Monthly Archives: April 2015

Rules for Renegades by Comaford-Lynch

This book was sitting at the library in a little display on the second floor. There was a bunch of business and investing type books that the librarian must have assembled for display. During a writing break, the green and black cover caught my eye as well as the longish subtitle: Rules for Renegades: How to Make More Money, Rock Your Career, and Revel in Your Individuality. Wow, what more could you ask for than to make mega money, rock the career, and revel in individuality! And, it stood out being written by a woman as well, Christine Comaford-Lynch (the last name is as long as the subtitle!). Most of the other titles were by guys. Either they did not catch my fancy (Derek Foster.s titles, no thanks) or I had read them before (When Genius Failed, great book on the explosion called LTMC that resulted when you mix together nobel prize winners and 100:1 leverage). Well, flipping through it, it looked like it was a collection of stories from Comaford-Lynch.s experiences that allowed her to, well, make money, rock the career, and revel in individuality! I wasn.t looking for a self-help type book, but Rules for Renegades is also set up like a juicy tell all tale with stories of dating Bill Gates and Larry Ellison thrown in for fun. I decided to read it.

As diligent readers have come to expect, here.s an image of the title:


As well as the blurb from the back:

From high school drop-out, to monk, to multimillionaire, Christine has lived the Rules for Regnegades.

Wow, you don.t say?

You want a fabulous career. You want to succeed without sacrificing your personal life. Your path is different than mine, but I’m guessing we have things in common. I wrote this book for you. Signed, Christine Comaford-Lynch.

She wrote this for me? Awww, how kind!

Already from the back blurb you can see where Comaford-Lynch is coming from. The first thing I notice is a self-promotional bias. But that.s sort of offset because she.s put herself in the customer.s shoes,ie she.s self-promotional to gain your trust so that she can help you. So the self-promotion isn.t based on vanity but a desire to do something for others. Very clever. It strikes me that too often we don.t mention the advantages of our actions for their recipients. It takes a special mindset to be able to see the transaction from the other party.s perspective. And when one is able to convey to the other party that we are ‘thinking as if we are in his shoes’, there.s an opportunity to win trust, even during periods of intense negotiations.

Rules for Renegades is a business book–or really a collection of business anecdotes. But there.s something she shares with writers as well. And I want to share it with fellow writers because it.s so true:

An honest self-assessment based on answers to the questions above will help you determine if it’s time to be a quick-change artist. One of my friends, Walter, is a talented and prolific writer. He often moans about the publishing industry, about how it feels closed to newcomers, how first-time authors have such a slim chance of getting published. I asked him how he saw the industry and his position in it. He said, he sees the publishing industry as this enormous mansion, with manicured grounds. He’s not even working in the garden–he’s a farmhand way out on the South 40. The impressive entrance is barely visible from his distant field. As an indentured servant, he’ll never even get near the publishing mansion.

I blurted out, ‘But everything’s an illusion–so why not pick one that’s empowering?’. Walter asked how I, also new to the publishing scene, saw it. I said that to me the publishing world is a complex software system, and I am a talented hacker. Every day I make more progress navigating the system and getting closer to understanding how it works. It’s a cool adventure, and I know I’ll figure it out. Walter was silent for a moment, then said, ‘Wow. No wonder you have a terrific agent and a book deal’. He took this to heart. Walter is changing his self-image and illusions of the publishing world, an dI know one day soon he’ll sell his first novel.

‘Everything.s an illusion–so why not pick one that’s empowering’. That.s pretty good advice because it.s easy to lose confidence along the way. Just look at my recent blogs: in quite a few of them, the issues of a writer.s self-doubt crops up. Again and again. And the message from this book and the recently read Buffet Speaks is that self-doubt is a negative quality that successful people just don.t seem to have. ‘ never doubted myself’, says Buffett (or something similar). What struck Comaford-Lynch about Bill Gates when they hit it off was his complete lack of self-doubt–he would frequently express surprise when she pointed out the risks: ‘What do you mean it.s risky?–of course it.s going to work. And work PERFECTLY’. If this point of view can be put into an aphorism, it.d go something like this: better to aim for the stars and miss than shoot for the gutter and hit.

There are those without self-doubt: Gates, Buffett, and probably Elon Musk. They are the world changing industrialists. There are those with too much self-doubt. A lot of writers fall into this category. Did you know the brilliant theorist Bakhtin used his manuscripts to roll cigarettes, such a low estimation he had of his writings (and no doubt being penniless). And then there are those in between. Perhaps yours truly falls into this category. Here.s my campfire story.

Back in the early 2000s, I was thinking about free will, fate, consciousness, and things like that. These are the things I like to think about. They are the sort of thing you can ponder while looking into the expanse of the sky at night. I was also reading Homer.s Iliad. The Iliad asks questions such as: is Achilles’ free although his death foretold, how ‘fated’ is it for Troy to fall, and so on. The idea occurred that fate and free will are not necessarily antithetical concepts. At least in literature. It could be conceptualized as a chess endgame. Endgames have certain properties which make them interesting. Players are free to move their pieces. But to a knowledgeable observe, the ending is already predetermined: either White or Black will win and this is known during an endgame scenario. In the endgame scenario, you could, therefore, see a harmony between fixed fate and free will working simultaneously. I wrote the article and sent it off to academic journals. I even mapped the final confrontation between Achilles and Hector (including the surprise twist when Hector realizes Deiphobus isn.t really there and Athene has duped him) onto a chess endgame. To do so involved going through hundreds of endgame scenarios to find an endgame where Black thinks he.s going to win by a power play in which he takes White.s queen. But by taking the queen, Black actually seals his own defeat.

Rejection after rejection. And since the refereeing process is anonymous, some mean rejections as well. ‘Don.t bother wasting our time’, ‘Give your head a shake’, and so on. Just poisonous. There must be some disgruntled academics out there. But anyway, I believed in myself. I don.t know how, but I thought the article deserved to be published. It was a simple workaround to a long standing debate. To go back to Rules for Renegades, I put on the illusion that I had something to offer. I was a hacker who would game the system. Eventually, that.s what I did. I noticed that the editor of Antichthon at the time, HT, also served as president of a national chess federation. I sent the manuscript to him. I got back a reply, ‘It needs some work but I like it. Make x,y,z revisions and we.ll go from there. And by the say, I enjoyed the chess analogy’. Bingo!!! ‘The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad‘ came out in volume 36 (2002) of Antichthon: Journal of the Australian Society for Classical Studies.

The moral of the story? Oft-times nothing profits more than self-esteem grounded on just and right. Do something well, and believe in yourself. Instead of creating a mental structure biased to your limitations, create a mental structure biased for success. Instead of being burdened by the system, game the system to make the most of your chances. Carry on soldier, tomorrow.s another day.

To close out, Rules for Renegades offers a viable psychological strategy for success. Even if already successful and there.s no shadows of self-doubt clouding the sun of your ambition, read it for the colourful anecdotes: the stories of Gates’ mom running his life with sticky notes posted all over his furnishings, how Ellison tried to show off to his date this new thing called the ‘internet’ and how it crashed…  So, dear read, until next time, I am Edwin Wong and I am revelling in my individuality by Doing Melpomene.s Work. May you also make more money, rock your career, and revel in individuality! *mental note* in some future blog I should talk about the cult of individuality these days as opposed to looking at things from a communal perspective.

The Food Chain: Art, Society, Rousseau and Bonfires

I was hungry today and thinking about food. This got me to thinking about the food chain. It.s a hierarchy of who eats what and who eats who. So, things like plants are at the bottom. They get eaten. On the next level are the things that eat plants. Like rabbits. Then there are the things that eat the things that eat plants. Predators. Next up are the predators who are eaten by other predators. And on the top of the food chain, there.s those things who eat but don.t get eaten. The king of the jungle. An ecosystem can support a lot of plants and quite a few rabbits. As you move up the food chain, there are fewer and fewer specimens. That.s because so much production is required to sustain them. A visual analogy of the food chain would be a triangle. At the base is all the lush vegetation. And at the top is the lion king. So these are my thoughts on food. Since the other thing I think about is art, the question dawned on me: how much is required to support the writer-artist? Or for that matter, anyone involved in the arts: composers, musicians, painters, sculptors, and so on.

Writers require a lot of free time. Time to let the mind wander. So not engaged in other productive activities. Well, Verdi was an exception. He was actually more a farmer than opera composer. But I think he alternated and was not doing both at the same time. In my own situation, I think about how many books read in order to produce one book. probably read thousands. So far produced one journal article and am working on the first book. The time spent reading a thousand books could have been diverted to many other useful tasks. In my former career in construction, let.s say in any given year I would work on a couple of seniors care facilities, a couple of restaurants, and a couple of condo buildings. For the sake of argument, let.s say a couple of hundred seniors have a new place to live and are happy, a couple of thousand diners enjoy delicious meals and are happy, and a hundred people move into their new homes and are happy. Not to mention all the happy real estate agents, hospitality staff, nurses, and other people who are happy to be working at these places. That.s a lot of happy folks! And then you would multiply this by the number of years I.m working.

But then I retired from work to pursue the dream of writing this book on theatre. To me, it.s important. But realistically, how many people are going to enjoy the book? To be sure, not as many people as the number of people who are living in their care homes, eating out, and buying new condos. And truth be told, the number could be an order of magnitude less. By moving up the food chain (moving up the food chain is defined as lowering the production:consumption ration) could it be that society loses out?

I.m reminded of Rousseau.s First Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Science:

Take Egypt, the first school of mankind, that ancient country, famous for its fertility under a brazen sky; the spot from which Sesostris once set out to conquer the world. Egypt became the mother of philosophy and the fine arts; soon she was conquered by Cambyses, and then successively by the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, and finally the Turks.

Take Greece, once peopled by heroes, who twice vanquished Asia. Letters, as yet in their infancy, had not corrupted the disposition of its inhabitants; but the progress of the sciences soon produced a dissoluteness of manners, and the imposition of the Macedonian yoke: from which time Greece, always learned, always voluptuous and always a slave, has experienced amid all its revolutions no more than a change of masters. Not all the eloquence of Demosthenes could breathe life into a body which luxury and the arts had once enervated.

It was not till the days of Ennius and Terence that Rome, founded by a shepherd, and made illustrious by peasants, began to degenerate. But after the appearance of an Ovid, a Catullus, a Martial, and the rest of those numerous obscene authors, whose very names are enough to put modesty to the blush, Rome, once the shrine of virtue, became the theatre of vice, a scorn among the nations, and an object of derision even to barbarians. Thus the capital of the world at length submitted to the yoke of slavery it had imposed on others, and the very day of its fall was the eve of that on which it conferred on one of its citizens the title of Arbiter of Good Taste.

What shall I say of that metropolis of the Eastern Empire, which, by its situation, seemed destined to be the capital of the world; that refuge of the arts and sciences, when they were banished from the rest of Europe, more perhaps by wisdom than barbarism? The most profligate debaucheries, the most abandoned villainies, the most atrocious crimes, plots, murders and assassinations form the warp and woof of the history of Constantinople. Such is the pure source from which have flowed to us the floods of knowledge on which the present age so prides itself.

Wow, art is bad!–look what happened to Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Constantinople! They were productive societies full of industry until the artists came along and ruined it all! I.m not sure I agree with the view of Demosthenes’ eloquence being a factor that could save Greece (I always have an impression he.s a bum) but other than that, Rousseau.s argument is interesting. Years later, the Florentine monk Savonarola years later would argue the same in bonfires of the vanities where priceless works of arts, cosmetics, books, and any other items of luxury would be gathered together and incinerated in the name of the common weal. I wonder: was Florence made a stronger place? And how would this be measured? Intuitively, I felt like I was more productive to society (but less satisfied personally) working in construction than being a writer. But how is this measured? By the heat of the fires?


I don.t have a way of measuring productivity, but Joyce did. At least Joyce did in Stoppard.s play: ‘And what did you do in the Great War, Mr. Joyce?’. ‘I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?’. Joyce.s response essentially turns the question back on its head. Dang, Joyce is one self-confident artist!

The Joyce quote never ceases to amaze me and it captures very much the power of positive thinking. I feel from talking to those around me that hey, it.s unusual to have hung up the gloves at the age of 39. Maybe I should be slaving away, doing some more. More buildings, more boots on the ground, going after more contracts, putting the shovel into the ground. But what would you do? If you had a choice, and you loved to be Doing Melpomene.s Work, would you do it at the risk of being less productive to society? I feel made the right choice. Some days, like today, I wonder though. Moments of weakness perhaps. Because until next time, I will be Doing Melpomene.s Work. Hopefully putting some more fire into my work and not more of my work into the fire!

Don Carlos by Schiller (trans. Sy-Quia & Oswald)

Two days, two posts in the ‘Plays Read’ section: I am on fire Doing Melpomene.s Work! Diligent readers will remember from yesterday.s blog on Ibsen.s Peer Gynt that your blogger confessed he would have had more to say but for the fact that it was his first read and hence first impression of Peer Gynt. Well, diligent readers, I am happy to say that Don Carlos is a play been reading for years: this is perhaps my sixth read. At least that.s what my memory says. Which–if I am to judge from what my friends who have known be a long time have to say–can be out in left field sometimes! Fortunately, none of them are here to correct me today, so the seventh read it is? Or did I say six? No matter–suffice to say, I.m quite familiar and fond of Don Carlos.

This is an Oxford World’s Classics edition, and here.s what the back blurb has to say:

Don Carlos and Mary Stuart, two of German literature’s greatest historical dramas, deal with the timeless issues of power, freedom, and justice. Both plays dramatize periods of crisis in sixteenth-century Europe, and in doing so reflect Schiller’s passionate engagement with the great themes of his own age–justice, power, freedom of conscience, legitimacy of government.

A youthful work, Don Carlos (1787) shows the victory of the forces of reaction over the representatives of a new age. Mary Stuart (1800) shows the struggle of the Scottish queen in the last days of her life, not only for freedom but also for peace with her conscience, and that of her English rival, Elizabeth I, with the challenge of ruling justly. A vivid imaginative experience when read, these plays, with their starkly contrasting characters and thrilling confrontations, also demonstrate Schiller’s brilliant stagecraft.

And, here is a bonus image for diligent readers!–


By the way, that.s Mary Stuart on the cover, not Don Carlos!

I like the guarded praise on the back blurb: ‘two of German literature’s greatest historical dramas’. It couldn.t be ‘two of literature.s greatest historical dramas’. Or even ‘two of German literature’s greatest dramas’. I have this feeling that whoever wrote the back blurb almost felt like writing ‘two of German literature’s greatest historical dramas written near the turn of the nineteenth century which deal with imperial power struggles’. Or something like that. At least it is honest. There are problems with these plays. They are great. But a circumscribed greatness. I went on to find the images, and one authority calls the plays, ‘fast paced, tense, eloquent, and philosophical’. Fast paced compared to what, a snail? got to be kidding me.

Philosophical, yes. But fast paced, no. The dramatic fulcrum tying together the power struggles of Carlos, Philip, Elizabeth, Eboli, Alba, and Domingo is the cat and mouse recognition scene where Carlos and Eboli sound each other out. It takes over 300 lines for this to happen! I could go out and order pizza to go, come back, and they would still be disputing things! Shakespeare would have had Desdemona drop a handkerchief and it would have taken zero lines to accomplish something similar. In fact, Schiller–who was a Shakespeare fanatic–does have Carlos drop a handkerchief elsewhere. It.s likely that Schiller was fresh from reading Othello as Eboli.s fable about the pearl.s worth is also found in Othello. Compare:

Eboli: Love is the price of love.

It is the only diamond I possess

That I must either give away or hide;

Much like the merchant, who, to spite a king,

And since the whole of Venice could not pay,

Returned his pearl to the enriching sea

Rather than fix a price beneath its worth.


Othello: Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe…

So Don Carlos is too long. Like Euripides, it is too rhetorical. Too much is accomplished through the dialogue and speech. More could be accomplished through stagecraft. There is too much thinking going on. But of course, not reading the blog to hear me rant!

Here.s the question. And it is a good question. How does one become familiar with a play? Through reading it many times? Yes, multiple reads give more clarity. But to really become familiar with a play (short of producing it), you have to subject the play to almost a scientific method. Come up with a hypothesis. And then reread the play having in mind that you are testing out the hypothesis. Reading a play without having an hypothesis of the play is like going for a walk. Go out for enough walks along the same route and, no doubt, you become sort of familiar with the path. But, if you go on a walk and measure the steps from this point to that point or pull out the watch to confirm if the same bird if flying by at the same time, then, you really get to know the secrets of the whole trail. Try this next time you read something read before. If you have a hunch, see if the text corroborates your feeling.

On this read of Don Carlos, I was interested in the question of the Marquis of Posa and how he gets his plan so wrong. And not only that, how can he get his plan so wrong and surprise the audience with his ‘wrongness’ at the same time. His plan is to usher in the Enlightenment, bring down the Inquisition, sweep tyranny off of the Low Countries, and to save and unite Elizabeth and Carlos. Oh yes, and he must martyr himself to achieve these goals. Which isn.t a bad deal, since he.s getting quite a large return on investment for the life of one Marquis! But of course his plan screws up. He sacrifices himself to pass the torch of the Enlightenment to Don Carlos, crown prince. But Posa misjudges Carlos’ motives. Posa thinks with his mind and guesses that Carlos thinks the same way. But in fact Carlos thinks with his heart so that when Posa passes the torch to him, he drops it:

Marquis: No!

This I did not foresee. How could I know

That you, led on by generosity,

Would be more sly and subtle in your schemes

Than I by thinking? I forgot your heart,

And all my clever structures fall to nothing.

Okay, so this is how he get it wrong. But why is this a surprise for the audience? Or, we should start with why this should be a surprise for the audience. It should be a surprise for the audience, because if it weren.t, the play would be no fun! No suspense if it is guaranteed that he would be successful. So Schiller has to somehow counterbalance Posa.s likelihood of success (high) with his eventual failure. How Schiller does this is by making Posa a great psychologist. He has met Eboli two times, yet has figured out all her secret drives and motives. On his first meeting the a very guarded King Philip, he reveals to him all his most inner thoughts. You.d think that if he were able to do this, he would have his childhood friend Don Carlos completely figured out. You.d think. But when second guessing all-too-human actions, thoughts, desires, and ambitions, there is always a chance one can be mistaken. You can chart out the paths of billiard balls with mathematical precision, but consciousness is not a phenomenon; it is a sort of epiphenomenon whose path cannot quite be ascertained with precision. Schiller makes use of this to throw down Posa.s plan. So, on the one hand, Posa is good at deciphering people.s inner psychologies. But since this is an art and not a science, he can be mistaken. Schiller makes use of this. Posa is mistaken when it comes to Don Carlos. And so, that is how he gets his plan all wrong. I like how Schiller builds up our confidence in Posa.s keen insight into other people.s psychologies only to have that skill fail him at the end when he needs it the most.

By asking a question or testing a little hypothesis on this read through of Don Carlos, I was able to understand a little more of Schiller.s dramatic art. Next time you have an opportunity, diligent readers, try out this technique and I.m sure it will reveal a precious pearl lodged in between the crevices of the words which you had not seen before. Enjoy! And until next time, I am, as I always am, Doing Melpomene.s Work.

Peer Gynt by Ibsen (Translated Peter Watts)

Finally, a post that.s not in the ‘Watercooler’ section where it seems that been spending all my time! After thoroughly enjoying Ibsen.s The Master Builder, A Doll’s House, and the one and only Hedda Gabler (who, I.m not afraid to say, I find sort of attractive), I decided to tackle Peer Gynt. According to the blurb on the back of this nice Penguin edition:

Peer Gynt, his greatest play in verse, was also to be Ibsen’s last. After its publication in 1867 he abandoned poetry to concentrate on realistic plays in prose. However, with its predecessor, Brand, it established Ibsen’s reputation as a playwright. Its relaxed gaiety complements the harder-hitting earlier work, and may be seen as a fundamental expression of Ibsen’s philosophy of life.

The irresponsible, lovable Peer is based on a semi-legendary character of the mountains. Norwegian folklore, with its malevolent and ugly trolls, plays a larger part in his adventures that satire: social comment is present–the caricatures of types and nationalities are self-evident–but it is as light hearted and genial as the rest of the play.

The cover art, which shows Forest Troll by Kittelson is fantastic as well. Since I always like to reward diligent readers with pictures, I slaved away to find an image:


Did you know that most of my knowledge on art is from looking up artists on Penguin editions whose images catch my eye? Isn.t the technique superb? Not technically demanding but imaginatively demanding to have come up with the concept: a visual representation of the pathetic fallacy. Simple but ingenious.

Okay, so I got away from the watercooler to do some real reading related to Doing Melpomene.s Work. But unfortunately not much happens in this play. What?–‘It covers Peer Gynt.s whole life’, you say, ‘how could you say that not much happens?’. Well, you are correct diligent reader! Let me put it another way. I don.t understand much of what.s happening. Well, did I understand anything? You can be the judge.

So Peer Gynt is one of the character.s from Asbjornsen.s Norwegian Fairy Tales. I get that. He spends a lot of the time in the woods. The trolls he encounters are interesting. If you are in Greece and in the woods, you will likely encounter, Pan, drunken satyrs, centaurs, and other sort of jolly creatures. If you are in Britain and in the woods, you will likely encounter dainty fairies, little pixies, and other sorts of things read about in Midsummer Night’s Dream. not usually drunk but they practice magic are are very often clever and mischievous. Well, it so turns out that the Norwegian woods are populated by trolls. They are ugly, have claws, and are cannibals. Well, maybe not cannibals if they are a different species than humans. But they do eat humans. And from Peer.s interactions with the Woman in Green, maybe they are not an entirely different species! So, it strikes me that what is out there in the woods can be taken as a reflection of national character. Someone smarter than I am can figure out what this signifies. Why would Mediterranean wildlife be half-animal and half-human and fond of drink, British wildlife be magical and fond of mischief, and Norwegian wildlife be ugly and brutal?

The troll world must be some sort of counter-humanity, a perspective from which humanity can be judged (seeing that it is hard to judge and part of the thing that.s judging):

Old Man: What is the difference between trolls and men?

Peer Gynt: As far as can see–none at all. Big trolls will roast you, and little trolls claw you; and we’d be the same–if only we dared.

Old Man: True; in that, and in other respects, we’re alike. But morning is morning and evening is evening, and one huge difference stands between us…I’ll tell you, now, what the difference is: Outside among men, where the skies are bright, there’s a saying ‘Man, to thyself be true’; but here among trolls, the saying runs: ‘Troll, to thyself be–enough.’

The outside saying of ‘Man, to thyself be true’ reminds me of the ancient Greek injunction to ‘know thyself’ (gnwthi seauton). Well, it strikes me that part of ‘knowing oneself’ is to know one.s own appetite. So it leads to both wisdom and excess. The troll saying to ‘be enough’ seems a clarion call for simplicity, especially as the Old Man follows up by extolling a simple and homely way of life. This hits home for me in this age of excess. McMansion houses, faster cars, endless consumption: what is ‘enough’? Have we forgotten the word ‘enough’? How we would make our lives so much richer by saying ‘enough’! I was reading a Credit Suisse 2014 Global Wealth Report. Net income is what you have if you were to take the value of all your assets (house, car, book collection, etc.,) and subtract all your liabilities (mortgage, line of credit, etc.,). Assiduous readers love games. So let.s play a game. How much net income do you think you would need to have to be wealthier than 50% of the world.s population? The answer is $3650 USD. That.s really not very much. Let.s continue. If you wanted to be in the top decile of the world (top 10%) of wealth how much do you think you would need? No cheating. $77,000 USD is what you.d need. Anybody close. Okay, to be the in the top 1%. Three guesses. If you said $798,000 USD you got it. Everyone I know is doing better than 50% of the world.s population. Most of the people I know (let.s say 80% or 4 out of 5, same as the number of dentists that recommend Trident gum) have a net worth of over $77k. And maybe one out of twenty people I know is in the top 1% of the world with net worth north of $798k. But everyone I know says they don.t have enough. Well, I wonder what the rest of the world would say to us?

A hint at the ending comes during the episode with Anitra. Peer Gynt at this stage in life (he goes through many changes) become, of all things, a prophet. With one of his devotees, Anitra, he misquotes the last words of Goethe.s FaustTeil Zwei, saying ‘Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns an’ (the Eternal-feminine leads us on) instead of ‘Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan’ (the Eternal-feminine draws us higher’. Of course, Peer Gynt is getting duped by Anitra, who runs away with all his wealth. But at the end, he is saved from the diabolical Button Moulder by the love of Solveig, whom he had abandoned years earlier. Sort of like how Gretchen or Margaret redeems Faust at the end of Goethe.s play. So, Ibsen is doing something interesting here. But since this is only my first impressions of the play, I haven.t much more to say. Only that it.s piqued my curiosity! But perhaps you know the secret… Someone out there probably knows! Odds are there are people who have written their theses on this topic and staked their entire careers on defending their positions!

What else did I notice? Well, the blurb on the back that I quoted mentioned something about the play being ‘a fundamental expression of Ibsen’s philosophy of life’ (it strike me that this statement could appear just about on the back of any book). Well, as you know, I.m sensitive to drama as being an exploration of how much our values cost. The exploration of the cost of happiness in Master Builder was one of that play.s most enchanting themes. It was good to see it on display in Peer Gynt as well:

How lavish is Nature, how mean is the spirit;

how dearly man pays for his birth, with his life.

The very opposite of the spirit of entitlement that rages across the first world today. I like it.

Reading this play, I.m reminded of Glenn Gould who loved Bach. He loved the inventions, counterpoint, fugues, and canons. But the free formed fantasias he loved less, or not at all. Peer Gynt is like a free flowing fantasia. It is on a huge scale: the life of a man. It is not so much held together by form or dramatic unity as by the character of Peer Gynt. It must have been an incredible challenge for Edvard Grieg to find a musical idiom and form by which to set the play to music in his Peer Gynt Suites.

Reading Peer Gynt has been a humbling experience. Although I.m used to reading drama, it reminds me of how, if I read outside tragedy (which is very familiar), I can easily lose my way. In fact, unless one is familiar with a genre (history, romance, comedy, biography, and so on), it.s in general hard to understand what one is reading. Certainly, you understand the words. But reading is more active than comprehension. You have to anticipate where the author is taking you. And, for me reading Peer Gynt, I was absolutely unprepared for what was to come. So, I understood the words. But the greater meaning is still dull to me. It.s like if I were to read a medical textbook. Certainly I.d know the words. But it would be hard comprehending the unity of the the author.s message. Maybe one day I.ll return to Peer Gynt. It takes about five or six readings of even simpler plays to really begin to ‘get it’. But there.s so much more out there that never read. Even from Ibsen When We Dead Awaken and Enemy of the People are sitting on my bookcase silently awaiting the right moment.

There you have it, dear readers: my first impression of Peer Gynt. Until next time, I will be doing what I know how to do best. So, regardless of whether my best will be good enough, until next time I am Doing Melpomene.s Work.

Cookies, Chocolate Milk and the TC10K

You may be wondering what cookies, chocolate milk, and the TC10K have to do with a blog professing to be for writers, artists, and theatregoers. In my defence, stuffed this blog into the all encompassing ‘Watercooler’ category (where a lot of the blogs seem to be heading these days which leads me to suspect I.m engaged in too many extra-curricular activities…). But there is a connection! Hear me out, gentle reader!

I.m not sure about you, but as a writer, I spend a lot of the time snacking. Cookies (Dad.s), nacho chips (plain with salsa or guacamole), cereal (Maple Crunch), and ice cream (especially blackjack cherry and vanilla combinations) are a particular weakness. I.ll either be writing, and hit a writer.s block. Or I.ll be thinking, and the solution won.t be forthcoming. Or I.ll be reading, and my mind is drifting off to la la land. Then I hear a small voice, ‘Maybe if you have some cookies, ice cream or [insert choice of snack here] it will help things along’. Well, who am I to argue against such good advice! And it IS good advice. Sometimes at least. There.s certain times of day–especially in the mid afternoon when the blood sugar hits that drowsy level–when a sugar bomb is a nice picker upper. At that time of day, the coffee option is already exhausted (from all the many cups earlier in the day…). The catch, is it seems like I.m reaching for snacks all day all the time!

Gentle readers will recall from the last blog was written all about the exciting and devastating Second Law of thermodynamics. Well, if there is a Second Law, there must be a First Law and this is what the First Law says:

The first law of thermodynamics is a version of the law of conservation of energy, adapted for thermodynamic systems. The law of conservation of energy states that the total energy of an isolated system is constant; energy can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed. The first law is often formulated by stating that the change in the internal energy of a closed system is equal to the amount of heat supplied to the system, minus the amount of work done by the system on its surroundings. Equivalently, perpetual motion machines of the first kind are impossible.

From the point of view of the artist, that means that, to maintain an average body weight, input must equal output! Now, it certainly feels like when I.m thinking that I.m using prodigious amounts of brain energy. But, between you and me, maybe that bowl of decadent ice cream supplies more calories than the prodigious output of brainwaves burns! Now, multiply the ice cream by a couple of cookies, a bowl of cereal, and so on (this doesn.t even include the regular meals which are in addition) and we have a real problem in the weight department! This is where the running comes in. Not only do you get to burn calories. You get a chance to go into the great outdoors. Or, I should say, you get to venture outdoors. That was a weird sort of writing slip that tells me been sequestered too long. And you can make it social by running with friends or a group. To me, running (along with some basic weight training) is perfect for cookie consuming artists to achieve the coveted balance between input and output.

This morning, I ran the TC10k (the local rag, the Times Colonist sponsors the eponymous race) with my diligent running partner LH. Clocked in at 55:16 which was faster than last year. But not as fast as the 48 minute personal best. Or was the personal best 46 minutes? My memory seems to be telling me 46 minutes but my better judgment is saying 48. Funny how they disagree most of the time. I also like how the timing service breaks down the results. In the men.s 40-44 category, I was 157 of 305. That.s the best I could do this year. I was trying to keep up with two other runners, exchanging positions with them over the last kilometre until they gave it their final kick in the last 100m. I just couldn.t find the next gear and with my heart beating like a cannon, I had to watch them break away. Kelly Wiebe, the winner, came in at 29:08. Wow! in the men.s 40-44 category Jim Finlayson led the field at 31:36. Congratulations to them! And thank you to LH for all the fantastic training runs! The best thing about the run was the cookies and chocolate milk from the Thrifty Foods volunteers. They are the best! And of course, breakfast at Floyd.s. You know, you have to balance input with output!

Speaking of snacking brings me to the topic of concentration. Have you noticed that the most elite artists–besides being gifted–have a phenomenal power to concentrate their efforts for many hours at a time on a single problem? That.s fascinated me. No food, no drink, no distraction. Just a laser like focus. How do they do it? In part, it must be that so drawn into their work that the outside world melts away. No, perhaps it.s more than that. It.s like they draw themselves into what doing, whether it.s practising a musical passage, working on the solution to an equation, or mentally thinking through a paradox so that their consciousness becomes part of whatever it is focussing on. And they would admit nothing that would disturb their concentration. Gould worked late at night in the Eaton.s auditorium or far away at his cottage on the Great Lakes. Einstein would regularly inform his wife that during the hours between this and that time he could not be disturbed. Steve Jobs had a wardrobe of twenty black mock turtleneck sweaters so as to save himself the distraction and brainpower of having to select what to wear. Which leads me to this point: maybe there.s mental techniques I could be practising to increase concentration?

That.s a question for another day. Now the rigor mortis of the TC10k seems to be setting in, how unfortunate. So, gentle reader, until next time I.ll be taking the day off from Doing Melpomene.s Work because, well, I deserve it! But in the meanwhile, enjoy the Dancing Heron from Richard Hunt who graces all the t-shirts! I like the crazy bird. It looks like someone has stolen his fish! Or perhaps another interpretation is possible?


‘The Cosmic Blueprint’ by Paul Davies and the Second Law

On the one hand, there is the Second Law of thermodynamics. Conceived when the deterministic Newtonian cosmos entered the 18th century with its interest in steam engines, industrial revolutions, and other thermodynamic systems, the Second Law says simply that hot things cool down and this cooling process is the arrow of time which will lead to the heat death of the universe. In this final gasp, all the fuel has been used up. Game over. A lump of coal can be used to power a locomotive; once the lump of coal releases its energy as heat, it is a one way reaction; the heat cannot come back together to form a useful lump of coal. The implications of the Second Law?–order decreases, disorder increases, everything is slowly dying, and so on. On the other hand, however, more complex forms constantly arise: planetary systems, galaxies, and life. What is disturbing is that these things arise in seeming violation of the Second Law, which only presages doom and gloom, not the spontaneous triumph of nature to produce order from chaos, animate life from inorganic compounds, consciousness from inert clay, and so on.


That there is this dichotomy between creation and destruction is good news for physicist Paul Davies, who has turned the question into a book: The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature’s Creative Ability to Order the Universe. He must have lots to say because that.s quite the long title! And whether he is talking about new discoveries depends on your frame of reference: the book came out in 1988 (the cover illustration is from the revised 2004 edition which I have not read). My parents bought it for me around that time. Only now have I got around to reading it. As an aside, been weeding down my book collection. The happy booksellers Russell.s Books on Fort Street has been taking most of my secondary sources (ie books like this that are commentaries). My collection of primary sources (ie Shakespeare, the Bible, Nietzsche, and the original works that other people like to talk about) has been growing as a result. Perhaps primary sources make up three-quarters of my four bookcases now. I hope to weed things down some more. There.s no need really for me to have so many books since most of them are available at the library (and, if I did not already have it, I would have read the new revised edition)! But primary sources are nice to have because I.m always referring to them. And they are all marked up with notes as well. So, after seventeen years, finally finished this one! I should reward myself with a beer to celebrate the occcasion, since been looking at this book thinking I should read it for all this time!

Okay, so back to the book. In this book, Davies pits the destructive side of the cosmos against the creative side. Now it turns out, the creative side doesn.t have a fancy ‘law’ like the ‘Second Law’ (in case wondering, and you should be if you don.t know, the First Law is one of the conservation laws). It doesn.t even have any real physicist approved monikers! Would you believe that? What it does go by are terms frightening to scientists such as Aristotelian teleology (a respectable theory in the Middle Ages), vitalism (respectable to New Age folks), Gaia concept (don.t ask), and other such terms. Davies refers to it with the much more respectable name of the ‘cosmic blueprint’. And the book is filled with examples of higher levels of order arising (consciousness, life, and DNA are big arguments). Even inanimate structures, such as Saturn.s rings, are held together by some force which eludes us. If the physical structure of the rings is put into a computer simulator, the longest they can last is a hundred years. Tops. Then they break apart. But obviously there.s something holding them together. Maybe the hand of God? Perhaps. But it.s surprising they haven.t been able to put it into an equation. Davies’ own view seems to lean towards the opinion that somehow the universe has brought about the conditions necessary for life so that consciousness can evolve. He points out that the conscious observer–which is required to break down quantum states (ie Schrodinger.s Cat)–seems to be a necessary part of the process. So, built into the deep structure or blueprint of the universe is this will to complexity which scorns the Second Law. An interesting question: is consciousness the vanity of the cosmos?

But the Second Law itself is no slouch. Well, first of all, unlike the ‘vital force’, it has a proper name and is associated with cool things like the irreversibility of the arrow of time! On the Second Law, Davies quotes the great Eddington. Sir Arthur Eddington to you:

The law that entropy always increases–the Second Law of Thermodynamics–holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations–then so much worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation–well, the experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics I can give you not hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

And what does the Second Law imply for us mere mortals? Here.s what Bertrand Russell has to say:

all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of Man’s achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–al these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

Wow. No kidding! I wonder if there.s a way to capitalize on this fear? Any entrepreneurs out there? Maybe someone can come up with a ‘Universe Heat Death Survival Kit’!

Now, since I am always labouring away Doing Melpomene.s Work, it occurs to me that perhaps the quarrel between the cosmic blueprint and the Second Law is a scientific analogue to the ancient quarrel between tragedy and comedy. Do you see where I.m going? In tragedy, the best intentions always result in a ‘heat death’. Well, everyone dies in the end. In comedy, however, there is some creative force working in the background of its deep structure so that, no matter how idiotic the characters are, there.s a happy ending, usually a wedding. Comedy is therefore a place where more complex structures (weddings) can occur against all the odds. It.s like life emerging from the primordial soup.

So that.s my thought of the day for you, dear readers. Until next time, I will be Doing Melpomene.s Work.

Cover Art Saga Continues: The Search for an Artist

The search for an artist continues. Emails flying back and forth. Met another artist at his gallery. Questions from some galleries coming in where been dropping off the Call for Art. It.s a been a great learning process for me. And here.s some things that I can share with my diligent readers.

First, if I had thought the construction world was crazy, the art world is even more so. In the construction business, we do a lot of estimates, proposals, and budgets for free on the hope of getting business. From the feedback I.m getting, a lot of artists are being asked to put together sketches, talk about concepts, and so on, on the hope of business which never materializes. In my draft contract (see below), I had the payment schedule worked into four tranches with the first tranche occurring after seeing the first sketches. Artists like to work on the ‘retainer’ system with money up front. If I were the artist, that.s how I think I would like to work as well. After all, unless worked with a patron a couple of times, it.s hard to know what to expect. I see their point and will make the change.

Second, it.s easy to think artists have it made. You look at the price tags of their works: 10k, 15k, 20k and you think, wow! But those are the artists who have made it. It.s like Rowling and the Harry Potter series. For every Rowling, there.s tens of thousands of writers who do not sell millions of copies. Artists generally approach the galleries asking the buyers if they would like to display their works. Space is limited. And there is a lot of talent floating around. So it.d be hard for a new name to start out. I wouldn.t be surprised if a lot of successful artists were quite frugal: a habit from the years they spent paying their dues. Oh, and how do I know there.s lots of talent? It seems Victoria–with its wildlife, proximity to ocean, proximity to forests–attracts a lot of artists. And I happened to stumble into an art school as well. The teacher had a class going on and invited me to watch the session. There were also examples of students’ work all over the walls. All of a very high quality.

Third, I had thought by including a sample of the contract (outlining the number of revisions, payment schedule, schedule of deliverables, etc.,) it would make things easier for the artists. One artist that I chatted with pointed out there are ‘softer’ ways to start of a patron-artist relationship. He asked me about my background. I told him I was a project manager in construction. He understood immediately, since he was a recently retired architect. I had based my contract on a construction scenario. Construction scenarios can be litigious. So the contracts assume the worse case. You can argue that they protect both parties. But really, the unstated premise behind the carefully worded contract are that people are dirty rotten scoundrels ready to take advantage of you. I could see his point. But here.s the story: I had carefully worded my contract hoping to give the impression to potential artists that, ‘Look, put together this nice document to make sure you get paid what you want on time!’. That it could be taken in another manner was sort on an unintended consequence. Well the contract is below. You can decide yourself. In my defence, it.s a one page contract (ie the very minimum) and it.s just a standard form that I found online from sample contracts other artists had put up on their websites who do commissions! The moral of this story is that I.m going to need to be flexible and diplomatic to get the best cover illustration for the book. And that.s what it.s all about. From the artist.s perspective, I.m sure they want to do a good job as well!–after all, they put their name on the work of art as well!

Fourth, did you know that not only do you have to find the right type of artist (ie abstract artist for abstract visions, figurative artists for figurative works, and so on), you also need to find the artist that understands the mood of a work. There was one artist who could do brilliant portraits. But there was one catch. The works had to be happy and full of smiling people. The ‘Dead Man.s Hand’ didn.t quite fit that description! But you know, I appreciate honesty!

Fifth, there.s lots of requests for me to put out the Call for Art with a lump sum price: for example, I.m looking for this and will pay x dollars for it. Now, all the other suggestions been amenable to. But this one sticks for me a little bit. I would think the artist would know better than me (since he.s the art professional) how much time it would take to conceptualize a work, purchase the materials, do the research, talk with the client, and create the work. And I also would like to think the artist would know better than me how his time is worth. And then overhead, consumables, and so on. So I.m sticking to my guns on this one. I.m asking the artist to quote a number that he.s happy with. This shouldn.t be too much to ask, no?

Well, here.s the sample contract, you be the judge!–

To aid assiduous artists in quoting the Call for Art, a sample contract has been drafted. It outlines the deliverables, payment schedule, and number of revisions to be included with the base price.

So that I can meaningfully compare packages, here are a few things to include with your submission:

  • base price. This is the price to put the whole thing together
  • hourly rate for additional revisions. Some revisions are built into the contract (see below). If more revisions are necessary, I want to make sure you are remunerated
  • five jpeg images showcasing your talents as applicable to this project
  • a short description of why this project interests you and what you bring to the table probably wondering how I am to work with. First: YES I have commissioned art before. The project was a complete success for both myself and the artist. kept in touch for over twenty years and his piece just went out on exhibition last year! So why not ask him?—he.s in his late eighties and long retired. Second: I am completely open to meeting up in person or talking on the phone. A quick meeting or phone conversation and you will be able to get an idea of whether this project is a good fit for your talents. Thanks for looking and hope to hear from you.


The Agreement is made the __________ day of __________ (month) __________ (year) between:

Name (Patron):


Phone:                                                                        Email:


Name (Artist):


Phone:                                                                        Email:

The parties agree as follows:

  1. The Work: the Patron is commissioning a painting ‘The Dead Man’s Hand’ (the Work) from the Artist as specified in the Call for Art (attached) at the purchase price of $_______ (x dollars). The purchase price includes all direct and indirect costs in creating the painting and delivering it to the Patron, including but not limited to purchase of the materials, consumables, shop expenses, labour, overhead, shipping, and taxes.
  2. Deliverables: 1) individual rough sketches for each of the six subjects (bartender, waitress, three gamblers, and dog). Allow for up to six revisions, if necessary 2) global rough sketch showing general layout and positions of subjects. Allow for one revision, if necessary 3) transfer sketch to final medium. Allow for one revision, if necessary 4) finished work. Allow for one revision, if necessary. Should the Patron request the Artist for additional revisions, the Artist can complete additional revisions at a rate of $_______ (per hour).
  3. Right of Refusal: should the Patron be unable to purchase the Work from the Artist when the Work is completed, the Artist will retain the Work and the payments made prior to completion. In that case, the Artist will retain the Work free from any claims or interests of the Patron and the Patron will be free of any further payments.
  4. Copyright: the Artist grants the Patron the right to use the Work as a cover illustration for a book the Patron is writing and the right to reproduce the Work for the purposes of promoting the book (e. on blogs, flyers, and advertisements). Notwithstanding the rights granted the Patron, the Artist retains reproduction and copyright rights.
  5. Project Schedule: delivery of the painting will take place within six months from the date the contract is signed. Should the Artist be unable to complete the work within this period, the Patron will retain the work complete to date and the Artist will be free from any claims or interests of the Patron and the Patron will be free of any further payments.
  6. Payment Schedule: payments will take place according to the following schedule:
    1. one-quarter upon approval of the six individual rough sketches
    2. one-quarter upon approval of the global rough sketch
    3. remainder upon delivery

Tales of the Unexpected (the Happy Side of Risk)

Do you find most often people—or yourself—try to avoid the unexpected? People say: ‘become better educated’, ‘contain the risk’, ‘watch out for the downside’, ‘better to go with the devil you know’, and so on. There is in the unknown something of a bogeyman. Well that.s true. Especially from my perspective, since I write on tragedy and, well, in that art form, whenever the hero runs across the unknown or the unexpected, the distribution of outcomes is asymmetrically skewed to the downside: i.e. death and destruction! Well, sometimes the unexpected can be very good as well!

Assiduous readers will be sitting on the edge of their seats wondering how the Call for Art is progressing. Today I biked out to Sidney to distribute the flyers at the Island Blue Print and the galleries out there. By the say, Sidney is the best place in the world. People in Sidney just love to be in Sidney. They love to chat with other relaxed and smiley folks. So dropped off the flyer at the two galleries along the main strip. Got an art lesson on some of the new watercolours and oils that they were coming in. Some of these watercolour artists work on their pieces for months! They do three or four pieces a year that absolutely happy with. Interesting work being a gallery buyer as well. Lots of artists coming in: so many works, so little room! Also found an art school by the water. The instructor had a lesson going on but had a prize pupil who she thought would be a perfect fit. There were samples on display and lots of these students are very talented! The only dangerous place in Sidney is the Safeway or I guess Save-on-Foods parking lot. That place has its own laws of driving which I haven.t figured out yet. I don.t think the drivers there have figured out either. But I was wondering if I.d bump into my old colleague Erik at the Starbucks there. He gets his afternoon coffee fix there and it was just about the right time. Lo and behold, he is there! We chat and I stop by the old office to see the boys. One thing I notice: nothing ever changes. The office is exactly the same. Collected 20 bucks on a bet I won from my old boss (we had placed a bet on what the stock price of Lucara diamonds would be New Years Day; he said above $3 and I said under). Also placed a new bet: New Years Day 2016 price of a barrel of oil, which is sitting at $58 today. I say $50 and he says $70. We.ll see! I guess as a patriotic Canadian hopefully he wins! Canada.s frighteningly resource dependent. But hey, maybe it will take a prolonged slump in oil prices to kickstart nascent industries.

But that was a big digression. Are you still with me? I was telling the story of how sometimes the unexpected is skewed towards the positive side. So, biking home (Sidney to downtown Victoria), I take the Galloping Goose. Wonderful. Avoid the highway with all the noise and hubcaps and body parts from all the cyclists who have been struck down on the highway.s shoulder (well, okay, that last part was an exaggeration. But this is what my imagination tells me if i take the highway route). The Galloping Goose takes me by Matticks Farm. Usually I proceed straight through. Actually, every other time done the ride gone straight through. But today I was thirsty. And feeling not in a rush. So I stop by and pick up a chocolate milk. Mmmmmm. Finding a place to sit down, I notice there.s a gallery right there! Well, looking at their display, it.s mostly abstract works and landscapes. But i thought, ‘Why not?’. Going in, i.m greeted by Sharon. I tell her about the project and she looks at the flyer. She thinks for a moment…the artists she knows don.t usually do this type of work. But she has a great suggestion: try Moss Street market on the weekend. It.s a little society of artists that would do this sort of thing. And then another great idea. This one I was hitting myself for not having thought of it myself. On the causeway by the Inner Harbour in downtown Victoria, there.s all sorts of activity once tourist season starts going (which is right around now). The patios fill up. There.s clowns, magic shows, musicians, and food stands. And also artists. They do quick portrait sketches. So skilled at meeting someone and capturing the person.s psychology with a few quick strokes. And they work fast. So it wouldn.t cost a fortune. While she was saying this, I was thinking, ‘Good point!’. Okay, so I don.t have a budget (art.s one of those things it.s hard to set a price to and I.d prefer the artist to set a price for the commission happy with), but at one of the galleries I was at, the artist they were suggesting is accustomed to charging in the vicinity of 10k for commissions! I like quality and this project means a lot to me, but 10k can buy a lot of things! So let.s see what happens! I know where to go this weekend on the trail of the Call for Art!–Moss street and the causeway. It.ll be fun to be part of the hubbub too. Writers tend to be in their own company for long periods. Good to go out.

So how does this tie into the unexpected and the upside? Well, i wasn.t planning on stopping at Matticks Farm. It just so happened that I was thirsty while riding by. You know, on the bell curve, they call the left and right ends the ‘tails’ of the curve. Those are the places where very unlikely things happen. And when people talk about them, they usually talk about catastrophes: the hundred year storm, the ‘big one’ (earthquake), and so on. Well, the tail on the right end gets less attention. That.s like the day you meet your future wife or the day the lottery goes with your numbers. These things happen too. To me, what happened today was a bit of good fortune. Not on the extreme right of the bell curve, but good enough to make me happy. Her recommendation was very good. So to me, it.s a reminder to expose yourself to all the things out there. Live life to the fullest or some other wooly expression like that. Deal with the bad when it happens. Because only by exposing yourself to risk can you get the ‘good’ side of risk.

Have a few leads now on the Call for Art. Meeting some more artists, hopefully soon someone can start working on ‘The Dead Man.s Hand’!

Warren Buffett Speaks by Janet Lowe

Looking at which categories been posting to lately, it seems like been standing around the watercooler for too long: lots of watercooler posts and few posts on writing the book or on books and plays that I should be reading. Damnation! But here I recall some good advice from one of my professors. What he said was that it is good to read outside of your field of study. Was it Keith Bradley? Or no, now I remember. It was wisdom that Bradley imparted on his student Leslie Shumka who in turn imparted it on me. It.s good advice because it.s true. Read too much and too long into your own field and you grow stagnant. With the same data, you.ll come to the same conclusions. You grow stagnant. Better to read outside your area of comfort. Become like the long forgotten Renaissance Man. We laugh at him today as a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, but remember, the world had been fairly static until then, and then, well, all of a sudden, things just took off.

Well, man cannot live on writing alone. Especially when writing is costing the author!–domain renewals, hosted WordPress fees, commissioning artwork for the cover illustration, the opportunity cost of writing instead of working, and so on. So it.s good to read books on investing. Which brings us to Warren Buffett Speaks: Wit and Wisdom from the World’s Greatest Investor by Janet Lowe. This is a small hardback from the library that caught my eye. For a long time, wanted to learn more about the Oracle of Omaha. Why? Well, he.s made a lot of money. But a lot of people have who don.t interest me. Unlike all those hedge fund guys, Buffett seems to be one of the ‘good guys’. A straight shooter. He.s also not based out of Wall Street but has kept his office in the midwest. He lives in the same house he.s had since the late 50s. And also, everyone has an opinion of him. In my education as an investor, it.s time I formed my own. Hey, maybe I will be able to make some money as well! Because writing this blog sure isn.t doing anything for the pocketbook!


The book is divided into sections about investing, work, family, life, and work. Lowe subdivides the sections or chapters into headings where she quotes two or three times to illustrate his point of view on a given subject. It.s a nice sort of book you can read at the end of a day and still get something out of it. I don.t know about you, but sometimes I.m pretty brain dead by the end of the day.

He.s got a folksy sort of wisdom that is easy to forget in the fast paced world. For example, under the ‘Be Honest’ heading in the chapter on life, he says:

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you.ll do things differently.

It always surprises me the amount of confidence successful go-getters have. Gates, Ellison, Jobs, and Shatner (don.t know how I associated him with the others) were also like this: never had any self-doubt. never been discouraged. I always knew I was going to be rich. I don.t think I ever doubted it for a minute.

Sign me up! Here.s another one that left an impression on me. The message is simple. Surround yourself with people you look up to:

I choose to work with every single person that I work with. That ends up being the most important factor. I don.t interact with people I don.t like or admire. That.s the key. It.s like marrying.

But there.s no point in just reading. Reading should be a prelude for action. Now, in my non-registered investment portfolio, 10% is dedicated to small cap Canadian stocks (generally stocks with a market cap of a couple hundred million up to 1.5 billion). I had been holding it in an exchange traded fund (ETF), iShares ticker It has fees of over half a percent a year. Considering that the real return of stocks (ie after inflation) is four or five percent a year, the fee represents over ten percent of my real return! Over many years it adds up–compounding works for you (as Einstein said it.s one of the wonders of the world) and it also works against you! thought about ditching the ETF in favour of a small basket of individual holdings. For one reason or another, instead of doing it, I had been thinking about it. Successful people, I.m learning, Just Do It. It usually works out well, unless, of course, you are Tiger Woods, in which case, it is better not to do it and not even to think about it!

Okay, so the stocks Buffett likes are ones that have a moat around them. It.s hard for competitors to take away their market. He.s into railways right now for this reason. He also has a litmus test: buy a stock if you are confident that–if you couldn.t trade it or even see it.s day to day value for ten years–you.d be confident it would have done well. Other things: he like consumer staples and discretionary stocks. He.s always got a Cherry Coke and a Dairy Queen ice cream in hand because he owns them! I imagine soon we.ll have images of him feasting on Kraft Dinner with some Heinz Ketchup (which Berkshire Hathaway has recently bought). So, I sold The nice thing about was that it was well diversified, holding over 200 little flailing stocks, some of which would disappear and others which would explode in value. I decided on 20 holdings for my Buffett clone portfolio. Here.s what I bought:

K-Bro Linen (provides linen to hospitals and foodservice, not many publicly traded competitors)

Western One Rentals (in my former career rented tons of equipment from them at a great cost, why not buy it? Plus the stock has just collapsed with the pullback of oil into the $40/barrel. Perhaps good entry point)

Clearwater Seafood (they have the license to harvest a lot of crab, shrimp, scallops off Canada.s coast and it seems everyone is eating more seafood these days)

Capstone Infrastructure (governments increasingly turning to private sector for energy solutions. Should be recession resistant industry with growth opportunity)

Boston Pizza Income Fund ( ate here for years, might as well own it)

Liquor Stores (recession proof, outlets mainly in Alberta and BC. Actually, with conditions in Alberta, we will shortly see how recession proof it really is!)

High Liner Foods (most of their sales are actually to restaurants and institutions. Rising fish consumption should help out this stock. Too bad they gave up their fishing vessels in the 90s)

Student Transportation (one would think a school bus company responsible for ferrying kids to school would be recession proof)

Premium Brand Holdings (an interesting consumer staple stock: cornered the sliced meats and sandwich corner of the market, owning Freybe.s and Grimm.s among twenty or so other brand names)

Morneau Shepell (sort of an analytics type company that advises other companies on how to manage pensions, health care benefits, and so on. You.d think reading the news on unfunded pension obligations there is a need for these guys)

Intertape Polymer (they make packaging materials. With more and more stuff getting shipped all over the world, there is demand for what they do)

Northwest Company (they own shopping centres and grocery stores in remote locations)

Descartes Systems Group (named after the French philosophe who calculated ways to make bus routes more effective. They are a logistics company which streamlines international shipping and receiving. I wanted at least one information technology stock in the portfolio)

Chemtrade Logistics (they just sell chemicals all over the world, been watching it for a long time)

Great Canadian Gaming (defensive moat around this industry because it.s hard to get licenses!)

AG Growth International (they sell wheat silos around the world. It seems like a sleepy stock that will do just fine in the long run)

New Flyer Industries (they make BC Transit buses and buses for a lot of other cities too)

AGT Food and Ingredients (worldwide supplier of pulses, ie beans and things. They will benefit from the shift away from wheat and people looking to eat a staple that is environmentally friendly to produce)

Innergex (renewable energy sources, mostly hydro. Should be recession resistant)

Boyd Industries (everyone needs to replace windshields or fix the fender bender at some point)

Mostly consumer staples and industrials. Notice anything?–yes you got it: no financials! Here.s what Buffett had to say about banks:

It has always been a fantasy of mine that a boatload of 25 brokers would be shipwrecked and struggle to an island from which there could be no rescue. Faced with developing an economy that would maximize their consumption and pleasure, would they, I wonder assign 20 of their number to produce food, clothing, shelter, etc., while setting 5 to trading options endlessly on the future output of the 20?

Hahaha that is pretty good! But consider this. 5 out of 25 is just 20%. He.s thinking of the US. In Canada, financials today account for 35% of the TSX Composite!!! OMG run to the hills! Sure, we need banks and brokers. Lending, allocating capital to where it.s required, etc., is all good. But when over 1/3 of the market is tasked with moving money around, it.s got to make you wonder: is it necessary for  the financials to be so big? How I think of it is this: a biological metaphor. If finance is like an arm or a hand (it.s moving around money so that.s one way of thinking about it) it works when it.s in proportion to the rest of the body. When the arm is five times longer than it should be, it just gets in the way! Think of all those roid monkeys out there. They change their anatomy so that things are no longer in proportion. And they will pay the price. Maybe not today. But certainly down the road: the heart just can.t take it.

Okay, so when I started the new portfolio, some of the stocks weren.t cheap. Buffett is a value investor. K-Bro Linen was actually frighteningly expensive. But I reckoned that I held them in anyway, so it was good to make the change. Actually, it feels good to have done something. Having done it, it feels like it was the right thing to do. We.ll see in ten years. In the meanwhile, I.ll be fixing my car at Boyd (actually, bicycle, I lied!), eating out at Boston Pizza, renting from Western One, eating High Liner at home, using Innergex hydro…you get the idea! From now on it.s just money in the pocket baby!

Looking for a Cover Illustration

Today.s the day! After sitting on it for way too long (over a month) I hit the street to find an artist to paint a cover illustration for the book. In preparation for the big moment, I revised the Call for Art last night and printed some copies. Believe it or not, my laser printer.s going on thirteen years and has travelled in moves across North America and back again. It smudges and each page has to be loaded separately. I thought about getting professional copies done up at the printer.s–maybe a splash of colour in the heading as well–but then, would that really be necessary? If an artist is into it, the information.s the same both ways. Here.s what the revised Call for Art looks like:

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 17.15.34

Also started drafting a sample contract so that the artist.s can have an idea on how to quote the project. There.s quite a few sample contracts online. I took one that I liked and modified it so that the patron has right to use the painting as a cover illustration. That.s one thing that I learned from reading: typically, even if you physically own a work of art, the artist retains the right to reproduce the work or art, not the owner. Still working on the form of the contract, but here.s how the draft looks:


The Agreement is made the __________ day of __________ (month) __________ (year) between:

Name (Patron):


Phone:                                                                        Email:


Name (Artist):


Phone:                                                                        Email:

The parties agree as follows:

  1. The Work: the Patron is commissioning a painting ‘The Dead Man’s Hand’ from the Artist as specified in the Call for Art (attached) at the purchase price of $_______ (x dollars). The purchase price includes all direct and indirect costs in creating the painting and delivering it to the Patron, including but not limited to purchase of the canvas, oils consumables, shop expenses, labour, shipping, and taxes.
  2. Right of Refusal: should the Patron be unable to purchase the Work from the Artist when the Work is completed, the Artist will retain the Work and the payments made prior to completion. In that case, the Artist will retain the Work free from any claims or interests of the Patron and the Patron will be free of any further payments.
  3. Copyright: the Artist grants the Patron (or any agent retained by the Patron) the right to reproduce the Work for the purposes of promoting or distributing a book that the Patron is writing. Notwithstanding the right granted the Patron, the Artist retains reproduction and copyright rights.
  4. Project Schedule: delivery of the painting will take place within six months from the date the contract is signed. Should the Artist be unable to complete the work within this period…
  5. Payment Schedule: payments will take place according to the following schedule:
    1. one-quarter when the preliminary sketch is approved
    2. one-quarter when the preliminary sketch is transferred onto canvas
    3. remainder upon delivery

I have to think about the payment schedule some more and how many sketches should be incorporated into the process. The thing about this work is the look of surprise in each of the figures. Should I approve each of the looks of surprise in each of the subjects in the painting? Looking in my Durer art book, I see that often he would draw up sketches–and sometimes surprisingly detailed sketches–of figures, gestures, faces, and so on before incorporating them into his masterpieces.

At the art supply stores in Victoria, there.s a very handy corkboard. So the Call for Art was posted at Island Blue, Opus Art Supply, and Artworld Art Supplies. Also went by some of the galleries downtown (of which there are quite a few!). I was happy with the positive responses. Actually meeting some assiduous artists tonight to discuss the concept over a beer. People are generally quite inquisitive when you say writing a book. And there.s a genuine desire for them to match you up with a good artist. So got quite a few leads. I get the impression that the art world is tightly knit. It.s a face to face community. I also learned there.s Community Arts Councils. One for Victoria, one for Saanich Peninsula, and so on. They might be able to send out Calls for Art to their members. So I.ll check this out soon as well. It was also fun just going into the galleries to see all the fantastic works of art! The one thing I noticed is that there.s a lot more landscape and still life artists than artists who do portraits and human figures.

Everything was positive except for this one gallery. But ugh did the lady there ever take the wind out of my sails. She was unpacking some pieces of art when I got in, so I though to take a look around the gallery to catch an opportune moment to introduce myself. After a few minutes, I tried to start off the conversation with a, ‘It must be exciting to be getting some new piece!’. She didn.t look up. So I thought it.s now or never and introduced myself, saying I was looking for help finding an artist to do a cover illustration. She simply said no. To which I asked her if I could leave her a flyer in case she knew any artists who would be interested. At this point, she looked up and said it was impossible: her gallery only works directly with artists. When she looked up. I noticed her glasses right away. They were these purple shaded glasses made of what appeared to be some high end ceramic material. Very very very fancy, I thought they must have cost a fortune (I had been glasses shopping a little while ago). And in that second, I also noticed her whole attire and bearing. In a way, she was dressed like the fancy gallery shop owner. She was playing the role of the ‘power player’ in the art world. And I was to her–I imagined–a nothing, something beneath nothing. And I had dared to disturb her. And such beady cold eyes, like looking into a shark, not even human. I said thanks and walked out. How could someone be so close to art and so unhappy?

But onwards and upwards! Can.t let a little negativity slow me down. But the whole episode does fill me with a sense of wonder at how some people are. Have you had run ins like that on your journey? How do you react?