Author Archives: Edwin Wong

About Edwin Wong

I'm Doing Melpomene's Work by writing a book on how the art form of tragedy functions as a valuing mechanism. "The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected" is due for release 2019 and examines how heroes assign value to their human assets in their high stakes games. In 2015 I started the blog melpomeneswork.com to share the self-publishing experience with assiduous readers.

Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition – February 2019 Update

Stats, stats, stats!

Thank you assiduous playwrights for all your entries! Here are the vital statistics since the competition began over eight months ago on June 1, 2018. Seventy-one plays have come in from four continents (North American, Europe, Oceania, and Asia) and eight countries (USA, Canada, UK, Australia, Ireland, Japan, Italy, and Greece). With entries from the birthplace of tragedy–Greece and Italy–the competition is now truly international. Here’s the country breakdown:

USA 55 entrants

Canada 8 entrants

Australia 1 entrant

England 3 entrants

Ireland 1 entrant

Japan 1 entrant

Italy 1 entrant

Greece 1 entrant

Of the American entries, 38 are from the east and 17 are from the west. There is a concentration of dramatists in New York (nine entrants) and Chicago (five entrants) and LA (four entrants). Write away New York, Chicago, and LA!

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 50 men and 21 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 29 hits a day in January. Most hits in a day was 196 back in June 2018 when the contest launched. That month also saw 2000+ hits. February 2019 is on pace for 900 views. So far, so good!

The inaugural competition will conclude on March 29, 2019. One-and-a-half months left! Wow, what a rush this has been!

My book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected has hit the bookshelves! Get yourself a copy at Amazon or Barnes & Noble! All proceeds from the book go back into funding the competition. Read all about the book release here. Excerpts from the book are available from Google Books.

Complimentary copies have started going out to the hardworking playwrights who have sent in their scripts. Complimentary copies will be distributed on a FIFO or first-in, first-out basis: the first playwrights who submitted plays will receive priority copies. The distribution process is expected to take three months, after which time everyone will have a keepsake from the competition. 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.

Book Release – The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Cover

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Cover

This post has been thirteen years in the writing. It was during the winter of 2006 that I came up with the idea of the dramatic art form of tragedy as a theatre of risk. On February 4, 2019, the softcover proof of my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected arrived on my doorstep. After unwrapping the book, I had to sit down on the couch. Overwhelmed. I spent some time looking at it and flipping the pages. They did a good job at Friesen Press with the jacket design. Austere, plain, and authoritative. It’s a handsome book. The 8.5″x5.5″ form factor brings the book to 368 pages. Perfect thickness. 8.5″x5.5″ feels good to hold in the hand. The ink smells fresh. The cover has a grainy waxy texture to it. The pages are cream. Light deflects better off cream than white pages. Easier on the eyes.

After what felt like a long time sitting on the couch just looking at the book and turning it over in my hands, I started reading parts. Randomly. A couple of pages here and a couple of pages there. Though I knew the words inside and out, I noticed how differently it felt to read them in a book rather than on a printout or on the screen of a laptop computer. The words read well. What I noticed reading the book was that it felt like I was reading a book rather than reading my own words. I say this because, while I was editing the manuscript on the laptop or a printout, it would always feel like I was reading my own words. The book makes the writing seem more distant. And I guess it is more distant now: the book is out there who knows where in the world. May it encounter happy readers and friendly critics.

Book Blurb

WHEN YOU LEAST EXPECT IT, BIRNAM WOOD COMES TO DUNSINANE HILL

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy presents a profoundly original theory of drama that speaks to modern audiences living in an increasingly volatile world driven by artificial intelligence, gene editing, globalization, and mutual assured destruction ideologies. Tragedy, according to risk theatre, puts us face to face with the unexpected implications of our actions by simulating the profound impact of highly improbable events.

In this book, classicist Edwin Wong shows how tragedy imitates reality: heroes, by taking inordinate risks, trigger devastating low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. Such a theatre forces audiences to ask themselves a most timely question–what happens when the perfect bet goes wrong?

Not only does Wong reinterpret classic tragedies from Aeschylus to O’Neill through the risk theatre lens, he also invites dramatists to create tomorrow’s theatre. As the world becomes increasingly unpredictable, the most compelling dramas will be high-stakes tragedies that dramatize the unintended consequences of today’s risk takers who are taking us past the point of no return.

Author Blurb

Edwin Wong founded the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition with Langham Court Theatre to align tragedy with the modern fascination with uncertainty and chance. It is the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy (visit risktheatre.com for details). He is an award-winning classicist with a master’s degree from Brown University, where he concentrated on ancient theatre. His other research interests include epic poetry, where he has published a solution to the contradiction between Homeric fate and free will by drawing attention to the peculiar mechanics of chess endgames. He lives in Victoria, BC and blogs at melpomeneswork.com.

Emerging Local Authors Collection

The Greater Victoria Public Library, or GVPL for short, hosts an emerging local authors collection. It’s a great community resource for writers and readers alike. The softcover proof that came in last week has been deposited with the GVPL for inclusion in their emerging local authors collection this year. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy will hit the shelves at the GVPL in May 2019.

Preview the Book at Google Books!

Preview the book for free by clicking this link.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters Indigo!

Friesen Press includes distribution in their publishing packages. This in itself was the one reason why I went with Friesen over a typesetter and a printer: Friesen partners with Lightning Source, a print-on-demand company, and the book distributor Ingram to make titles available on online booksellers including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters Indigo, and the FriesenPress Online Bookstore. Originally I had even toyed with learning how to typeset myself on LaTeX typesetting system: that’s what the author of Early Retirement Extreme did when he published his book. But Friesen’s help with distribution was too good to pass up.

Friesen can also make titles accessible to physical bookstores. To do so, authors must purchase book return insurance at $699 a year and opt for a 55/45 trade discount. That means, for every dollar the book sells for above the production and distribution costs, the wholesaler gets 55% and the author gets 45%. If the book costs $20 to produce and distribute and the book sells for $21, the wholesaler gets 55 cents and the author 45 cents. If the author goes for online sales only, the ‘short discount’ of 25/75 is used, and there is no need to buy the book return insurance. With the short discount, the author keeps more. If it costs $20 to produce and distribute the book and the book sells for $21, the wholesaler gets 25 cents and the author gets 75 cents.

For this rollout I went with the 25/75 short discount to make the title available online. It’ll take a few years for the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition to take off. When it does, it’ll make more sense at that time to get the title into brick-and-mortar bookstores. The $699 book return insurance at this stage of the game can be better used to support the competition.

Here’s where assiduous readers can get a hold of their very own copy of The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. All proceeds from the book go back into the playwright competition. Please tell your theatre friends and colleagues about this new and exciting dramatic manifesto! Comments on the online bookseller of your choice are also most welcome.

Amazon.com

Softcover $14.99, Hardcover $23.99, shipping in US $5.99 (orders over $25 qualify for free shipping)

Follow me on my Amazon author page: amazon.com/author/edwinwong

Amazon.ca

Softcover $19.94, Hardcover $31.91, shipping in Canada $4.98 (orders over $35 qualify for free shipping)

Barnes & Noble

Softcover $14.99, Hardcover $23.99, shipping in US $4.99 (orders over $35 qualify for free shipping)

Friesen Press Online Bookstore

Softcover $18.49, Hardcover $27.99, shipping in Canada $14.49

Chapters Indigo (forthcoming)

 

Until next time I’m Edwin Wong, and I will continue to do Melpomene’s work.

The Nibelungenlied – Anonymous (trans. A. T. Hatto)

404 pages, Penguin, 1969

Book Blurb

‘No warrior will ever do a darker deed’

Written by an unknown author in the twelfth century, this powerful story of murder and revenge reaches back to the earliest epochs of German antiquity, transforming centuries-old versions of the tale into a poetic masterpiece. Siegfried, a great prince of the Netherlands, wins the hand of the beautiful princess Kriemhild of Burgundy, by aiding her brother Gunther in his struggle to possess a powerful Icelandic Queen. But the two women quarrel, and Siegfried is ultimately destroyed by those he trusts most. Comparable in scope to the Iliad, this skilfully crafted work is one of the greatest of epic poems–the principal version of the heroic legends used by Richard Wagner in The Ring.

Author Blurb

The ‘Last Poet’ (the one who put together the earlier lays into the current epic) is anonymous, so little to say here. There is a short chapter “The Status of the Poet” which speculates on who this ‘Last Poet’ was. The conclusion is that:

The safest guess is, then, that the strange genius who wrote the Nibelungenlied was a semi-clerical poet by profession, technically of the order of vagi or wayfarers, though probably sedentary for most of his life.

There you have it!

The Nibelungenlied

With words like ‘fillet’, ‘wimple’, and ‘bohort’, the Nibelungenlied is a vocabulary enhancing extravaganza. Excellent for Scrabble players out there everywhere! By the way, a fillet is a band worn by unmarried women around the head, a wimple is a cloth headdress worn by married women (still worn by nuns today), and a bohort is a jousting tournament with dulled lances.

In the Nibelungenlied, castles resound with the thunderous and joyous sounds of clashing lances and shields. The men busy themselves in feasts. The women busy themselves in making fancy, gem studded clothing. Men and women are also somewhat sequestered from one another, so they look forward to special occasions when they can intermingle (e.g. when dignitaries come into town) and do the things that men and women do.

In addition to feasting, the men can often be found planning expeditions to neighbouring kingdoms. When planning an expedition, their primary concern appears to be to arrive well-dressed. To be GQ ready, they enlist the women to manufacture gem and ruby studded clothing. Clothing seems to be very important in this era. When Kriemhild bribes the messengers, for example, she offers them, of all things, splendid clothes:

‘Now do exactly as I ask’, she said to the two messengers, ‘Tell them my message at home and you will earn a great reward. If you do this, I shall make you very rich and give you splendid clothes.

And then when they do go on expeditions, there’s always some noble margrave (a sort of count) who can take in a thousand men on no notice:

‘But this is out of the question’ replied Dancwart. ‘Where would you find all the food, bread, and wine which you would need tonight for so many warriors?’

‘No more of that if you please!’ answered Rüdiger when he heard it. ‘My dear lords, do not refuse me. I could feed you for a fortnight together with all your following, since King Etzel has never laid me under any contribution.

What Was Twelfth Century Life Actually Like?

There’s a homeless shelter called ‘Our Place’. From the sound of the sirens and the look of the folks outside, it’s anything but ‘Our Place’. There’s a senior centre called ‘We Care’. From the news reports of all the senior abuse, it’s crossed my mind that ‘We Care’ really means ‘We don’t care’. There’s a law firm called ‘Integrity Law’. Why would they call themselves ‘Integrity Law’ unless they wanted to draw attention away from dealings that lack integrity? There’s company called ‘Coast Environmental’. Sounds nice, no?–the combination of ‘coast’ and ‘environmental’ conjures up images of dolphins and porpoises. Of course they deal with sewage.

How does these examples help us reconstruct twelfth century life? Like ‘Our Place’, a lot of the descriptions in the Nibelungenlied appear to be wishful thinking. The gifts of gold and precious stones that hosts would heap into shields and dispense to guests is a sign that gold and precious stones were lacking. That kings never tax vassals is a sign that vassals were weighed down by the burden of heavy contributions. That knights would wear and ruin their best clothes in bohorts is not a sign of prodigious consumption but that clothes were in short supply. That margraves would stock excess food in their strongholds–enough to feed wandering armies for weeks–is not a sign of well-stocked pantries, but rather a sign that malnutrition and starvation were endemic.

The twelfth century must have been a chaotic era rife with uncertainty and change for the worse. The one redeeming feature is the fantasyland of the Nibelungenlied where food and drink are plentiful, kings do not need to tax retainers, rich veins yield up gold and silver to all comers, and clothing is so readily available that you wear your best shirt when you enter the jousting tournament.

The Nibelungenlied as Tragedy

Since this is a German epic, it seems fitting that the one truly tragic episode goes together with Hegel’s German interpretation of tragedy like bread and butter. The one truly tragic episode?–that would be that of the Margrave Rüdiger, lord of Pöchlarn. When King Etzel sent him to woo Kriemhild, Rüdiger swears an oath to Kriemhild that he would “make amends to her for any wrong that should befall her.” This is Rüdiger’s first mistake, as a powerful knight, Hagen, had wronged Kriemhild by killing her husband Siegfried when Siegfried knelt down by the river to drink. His second mistake occurs years later, when, after Kriemhild and Etzel have married, he escorts the Burgundians into Hungary. Although she herself is a Burgundian, the Burgundians have done Kriemhild a great harm, because their greatest knight Hagen sunk the spear into Siegfried’s heart and their weak king, Gunther, allowed it to happen. When Rüdiger escorts the Burgundians into Hungary, he guarantees them safe passage as their host. This is his second mistake, as when Kriemhild revenges the murder of Siegfried, she will call upon the hapless Rüdiger to slay his Burgundian guests.

No, what did Hegel say about tragedy? Hegel defined tragedy as a collision of moral forces, both of which are grounded in the just and right. And that is exactly what happens with Rüdiger when he realizes he cannot fulfil both his oath to Kriemhild and his obligations to the Burgundians as their host:

[Kriemhild speaking] ‘What have we done to deserve that you should add to my sufferings and the King’s?’ she asked with tears in her eyes. ‘Now you have told us all along, noble Rüdiger that you would hazard your position and your life for us, and I have heard many warriors acclaim you as far and away the best. And so, illustrious knight, I remind you of the aid you swore to bear me when you urged me to marry Etzel, saying you would serve me till one or the other of us died.–Poor woman, I was never in such need of that aid as now’.

‘There is no denying it, noble lady, that I swore to risk my life and position for you: but that I would lose my soul I never swore!–Remember it was I who brough those highborn kings [i.e. the Burgundians] to the festival here’.

‘Think, Rüdiger, of your great debt of loyalty and constancy’, she said, ‘and of the oaths, too, by which you swore you would always avenge my wrongs and any harm that befell me’.

‘I have never refused you anything’, answered the Margrave. And now mighty Etzel began to entreat him, and both he and his queen knelt before their liegeman. The noble Margrave stood there in despair. ‘Alas’, cried that most faithful knight from the depths of his anguish, ‘that I have lived to know this, Godforsaken man that I am! I must sacrifice all the esteem, the integrity, and breeding that by the grace of God were mine! Ah, God in Heaven, that death does not avert this from me! Whichever course I leave in order to follow the other, I shall have acted basely and infamously–and if I refrain from both, they will all upbraid me! May He that summoned me to life afford me counsel!’

This is textbook Hegelian tragedy: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And, as a German critic, Hegel would have been well-acquainted with the Nibelungenlied, the German epic. Is it a wonder then, that the national character of the Germans, with their fascination of oaths at cross-purposes, would have led to a Hegel’s formulation of tragedy?

And is a wonder then, that, having grown up with works that emphasize risk and the unexpected such as Sartre’s The Wall, Tevis’ The Hustler, and Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid, I would come up with a particularly American formulation of tragedy as a gambling act? But then again, I am Canadian. Who would have thought that it would take a Canadian to come up with an American interpretation of theatre? The unexpected is truly all around us!

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

The Later Roman Empire – Ammianus (trans. Walter Hamilton)

506 pages, Penguin, 1986

Book Blurb

Ammianus Marcellinus was the last great Roman historian, and his writings rank alongside those of Livy and Tacitus. The Later Roman Empire chronicles a period of twenty-five years during Ammianus’ lifetime, covering the reigns of Constantius, Julian, Jovian, Valentinian and Valens, and providing eyewitness accounts of significant military events including the Battle of Strasbourg and the Goths’ Revolt. Portraying a time of rapid and dramatic change, Ammianus describes an Empire exhausted by excessive taxation, corruption, the financial ruin of the middle classes and the progressive decline in the morale of the army. In this magisterial depiction of the closing decades of the Roman Empire, we can see the seeds of the events that were to lead to the fall of the city, just twenty years after Ammianus’ death. This selection includes the major parts of the surviving books of the history. Walter Hamilton’s fine translation captures the stylish vigour of the original, while Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s introduction describes the life and works of Ammianus and places the history in the context of its times.

Author Blurb

Ammianus Marcellinus was the last great Roman historian. He was not a professional man of letters but an army officer of Greek origin born at Antioch and contemporary with the events described in what remains of his work. He set himself the task of continuing the histories of Tacitus from AD 96 down to his own day. The first thirteen of his thirty-one books are lost: the remainder describe a period of only twenty-five years (AD 354-378) and the reigns of the emperors Constantius, Julian, Jovian, Valentinian and Valens, for which he is a prime authority. He was a pagan and an admirer of the apostate Julian, to whose career about half the surviving books are devoted. But his treatment of Christianity is free from prejudice and his imparitality and good judgement have been generally recognized. His style is sometimes bizarre, but in all the essential qualities of an historian he deserves the praise accorded to him by Gibbon and is well able to stand comparison with Livy and Tacitus.

Review of Ammianus’ The Later Roman Empire (AD 354-378)

While reading The Later Roman Empire, I feel an affinity with the Roman legions in Tacitus who have wandered far from Italian soil and too far into Germany. The fog is everywhere, the marshlands extends forever, the sun no longer shines. They have reached the edge of the known world. While Tacitus’ legions have wandered too far in space, I feel, while reading Ammianus, that I have wandered too far in time. This is no longer the Roman Empire of old. This is something else. Not quite the Middle Ages, not quite classical antiquity.

In Ammianus’ time, the world is a smaller space. The Roman Empire is sick. This is not Livy’s Rome, which was expanding. Nor is it Tacitus’ Rome, which was consolidating it’s powers. This is an old Rome, sick unto death. In Livy and Tacitus, temporary setbacks due to lavishness, foreign influences, and profligacy (the usual suspects) could be overcome by a return to the mos maiorum, “the way of our ancestors.” No longer in the Late Empire. The corruption is now systemic. Even Valentinian’s attempts at reform are due to cruelty and a desire to see others suffer than the good old mos maiorum doctrine.

In Ammianus’ time, the Empire is split between east and west. The emperor, or the “Augustus” watches over one half, while the prince, or the “Caesar” watches over the other. The barbarians constantly push against the boundaries and the army is constantly pushing back. The Augustus and the Caesar are on a neverending campaign. They themselves ride into battle in a magisterial if perhaps misguided show of noblesse oblige. Perhaps, like the Empire, they are tired of being alive.

In Ammianus’ history, Rome is far away. What is going on in Rome? Are the senators coming up with new policies? Do the masses have enough grain? Who knows. Compared with the hostile frontier, Rome is an insignificant speck. Germans, Gauls, and Persians are the focus of attention. Guys names “Gundomadus” and “Dagalaifus” run around in Ammianus’ history. We are no longer in Kansas, Dorothy.

Despite the book blurb, in style and substance, Ammianus cannot compare with Tacitus and Livy. Part of this may be due to the loss of the all-important prologue, which is, for me, the most interesting part of the text. In the prologue, the historian justifies the writing of his history. He talks of his predecessors’ failings and how he is filling in a gap. He talks up the period of history he concentrates on and why he, and only he, can capture accurately the story of that time. Ammianus’ style isn’t as weird as the introduction makes it out to be (e.g. I didn’t notice instances of what Gibbon refers to as Ammianus’ disorder, perplexity of narrative, false ornaments, and turgid metaphors). All in all, a fascinating look at how the Roman world had changed. If we take the Hannibalic War (218 BC) as the “coming of age” of Rome, and the period covered by Ammianus as Rome’s twilight (AD 378), it looks like, for some reason, Rome maintained her position as the primary Mediterranean world power for close to 600 years. What an amazing achievement. They ask: “Why did Rome fall?” But perhaps the real question is: “Why did Rome dominate for so long?”

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

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.