. A 3″ horn loaded driver handling the frequencies above 800 Hz is built into the dustcap of the 15″ treated paper woofer, hence the “coaxial” designation. The advantage of coaxial designs is that the low and high frequency drivers are time-aligned. Conventional speakers that have separate woofers and tweeters mounted on a panel are not time-aligned: the different frequencies arrive at the ear fractions of a second apart, smearing the presentation. Heroic crossover design can ameliorate this, but with a coaxial speaker, time alignment happens automatically. The Radian 5215s combine two great technologies. They are time-aligned. And they are, above 800 Hz, horn loaded, which makes them super efficient. With one or two watts of power, they will fill most rooms with concert hall levels of sound. On a side note, Radian is the last manufacturer who still builds and assembles all their drivers in the USA.

What modifications has Frank done to the Radian 5215? He took off the dustcap so you can see the high-frequency horn in the centre of the speaker (no grilles come with the speaker). And he discarded the Radian designed crossover with an autoformer of his own devising. You see, the 5200 series Radian drivers were designed for punishing commercial use. The crossover was designed to protect the speakers, not for audiophile sound. Sound wise, it’s like a horse-blanket. Frank’s genius was to recognize that, if he could come up with an audiophile crossover, the Radian 5215 could be the centrepiece of a world-class home loudspeaker. Traditional crossovers use resistors to match different sensitivities of low- mid, and high-frequency drivers. Autoformers match drivers of different sensitivities by multiplying impedances. Autoformers are much more expensive than resistors. They are, however, much more efficient than resistors, which dissipate the power produced by the amplifier as heat. With autoformers, the amp never has to produce this extra power since the driver appears to the amp as a higher impedance device. The “first watt” crowd will love the autoformer concept: musical purity favours simpler, lower power designs. Klipsch is another manufacturer that combines high-efficiency horns with autoformers, at least in their “Heritage” line.

Horn loudspeakers are the holy grail to me. Horns are efficient. Two or three watts of power is sufficient. No need for half-kilowatt monster amps. You have your choice of any amplifier. Single-ended triode?–check. Output transformerless OTLs?–check. Class A tube or transistor?–check. Huge Krells?–you could use these too. The horn colouration, if anything is an advantage. Commercial speakers, because efficiency is important, are invariably horn loaded. As a result, we naturally associate the sound of horns with live music. Though horns can play loud, they sound extremely pleasing at low volumes. This is true of the Coherent Retro 15s as well as the Klipsch LaScala, another horn I lived with happily for many years. They are a great late night speaker. Horns are quite different than Magnepan panels in this regard. I have owned the MG-II and, more recently, the 3.7i. I love them, but you always are reaching for the volume to turn them higher, and they just soak up the power. Not so with horns. Late night listening sessions are possible with horns. Horns take you closer to the music, as they project more direct sound towards the listener.

While both the Coherent Retro 15s and the Klipsch La Scala use horns, the sound from the Retro 15s is more refined. The La Scalas, on the other hand, tend to grab you more viscerally. Another difference between the two is that the bass driver on the La Scala is a folded horn (a type of compact horn). The bass (and low midrange) handled by the 15″ woofer on the Retro 15s is not horn loaded. As a result, the cabinet size of the Retro 15s is about half the size of the La Scala, which is massive. Both speakers seem to put out a ton of bass. But it’s different bass than the bass from the latest ported speaker designs with multiple low-end drivers such as the Mirage M3 or the GoldenEar Triton References. Those speakers can convulse rooms. The bass from the Retro 15s and the La Scalas is more airy. And since many owners of horn speakers will be using low powered tube amps based on 300B or 2A3 tubes, the bass will have the bloomy tube sound. I’ve had tubes in the past, having built single ended 300B and OTL kits (I build speakers too, which is great fun). But right now, the Coherent Retro 15s are being powered by a Devialet 120 amplifier. It’s an all-in-one design, perfect for condo living: built into one box the size of a bathroom scale is a class A/D amp, a digital-analog converter (DAC), a world-class digital preamp, and a wireless function where you stream music from your computer. No more unsightly box and wire clutter from preamps, amps, transports, and D/A converters. Yay!

Frank expressed surprise when I told him I was going to be using the Devialet with his speaker. He’s built and tuned his speaker to work with tubes. At the show, he demoed the speaker with a 2A3 tube amp. What I love about the Devialet, however, is that it is dead quiet. It is dead quiet, dead accurate, and like horn speakers, it is–being a class A/D amp–efficient. At its hottest the chassis gets up to 45 Celsius. I’ve had tube amps I could fry eggs on. You know, the ones that input 100 watts of power and deliver 2 watts to the speakers. Who needs such inefficiency anymore? I love the Devialet’s analytic and revealing sound. Tubes are fun, but their euphonic characters sometimes add a pleasant bloom to the sound that isn’t there. This bloom masks subtle sonic cues and emphasizes others. Devialets are all about control and efficiency. And yes, you can use them with horns. My Devialet 120 started off as a Devialet 110 five years ago (purchased in 2013 sight unseen). It became a 120 from a free firmware upgrade. We’ll see more and more audio manufacturers take this route in the future. This is as good as Tesla owners who wake up one morning to find they have the new ‘ludicrous’ mode update.

How to the Coherent Retro 15s compare to other horns? Just as they were more refined than the La Scalas (a speaker I’d very happily purchase again), the JBL Synthesis K2s were that much more “airy” in the top end than the Retro 15s. But whereas the Synthesis K2s are a three-way design, the Retro 15s are a time-coherent two-way design. As I get older, I favour simplicity. Two-way rules! Then there are the Tannoy Ardens, another 15″ dual concentric speaker. The Retro 15s, however, blow this legendary speaker out of the water. I auditioned a used pair (with new surrounds in great condition) driven by McIntosh electronics. Like the Retro 15s, they had a big, big, lifelike sound. Perhaps even bigger than the Retro 15s, which have a laser focus to their presentation. But the bass from the Ardens was absolutely out of control. Bloated, big, and flabby. Some may like their gigantic presentation. But, to me, they’re out of control. I’ve also heard the Avantgarde Duos, but it’s been too long to draw comparisons. I do remember that I loved the sound of these beautiful art-pieces and that the powered DSP bass was module was a great idea. They must be going for close to $25,000 (CAD) these days, so they’re out of my price range. At least right now. Maybe one day down the line though. The Avantgarde Solo was in my price range, but they sounded congested.

Here’s one feature of horns that I find very interesting. I used to live in a New York style loft condo: the upstairs is open to the downstairs. One thing that horns do that no other speaker does is that they sound very lifelike from the next room. The speakers were downstairs, and I had a home gym upstairs. When working out, when the horns were playing, it would sound like a real band was playing downstairs. When I had box speakers, it would never sound that real. And the Magnepans sounded downright wrong. It must have something to do with the radiation pattern of the sound?

Now another interesting thing about all these high-efficiency horn speakers (the Retro 15s, La Scalas, Ardens, and K2s) is that, while they seem to pump prodigious bass out of huge boxes, they don’t actually go that deep. The lot of these speakers go down to the low 40s before dropping off. Considering that conventional ported box speakers with 8 or 12 inch drivers can routinely get down to 35 Hz or lower, this doesn’t seem so impressive. Of course, conventional box speakers are much less sensitive and need to be paired with big amps to achieve this. So low bass must be one of the tradeoffs of a horn design. Here’s how the Retro 15s measured from my listening chair (roughly 12′ from the speakers). Measurements taken with Galaxy Audio Checkmate CM-140 SPL meter:

  • 20Hz 59dB (-17dB)
  • 25Hz 59dB (-17dB)
  • 31.5Hz 64dB (-12dB)
  • 40Hz 66dB (-10dB)
  • 50Hz 68dB (-8dB)
  • 63Hz 66dB (-10dB)
  • 80Hz 76dB (0dB)
  • 100Hz 75dB (-1dB)
  • 125Hz 79dB (+3dB)
  • 160Hz 77dB (+1dB)
  • 200Hz 78dB (+2dB)
  • 250Hz 80dB (+2dB)

The Retro 15s measured similarly in my previous condo:

  • 20Hz 60dB (-24dB)
  • 25Hz 61dB (-23dB)
  • 31.5Hz 69dB (-15dB)
  • 40Hz 73dB (-11dB)
  • 50Hz 81dB (-3dB)
  • 63Hz 87dB (+3dB)
  • 80Hz 84dB (0dB)
  • 100 81dB (-3dB)
  • 125 79dB (-4dB)
  • 160 86dB (+2dB)
  • 200 84dB (0dB)
  • 250 84dB (0dB)

They’re fairly flat from 50Hz and up. The 50Hz (-8dB) and 63Hz (-10dB) dips at my current place have more to do with the room than the speaker. They drop off fairly sharply in the 40s and have useable bass down to the low 30s. One thing that’s been illuminating from measuring speakers: a “big” sound isn’t the same as deep bass. A lot of box speakers (such as the Mirage M3s and the Golden Ear Triton Reference) go lower, but the horns sound much bigger. Instruments and voices sound more solid, like they occupy a real space. Box speakers have a leaner, smoother presentation. Horns are raw and elemental. One of my friends, a jazz singer, commented that these were the first speakers she could make out subtle changes in pitch and timbre in her favourite vocal recordings.

To fill in the bottom octave, I went out searching for a subwoofer. Like many of you, I’ve had subs in the past. There was a Yamaha, a B&W, and Hsu. The Hsu ULS-15, a sealed 15″, was actually quite nice. And a good deal. I’ve never been able to perfectly mate the sub to the mains, though. The ULS-15 (with wireless option!) was probably the best of the bunch (the B&W was 12″, too small), but they were matched with the Magnepan 3.7i, a brilliant and exceedingly frustrating speaker. After much research, I ordered a Rythmik FV15HP. It’s a 15″ aluminum cone self-powered dual-ported sub. It is big and it plays at -2dB at 17Hz or -6dB at 12Hz. That’s pretty impressive. I use it with one port plugged. After months of hair-pulling tuning, fidgeting with knobs and controls, and moving things around, here are the frequency measurements with the sub at the listening chair:

  • 20Hz 77dB (+1dB)
  • 25Hz 70dB (-6dB)
  • 31.5Hz 71dB (-5dB)
  • 40Hz 80dB (+4dB)
  • 50Hz 77dB (+1dB)
  • 63Hz 75dB (-1dB)
  • 80Hz 76dB (0dB)
  • 100Hz 73dB (-3dB)
  • 125Hz 75dB (-1dB)
  • 160Hz 81dB (+5dB)
  • 200Hz 77dB (+1dB)
  • 250Hz 82dB (+6dB)

Not bad! +/- 6dB across the board! Purists will inevitably poo-poo adding a sub to such a brilliant time-coherent speaker, but purists be damned! The big sub is big fun. And, every once in a while, when a recording has deep bass (Bach organ music, Andy Stott, Portishead), one is rewarded. The sub also does a good job of bringing out bass guitar lines in rock music, say Springsteen. On most music, the effect of the sub is quite subtle, certainly more subtle than the measurements suggest. Unless I were doing A/B comparisons or listening to electronic music with room shaking bass, I probably couldn’t tell if the sub were on or off. The sub is positioned in a corner behind the right speaker. The left and right speakers are placed about 4′ from back wall (measured from front baffle), so that’s just enough room to fit the sub there. The right speaker almost conceals the sub. Almost. Did I say that the sub is big? And for those of you wondering: “Why not a sealed sub?” the answer is that at my old loft-style place the sub had to energize a 15,000 cubic foot space (30’x20’x25′). Although sealed subs may be more musical, a vented sub puts out power. At my new place, it’s quite overkill. It’s coasting along at maybe 10% of its capacity. Nothing wrong with that. Power in reserve.

How do the Coherent Retro 15s compare to the Magnepan Magneplanar 3.7i? With the Coherent speakers, you’re sitting in first row, like it or not. And with the Magnepan speakers, you’re sitting 20 rows back, like it or not. With the Coherent speakers, the treble is crisp. With the Magnepan speakers, the treble is silky smooth and extends into the air. With the Coherent speakers, you can hear where the left and right speakers are. The centre image is stable and focussed. The soundstage is contained between the speakers. With the Magnepan speakers, it’s harder to heard exactly where the left and right speakers are. The centre image is diffuse. The soundstage extends far beyond the edges of the left and right speakers, and the depth is awe-inspiring. The Coherent speakers are ever-present. The Magnepan speakers are ever-distant. With the Coherent speakers, the midrange is detailed and palpable. With the Magnepan speakers, the midrange is detailed and recessed. With the Coherent speakers (without the sub), the bass is articulate and light on its feet. With the Magnepan speakers, the bass is, well, different. The Retro 15s will play all types of music: from heavy metal to Lieder and from Bruckner’s symphonies to Woody Guthrie, they will perform. Despite what some aficionados say, the Maggies do not like Motorhead. I found that, with the Maggies, I would listen more to choral and symphonic works. The Maggies are good at recreating the empty space around the instruments such as the interior space of a cathedral. But their ability to do this comes at the expense of recreating the exciting and visceral punch of rock music. With the Coherent Retro 15s, I found myself tapping my feet more often. With the 3.7i, I found myself cranking up the volume and closing my eyes more often.

Frank hasn’t been the only audiophile interested in the Radian coaxial drivers. Live Act Audio out of Germany uses the same driver in their Emotion and Reference Series of speakers. The Emotion Series employs one coaxial driver in a ported box. The Reference Series employs a single coaxial driver with multiple bass drivers. Their Live Act Series 115 (LAS 115) is the closest model to the top of the line Retro 15 from Coherent. Front instead of dual rear ports. Similar size. Full floorstander, as opposed to the Retro 15, which sits on a compact 7″ stand. But while the Retro 15 retails for $11,165 (demo model, includes delivery), the LAS 115 retails for 29,990 Euros ($45,000 CAD). I don’t even want to know how much Live Act Audio’s top of the line Live Act Series 512 costs: it employs four 12″ bass drivers with a single 12″ Radian coaxial driver in a 2 – 1 – 2 configuration. I’m sure it sounds great. And I’m sure it goes for six-figures.

Though Coherent Audio is a small Canadian company run by what seems like a husband and wife team, local audiophiles seem to have heard of their speakers. The reason may be that there is a huge (well, huge by audiophile standards) following for Tannoy dual concentric speakers. The offerings from Coherent Audio offer a very viable and attractive alternative to purchasing used Tannoy speakers. The pair of Ardens I auditioned, for example, must have been 40+ years old. They had new surrounds put in at Sound Hounds. The cabinets had been reveneered and in great shape, but nothing like the beautiful fine furniture finish Coherent offers. For example, the Ardens have wood veneer sides, but sport a plain black front baffle. The Ardens were going for $3000. I offered $2800, but the owner wanted $3000 firm. And I’m sure he got it. In a way, I’m glad he didn’t accept my offer. Now I have the mighty Coherent Retro 15s. But if he had accepted my offer, it wouldn’t have been all that bad. The nice thing about vintage is that you can enjoy the speakers for a few years, and turn around and sell them for the same price. Rob at Q-Electronic has also heard about Coherent Audio and the Radian drivers. He’s going to come by for a listen one day. And if he likes them, he’s going to build a pair for his own use at home. Radian drivers are a hidden gem in the audio world.

Here’s a photo of the speakers in the listening room:

The Listening Room at the Global Warming Villa
Front baffle, comes with magnetic bezel around the driver
Dual ports on rear, note how the binding posts are perfectly flush with cabinet

These speakers sound great and look great. Frank is superb to deal with. My biggest worry was the shipping. But it turns out my fears were misplaced. They were professionally packaged in a box within another box. Both speakers were attached onto a single pallet and shrink wrapped. It was a joy to unpack them, as much though had gone into protecting them on their journey across Canada. I’m glad I went to TAVES 2017 to hear these speakers. Although they’re slightly off the beaten path, Frank exhibits regularly and it’s easy to find him. I’m a very satisfied customer.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Performance Studies International (PSI) – Call for Proposals

Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) hosts a lively online discussion forum known as the “Listserv.” Once you subscribe to the group, emails on opportunities such as this one pop up into your inbox regularly:

CALL FOR PROPOSALS

Performance Studies international

PSi #25 2019: “Elasticity”

School of Creative and Performing Arts, University of Calgary
Calgary, Alberta, CANADA
July 4 – 7, 2019


Extreme fluctuation is a basic aspect of life in Calgary. Situated between the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and the plains of the Prairies, nestled in the bed of the powerful Bow River, Calgary’s landscape is perhaps the most visible manifestation of this characteristic. An elastic and resilient ecosystem is demanded of an environment where springtime flooding is followed by prolonged draught and wildfires in the summer, and where winter chinooks can result in 30-degree temperature fluctuations in a single day. This reality is well known to the region’s indigenous population, while settler cultures continue to acclimatize. The economy, political imagination, educational systems, professional opportunities, and performing arts industry follow a comparable pattern of highs and lows, fluctuating between plenty and scarcity. It is with growing concern that we recognize this defining pull to extremes reflected on a far larger scale in global environmental, political, economic, and humanitarian contexts. As polar oppositions continue to intensify, with ever fewer checks and balances in place, we invite the PSi community to address the demands that extreme fluctuation places on the elasticity of connective tissues/processes, as well as the available modes of response.

Elasticity involves the ability to be shaped by an external force and to return to an original configuration if that force is removed. It refers to the adaptability and plasticity of networked connections, and although elastic tissue has a snapping point, it is far more resilient than inflexible materials.  

We call for proposals of panelspapersperformance presentations and workshops involving scholarly and creative reflection on the subject of elasticity as it applies to a wide range of performance studies topics, areas and contexts. These include, but are not limited to:

– The performance of resource-sharing, from the transfer of nutrients in root systems to alternative forms of social organization
– Modes of resistance, resilience and revision within social, political, cultural and artistic dynamics
– Collaboration as adaptation in social and artistic organizational structures and processes
– Elasticity as personal, cultural and/or creative strategy
– Creative strategies and techniques that enhance neuroplasticity and their transferability to other domains
– The elasticity of negotiations between artist/performer and the public
– Performance space as a malleable factor, both for artist and public
– Indigeneity, reconciliation and performance
– Productive economies and creative practice
– Networking places, performers and audiences
– Cultural policies and global impacts
– How spaces, environments and climates shape social, political, cultural and artistic performance
– Design as the ‘stage’ for elasticity, resilience, recovery … the return from ‘breaking points’

FORMATS

We welcome proposals that demonstrate conceptual and/or formal elasticity – that is, which respect and reflect but also adapt and extend the established practices of traditional conference proceedings. Individuals and groups are invited to submit proposals within the following formats:

Papers: 20 minutes individual presentations (may involve performance elements requiring minimal technical support)

Panels: 90 minute curated sessions involving 3-4 pre-selected individual paper presentations (or the collaborative equivalent; may involve performance elements requiring minimal technical support)

Performances: 60 minute individual or group sessions, presentational and/or immersive/participatory in nature, involving modest performance technical support within a studio/rehearsal hall configuration. Can involve an optional, integrated lecture component.

Workshops: 60-90 minute individual or group sessions, facilitating experiential knowledge.

Alternate Formats: 20-90 minute individual and/or group sessions adopting alternate, site-specific and/or experimental approaches. Venues and support are to be negotiated with the conference organizers.

Proposals should be maximum 300 words in length, in addition to the following information:

Name(s) of presenters
Geographic location
Institutional affiliation
 (if any)
Email address and phone number(s)
Technical and venue support required/requested (as detailed as possible)
Short Bio(s) for each presenter (maximum 50 words each)

Please note
: while the final abstracts will be published in both English and the original language of participants, we request that proposals be submitted in English.

The deadline for submissions is Friday, December 5th, 2018. Please send all proposals to psi25calgary@ucalgary.ca, indicating your choice of presentation format in the subject title (for instance, “ALTERNATIVE” or “PAPER”).

For more information, consult the PSi#25 website at www.psi2019calgary.com. Additional information regarding registration and accommodation will be posted to the site shortly.

Conference Convenors:

Pil Hansen
Bruce Barton

School of Creative and Performing Arts, University of Calgary
Well, Calgary is an awesome city. I was there earlier this year speaking at a conference hosted by the Department of Classics and Religion at the university. I had a great time. The city is actually quite multicultural, not at all like what I had thought. In the downtown core there are fantastic skyscrapers. There’s one “Bow” building that’s curved like a bow. The building is supported externally with a criss-cross of metal columns so that the inside is wide open and expansive. Cool. To get around in the winters, there’s a series of walkways that connect all the buildings downtown so that you can literally walk from one end of town to another without having to set foot outside. I like well thought out schemes like this. And the conference theme of “elasticity” looks promising. Many of the papers might be on the future of drama. Or so I hope and imagine. It all looked so good that I put in a paper proposal. Here it is:
Tragedy’s Masks: The Elasticity of Tragic Theory from Aristotle to Today
Interpretations of tragedy fluctuate from one extreme to another. Averroës translates tragedy as “eulogy” or a poem of praise. To Albert the Great, however, tragedy amounts to a recitation of dirty deeds. This paper examines why, unlike the terms philosophy, history, and comedy (which also derive from ancient Greek), tragedy is an elastic term. It provides examples of how this elasticity allows literary theorists to come up with fruitfully ambiguous interpretations of tragedy and concludes by proposing an exciting new interpretation of tragedy.
Because the term tragedy is elastic, tragic theory is a product of its age. In ages interested in final causes, tragic theory focusses on teleological interpretations: the goal of tragedy, according to Aristotle, is to elicit catharsis from the audience. In a Newtonian age full of motion and equal and opposite reactions, tragedy becomes a dramatization of colliding moral forces, as exemplified by Hegel. And in ages interested in psychology, tragedy becomes a battleground of conscious and unconscious drives, as exemplified by Nietzsche.
Today’s world is increasingly interconnected with the result that local bets carry global implications: think of the Great Recession, Fukushima, Deepwater horizon, artificial intelligence, and gene editing. As such, there is a popular fascination with risk: what happens when low-probability, high-consequence events derail the perfect bet? Theatre can tap into this fascination by reimagining tragedy as a theatre of risk. In the risk theatre interpretation of tragedy, heroes’ best-laid plans are upset by low-probability, high-consequence events such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. To see how this new model of tragedy works, the writer has teamed up with Langham Court Theatre to inaugurate the 2019 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition, the largest playwriting competition in the world dedicated to the writing of tragedy (see risktheatre.com).
Short Bio
Edwin Wong received a MA in the Classics from Brown University, where he concentrated in ancient theatre. He is currently finishing a book on tragic literary theory, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. He lives in Victoria, BC.
Fingers crossed for an email accepting the proposal. Then it’s time to take risk theatre back on the road!
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for A Baroque Masterpiece – Siblin

2009, Anansi, 319 pages

Book Blurb

Part biography, part music history, and part literary mystery, The Cello Suites is a dramatic narrative featuring legendary composer Johann Sebastian Bach, world-renowned cellist Pablo Casals, and author Eric Siblin’s own quest to uncover the mysteries that continue to haunt this musical masterpiece.

Author Blurb

Eric Siblin is the bestselling author of The Cello Suites, which won the Quebec Writers’ Federation Mavis Gallant Nonfiction Prize and McAuslan First Book Prize; was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize, and the BC National Award for Canadian Nonfiction; and has so far been published in ten territories and seven languages. He live in Montreal, Quebec.

Interpreters, Interpreters, Interpreters!

Artists need interpreters. Composers especially need interpreters. Music is unlike a painting where the viewer can engage with a work directly. And music is unlike a play, where the reader, particularly a reader with a vivid imagination, can engage with the text directly. The composer “paints” or “types” the piece onto a musical score which consists of a series of dots and lines on a five bar line. The case today is that most people are musically illiterate. They cannot read music. For this reason, composers are in especial need of interpreters. Were it not for Felix Mendelssohn, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion would have languished in obscurity. Were it not for Glenn Gould, Bach’s Goldberg Variations may as well have been forgotten. A capable interpreter champions the artist to a new generation of listeners. In light of this, Pablo Casals is the star of Siblin’s book.

In The Cello Suites, Siblin recounts how a young Casals, stricken by the sound of the cello (which, having the same register as a male voice, speaks or sings with a resonant and full sound), began searching for works written for that instrument, and how at age 14, found a dusty copy of six suites for cello solo by Bach in a second-hand shop in Barcelona near the harbour. The Cello Suites were seldom played in concerts. And, for hundreds of years, they had not been performed publicly from start to finish. It was considered to be an etude, an exercise. It was not musical. Casals would change this. Before the first public performance of the six suites with all the repeats, Casals would spend over a decade perfecting his interpretation, mastering each phrase to extract from the notes the soul of the music and the soul of the dance.

Cello Suites Discography

My first recording of The Cello Suites was Janos Starker’s 1965 recording on the legendary Mercury Living Presence label. It was recorded to a 35mm movie film base which offered higher dynamic range than the standard reel-to-reel tape. The film base sounds terrific, but the process of using film base never caught on due to cost. In 1991 Wilma Fine remastered the recording to CD, which is what I purchased. Starker’s recording is an exemplary balance of technicality, rigour, and feeling. He follows the text, yet finds room to let the music speak out. Like many other Mercury Living Presence releases, this is an outstanding recording: quiet background, the full dynamic range is preserved from the pianissimos to the sforzandos.

While reading Siblin’s book, David Watkin’s 2015 recording on the Resonus label arrived at the library. For this recording, he used to period cellos with gut strings and all. It was a very well reviewed recording that won a Gramophone editor’s choice award, so I had high hopes. This is an intensely personal recording. I found the personal elements slow and syrupy. The dance elements (each suite begins with a prelude followed by a sequence of stylized dances) were missing. It would be hard to dance to this recording. There is too much of Watkin’s individuality here. This recording makes me understand why for a long time the suites were not performed in their entirety.

As I finished Siblin’s book, the 2003 Warner Classics remastering of Casals’ recording came in. Casals recorded the six suites over multiple sessions in 1936 (Abbey Road), 1938 (Paris), and 1939 (Paris). Because of the vintage, I had thought it would be a noisy recording with limited range, similar to blues recordings made during this era such as Robert Johnson’s, which were recorded in 1936-1937. Nothing could be further from the truth. You can hear the machine noise in the recordings. But it is not a distraction. The remastering team has done a superb job, and they must have been working with good quality masters. And the playing itself is gorgeous. Very muscular. Intense. Electrifying. It’s also a personal recording. But it’s a personal recording that brings out the dance elements of the music. Listening, it’s easy to see how Casals won over the world. This is music on the calibre that, even if you do not agree with his interpretation, must be listened to. And, if you agree with his interpretation–as I do–then it is absolutely mind-blowing. It’s like listening to Glenn Gould play the Goldberg Variations. Who knew the music could sound like this? Great music, to become great music, needs great interpreters.

Speaking of Interpreters…

I always like tying back the books I’m reading to the theatre project. Tragedies written in other languages are very much like musical works in that, for them to come alive, they need a capable interpreter. My favourite tragedy of them all is Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. My first encounter with the work was Stephen Sandy’s translation, which left me thoroughly unimpressed. After reading Sandy’s translation, I thought the play was unimpressive, and even a little boring. Take a look at the exchange between Eteocles and the chorus after Eteocles finds out he must confront his brother at the seventh gate:

Chorus: In a word, do not go on this way–to the seventh gate.

Eteocles: Set as I am going, words won’t stop me.

Chorus: Gods smile on victory even if won with caution.

Eteocles: No warrior could take such an adage seriously!

Chorus: But shed your brother’s blood? Can you mean it? Surely you would not–

Eteocles: To whom the gods would bring destruction, destruction surely comes.

It sounds like, in the heat of the moment (and this is the moment), Eteocles and the chorus are having a leisurely debate, throwing woolly expressions at one another. The translation fails to capture the desperation and heat of the moment. Compare this Anthony Hecht and Helen H. Bacon’s translation that I fortunately stumbled upon several years later:

Koryphaios: Do not go that road to the seventh gate.

Eteokles: Your words cannot blunt me, whetted as I am.

Koryphaios: Yet there are victories without glory, and the gods have honored them.

Eteokles: These are no words for a man in full armor.

Koryphaios: Can you wish to harvest your brother’s blood?

Eteokles: If the gods dispose evil, no man can evade it.

Hecht and Bacon is so much more direct: compare their blunt “Do not go that road…” to the effuse “In a word, do not go on this way…” in Sandy. Eteocles’ rejoinder is equally blunt in Hecht and Bacon’s translation. Sandy’s translation gives the unfortunate impression that although words don’t stop him this time, on another occasion, perhaps words could stop him. Similarly, Eteocles’ “These are no words for a man in full armor” seems more natural than the artificial “No man can take such an adage seriously.” Hecht and Bacon also preserve the image of Ares harvesting lives on the battlefield; this is missing in the Sandy translation. And finally, Sandy’s “To whom the gods would bring destruction…” sounds too cliché. It was only after I stumbled upon Hecht and Bacon’s translation that I could fall in love with this play. It went from being my least favourite to my favourite. That is how powerful the role of the interpreter is. Just like how ancient societies rose and fell by how their interpreters interpreted the omens, we rely on modern seers such as Casals, Hecht, and Bacon to interpret our modern signs.

In the spirit of Casals and Gould, who brought two forgotten works by Bach back into the limelight, I have attempted to draw attention to the dramatic power of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes in my forthcoming book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Along with Shakespeare’s MacbethSeven Against Thebes is my “exemplar” tragedy. In the same way as Aristotle championed Oedipus rex and Hegel championed Antigone, I will champion Seven Against Thebes.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

An Enemy of the People – Ibsen

1999, Dover, 96 pages

Book Blurb

In this powerful work, Ibsen places his main character, Dr. Thomas Stockmann, in the role of an enlightened and persecuted minority of one confronting an ignorant, powerful majority. When the physician learns that the famous and financially successful baths in his hometown are contaminated, he insists they be shut down for expensive repairs. For his honesty, he is persecuted, ridiculed, and declared an “enemy of the people” by the townspeople, including some who had been his closest allies.

First staged in 1883, An Enemy of the People remains one of the most frequently performed plays by a writer considered by may the “father of modern drama.” This easily affordable edition makes available to students, teachers, and general readers a major work by one of the world’s great playwrights.

Author Blurb

Widely regarded as one of the foremost dramatists of the 19th century, Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) brought the social problems and ideas of his day to center stage. Creating realistic plays of psychological conflict that emphasized character over cunning plots, he frequently inspired critical objections because his dramas deemed the individual more important than the group.

An Enemy of the People as Risk Theatre

Most Ibsen plays fit the risk theatre mold well, and An Enemy of the People is no exception. In this play, Dr. Stockmann, as chief medical officer, investigates incidents of typhoid and gastric fever in a coastal Norwegian tourist town. Dr. Stockmann wants to keep the town safe. Risk theatre looks at the dramatic action as a gambling act consisting of three parts: temptation, wager, and cast. That the doctor wants to keep the town safe represents the “temptation” phase of the tragedy. His concerns motivate him to act.

Dr. Stockmann conjectures that the illnesses arise from the contaminated waters at the local municipal baths. When the test reports confirm his fears of an infusoria infestation, he takes action to rehabilitate the baths. He will publicize his findings in the local blue-collar newspaper, The People’s Messenger. The town authorities who skimped out on the design and implementation of the water supply to the baths (one of whom is Stockmann’s brother) will be in hot water. Reputations will be destroyed. But the doctor is an idealist:

Dr. Stockmann: Who the devil cares if there be any risk or not! What I am doing, I am doing in the name of truth and for the sake of my conscience.

So, according to the risk theatre model, Dr. Stockmann makes a wager: the town’s well-being and the reputation of some of the townsfolk for the truth.

Like most wagers in popular tragedies, Stockmann has a high degree of confidence that he will be successful. He will publish his findings in the paper. Some municipal officers will go down. But the baths will be repaired and lives saved. He has the support of the paper. He has the support of the working class folks, who secretly want to see the wealthy authorities pay. This is class warfare.

Dr. Stockmann has every expectation of success. But–you know the drill now–a low-probability, high-consequence event happens which upsets his best-laid plans. This happens when the mayor, his brother Peter Stockmann, turns the tables against him. Peter begins a fear campaign: if the news gets out, the lifeblood of the town will run dry. The repairs will be prohibitively expensive. The baths will be shut down for years. The local economy will tank. House prices will crash. The blue-collar workers will lose their jobs.

Peter’s fear campaign works. Instead of being called the town’s saviour, in a vicious town meeting, Dr. Stockmann is branded “an enemy of the people.” He is fired from his post as medical officer and loses his practice. His daughter loses her job as a schoolteacher. His two sons are suspended from school. His house is vandalized, all the windows are broken.

To be Free of Conflict You Need to Have No Friends / Family

Reading An Enemy of the People reminded me of a passage from Taleb’s book Skin in the Game. In this book Taleb talks about how whistleblower types are hindered by the risks to friends and family:

It is no secret that large corporations prefer people with families; those with downside risk are easier to own, particularly when they are choking under a large mortgage.

And of course most fictional heroes such as Sherlock Holmes or James Bond don’t have the encumbrance of a family that can become a target of, say, evil professor Moriarty.

Let us go one step further.

To make ethical choices you cannot have dilemmas between the particular (friends, family) and the general.

Celibacy has been a way to force men to implement such heroism: for instance, the rebellious ancient sect the Essenes were celibate. So by definition they did not reproduce–unless one considers that their sect mutated to merge with what is known today as Christianity. A celibacy requirement might help with rebellious causes, but it isn’t the greatest way to multiply your sect through the ages.

Financial independence is another way to solve ethical dilemmas, but such independence is hard to ascertain: many seemingly independent people aren’t particularly so. While, in Aristotle’s days, a person of independent means was free to follow his conscience, this is no longer as common in modern days.

Intellectual and ethical freedom requires the absence of the skin of others in one’s game, which is why the free are so rare. I cannot possibly imagine the activist Ralph Nader, when he was the target of large motor companies, raising a family with 2.2 kids and a dog.

An Enemy of the People reminded me of this passage because Dr. Stockmann has to ultimately decide not between his welfare and his principles (he can willingly die a martyr to truth), but has to decide between the welfare of his family and the truth. His family is the weak point.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

A Diabolical Halloween Story aboard the VIA Rail

A Mephistopheles Story

I love my Mephistopheles story. It’s a true story. I’ve told it to a few friends. The ones who are raging atheists (most of them) are skeptical. My religious friends (the minority) find it strange, as in, “Dude, you know, that’s like weird.” So I stopped telling it. But, hell, Halloween is coming up. And, perhaps we can all agree that Halloween gives storytellers an excuse to break out their best ghost stories? If so, keep reading.

Choices, choices, choices

Let’s go back to 2014. I was finishing my last year of work before going on an indefinite sabbatical to finish writing The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. There were enough funds for one more vacation. But it’d have to be frugal. Or relative frugal. A variety of options lay on the table. First option was a guided hiking tour in the Albertan Rockies. Credit card tramping in the Rockies!–what could be better? Nice hike during the day and return to civilized hotel in the evenings. This is my style! Second option was a trip to Kiev, Ukraine. Believe it or not, they were offering round trip airfare, hotel included, starting at $1100. Of course, this was after Russia invaded Ukraine (but before the Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down…). Maybe there was a modicum of danger. But for $1100 dollars all-in to Ukraine, I’ll take a few chances, no problem! Third option was a train trek across Canada. Trains have a certain lore. And you never know how a train trek really rides until you try. Choices, choices, choices.

So, on decision evening, as I was pondering the options, Journey happened to be playing on the stereo. Then the song of songs came on. You know where I’m going with this, don’t you? You know the song that runs:

Just a small town girl,

Living in a lonely world

Took the midnight train going anywhere.

Just a city boy,

Living in South Detroit

Took the midnight train going anywhere.

Never mind South Detroit would actually be in Windsor, Ontario: that’s a great line and a great song. And what is more, Steve Perry was telling me to catch the midnight train! No more decision-making required!

Not Quite Midnight Train (but close)

So here’s where the story starts. The VIA Rail line starts in Vancouver in a grand old terminal close to Chinatown, the “Pacific Central Station.” To get the best view of the Rockies, it’s an evening departure. The train was delayed several hours, so we ended up leaving closer to midnight. I had reserved a sleeper cabin. They’re the coolest things. The cabin is maybe 6′ long x 4.5′ wide x 7′ high. With a window. The bed folds up, and when it reclines, it covers the water closet and the lavatory. Which means, of course, if you get up in the middle of the night, you’ll need to fold the bed up.

Sleep Patterns

Did you know that this sleep routing of ours, the one that says: “get eight hours sleep each night” is a nineteenth century phenomenon? It turns out that in the Middle Ages people slept in shorter intervals, but more frequently. How do scholars know this? Well, there’s a set of early morning prayers for 3am. So people must have been getting up to pray. Some conjecture that the body’s natural sleep cycle may be to sleep four or five hours twice a day. Because we work 8 hour shifts during the day, it’s hard to test this out. But since I was on the train, I was going to give intermittent sleeping a shot.

Sleeping on Trains

Yes, the tracks are loud. No, it was no problem going to bed. Quite easy actually. The sounds of the tracks functions like a white noise. That evening, I had a few beers with the Australian rugby team in the drinking cabin (wow, they sure can pound them back, and so can their wives). Actually, I had been sitting in the corner of the drinking cabin and one of them more or less grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said: “Some drink with us!” He was so big, I didn’t know if it was an invitation or a threat at first. And I met one of the VIA Rail conductors, M. She was a Catholic lady, originally from Quebec. But she had since found out about this magical land in BC where it’s nice all year round and was living on the islands with her family. She worked the west coast leg of the trip: from Vancouver to Winnipeg. At Winnipeg, she would get on the train going back to Vancouver. She liked her job. It meant being separated from her husband and kids, but the job also gave her a week or two free time between shifts.

After retiring to my cabin at around 11pm, I set the alarm for 3am. At 3 I would get up and read. And look out the window. And just eat in the whole train experience. For this trip, I had brought a special book to re-read by one of my favourite authors: Goethe’s Faust. Every decade or so, when I want to read the story of the good and evil that men do, the lofty heights of ambition and the wretched lows of depravity and loss of direction, I return to this play to relearn the sum of human existence. Faust, of course, is Goethe’s retelling of the old legend of the magician/scholar who makes a bet with the devil.

Goethe’s Faust

My favourite Faust translation is Philip Wayne’s verse translation, easily available as a Penguin edition. I also have a Norton Critical Edition with a helpful commentary: the text is not the easiest to follow. And, to round it off, I also have Kaufmann’s translation which has the German text on the facing page. All three texts came with me on the trip.

At 3am sharp the alarm woke me up. I could hear the beat of the train going over the rails. It was pitch black outside. I turned on the light and propped the pillow on the wall, and dug out Wayne’s verse translation of Faust. Now 3am is actually a great time for reading. No distractions. Quickly, I got to the part where Faust summons up the great earth spirit. And here’s where the trouble started.

I was reading the passage where Faust summons the earth spirit, and it was so powerful that I thought, to do it justice, I really out to be reading it in German. Fortunately, Kaufmann’s edition with the German text was also there. I dug this out and started reading the German lines. And while I was reading the words, they clinged and they clanged together so much like a magic spell, I thought, to really really do the lines justice, I should read them out loud. Which I did. Now halfway through the passage, I started hearing a banging noise from the adjoining compartment. And since I could hear it above the sound of the tracks, it must have been some commotion.

Fearing some disaster (anyone seen Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express?–David Suchet probably has the most convincing film adaptation), I jumped up and went over to M’s cabin (my new conductor friend was staying next door). She opened the door after a few knocks and she looked white like a sheet. I was glad that she opened the door, and sort of awkwardly asked her if everything was okay. And in a sort of awkward way she nodded and said yes. At this point, I didn’t know what to say so I just said I was checking up on her because I thought I heard something. And then I said good night and excused myself. Going back to my cabin, I thought that was weird, but didn’t think too much of it. Maybe I was just hearing things–the excitement of the train had affected the nerves, perhaps? I kept reading.

Breakfast

The next morning, I went down to breakfast. Now breakfast (and all the other meals) aboard a train is a special treat. You’re paired with other folks at the table, and you’re all expected to tell some kind of story about your train experience. But that’s another tale. After breakfast, I went off to the next compartment to read for another hour or so before having a nap. That’s when M. approached me. She apologized for the previous night. She said that she had had a dream. I said that it must have been some dream you were having to make such a racket. And then she said that she dreamt that the devil was sucking out her soul. Now, if you ask my friends, they’ll say that I’m the last person to believe in ghosts and goblins. But even this made me feel odd. I could feel the goosebumps rising. Perhaps Goethe’s spell, in some weird way, had worked? After all, I had been reading the diabolical incantation out loud. Well M. saw my strange reaction. I hastily made something up: “I’m glad it was just a dream,” or something like that and went back to my quarters. And I thought: “Could it really be? Could there be more out there?”

Lunch

After lunch, I was sitting around one of the compartments reading Faust again. M. came by to say hello (on the train people are constantly running into one another, as you can imagine). By this time, I was feeling a little self-conscious, and when she sat down for a quick chat, I made a little move to brush the book aside. You see, on the cover is a picture of Faust with the devil. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want her to see this.

But of course, every time you brush something aside, however discreetly, it unfailingly draws the other person’s eye. We exchanged some pleasantries, but during the conversation I could tell she was trying, in her own equally discreet way, to see why I was trying to conceal the book, which I had brushed off to the corner of the table and was covering with my free hand.

For the rest of the afternoon, we continued to play this cat and mouse game. Each time she came around, I’d brush the book off to the side and then she’d try to see what sort of suspicious book I was reading.

Next Day

The next day, I was chatting with M. again. While we were chatting, the cook came out and joined the conversation. The whole VIA Rail crew quite enjoys being on the train, and, as a result are often in jolly spirits. Now the thing I remember the most about the cook is that, at one point–and it was almost preordained–he asked what I was reading. I said, “Faust,” and thought that was a save, since who these days still remembers the name? Out of a hundred people, if you said “Doctor Faustus,” maybe ten would remember the old tale. And if you said: “Faust,” that number drops down to single digits.

But here my luck ran out: the cook was quite familiar with Faust. “Faust,” he says, “isn’t that the guy who sold his soul to the devil? Cool!” As he said that, you could just see the blood draining from M’s face. She got up quickly and left without a word. I have no doubt in my mind that she put two and two together: her dream of the devil sucking out her soul and the guy in the next cabin reading occult texts. Luckily, the train was almost at Winnipeg, where M. would head back to Vancouver and I would continue on to Toronto.

Happy Halloween!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.