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.

Performance Studies International (PSI) – Call for Proposals

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

CALL FOR PROPOSALS

Performance Studies international

PSi #25 2019: “Elasticity”

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


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

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

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

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

FORMATS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conference Convenors:

Pil Hansen
Bruce Barton

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

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

2009, Anansi, 319 pages

Book Blurb

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

Author Blurb

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

Interpreters, Interpreters, Interpreters!

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

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

Cello Suites Discography

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

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

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

Speaking of Interpreters…

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

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

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

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

Eteocles: No warrior could take such an adage seriously!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Enemy of the People – Ibsen

1999, Dover, 96 pages

Book Blurb

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

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

Author Blurb

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

An Enemy of the People as Risk Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us go one step further.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Diabolical Halloween Story aboard the VIA Rail

A Mephistopheles Story

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

Choices, choices, choices

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

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

Just a small town girl,

Living in a lonely world

Took the midnight train going anywhere.

Just a city boy,

Living in South Detroit

Took the midnight train going anywhere.

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

Not Quite Midnight Train (but close)

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

Sleep Patterns

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

Sleeping on Trains

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

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

Goethe’s Faust

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

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

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

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

Breakfast

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

Lunch

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

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

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

Next Day

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

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

Happy Halloween!

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

Risk Theatre Major Milestone – Book at Proofing Stage

Friesen Press sent back the first proofs of The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected on Friday, October 5, right on schedule. Four files came in the package: 1) hardcover PDF (e.g. dustjacket), 2) softcover PDF, 3) interior pages of the book called the “book block,” also PDF, and 4) another version of the interior pages of the book on a special Word file that’s linked to the PDF book block. Here’s the softcover PDF–I had asked for something spare, authoritative, and easy to read from a distance:

TRTMOT_SC_18-10-04

 

The revision process is straightforward. Changes to the text and light formatting (adding or deleting bold and italics) are done on the Word document. Any other changes such as adjusting tabs, paragraphs, charts, page / footnote numbers, size of fonts, and inserting / deleting headings must be done on the PDF documents. You open the PDF file on Adobe Acrobat Reader, select the comment tool, set the sticky note where the change is to occur, and type in the instructions for the designer.

For example, I wanted a subject reference on the top left hand corner of the back cover. To do this, I put a little comment note on both the soft- and hardcover on the top left hand corner of the back cover and left the following instructions: “Insert subject reference DRAMA/LITERATURE.” Altogether, it took me a week and a half to finish the revisions to the first proof. The exercise clocked in at thirty hours, give or take.

I began with the Word document. 147 changes in the text, which is, at this point, hard to believe. There were many minor corrections from converting my original Word document into Friesen’s special Word document. For example, some of the subheadings needed to be capitalized throughout. Same with the running headers. Also, paragraphs were broken up inadvertently. This accounted for maybe 30 of these 147 changes. Next were the corrections to maintain consistency. When quoting footnotes, they were referred to sometimes as 279n.14 (this would refer to page 279 note 14). At other times, there would be a space, as in 279 n.14 or 279 n. 14. The manuscript was written over a period of ten years, so my own conventions evolved. Also in this category is consistency in orthography, especially for the ancient Greek names. For example, is is “Eteocles,” “Eteokles,” or “Eteoklus?” Making everything consistent accounted for maybe 20 of the 147 changes. Next were the changes to improve the flow. When reading the manuscript, some of the lines seemed to stick. For example, in the discussion of Othello, the proof read: “Iago claims to feel slighted because Othello passed him up for promotion.” This seemed to stick, and, to improve the flow became this: “Iago claims to feel slighted because Othello has passed him over for promotion.” These improvement to flow accounted for 90 or so of the 147 changes. Reading the text aloud helps with improving flow: if you can say it, then you can read it. Then there were the embarrassing errors. There were two or three of these. Honestly, through all the revision rounds, it was surprising to seem them. Subject-verb agreement, for example. The proof read: “Eteocles draws a lot and interpret the tale of the tape.” Of course, it should read that he interprets the tale of the tape. One thing I learned from this exercise is that a lot of work goes into making an error free book. Errors can be so persistent…

After I revised the Word document, next up was the PDF document of the book. 140 changes were posted into the PDF document through the comment tool. Changes to the PDF document were of a more cosmetic nature than the changes to the Word document. I wanted, for example, the vertical bar in the text to indicate a blockquote removed. I thought footnotes at the beginning of each chapter should be enumerated from 1, instead of being numbered consecutively from the first to the last chapter. Things like this. In the conversion process from my original Word document to the book proof, lots of little unforeseen things pop up which don’t appear quite right. For example, verse quotes easily fit onto a line in a Word document. But if a verse is quoted in a book proof, sometimes it runs into the next line (the book page is narrower and if it’s a blockquote, it will be also indented in from the left margin). So, if a verse quote ran into the next line, I wanted a short tab to indicate that the verse was being continued from the previous line. All little things. But all the little things add up. The feeling correcting proofs is not unlike going camping during mosquito season.

I’ve sent the proof back to Friesen. Their designer will take three weeks to incorporate the revisions into the text and send back a revised set of proofs. Then I’ll review and if they’re good, I’ll sign them off and the indexer can start. If I notice anything else, there will be another revision round, which will have to be paid for as an extra: my self-publishing package “Launch” only includes the first revision round. I feel that I’ll have to pay for one additional revision round to get everything to the point where it needs to be.

One interesting thing that I learned is that Library and Archives Canada no longer supports Cataloguing in Publication or CIP data for self-published titles. This is a major loss, as it identifies a self-published title as being self-published immediately. CIP data appears as a few lines on the copyright page and it helps libraries out by spelling out the author’s biographical information and the book’s call number. CIP data also goes out to booksellers and libraries to facilitate the book distribution process. The reason for the lack of support is lack of funding. You know, I think a lot of writers would pay Library and Archives Canada for CIP data to include on the copyright page. Why not make this something that can be paid for? If there’s been budget cutbacks, theyt could even charge a hefty number, say $150 or $250. Even for their massive bureaucratic juggernaut, that should cover the clerical work involved in producing a few lines of text and entering them into the national database. Then at least self-published writers would have the option of getting CIP data. Right now, there’s not even the option. And yes, I’ve emailed Library and Archives Canada to ask them to consider charging self-published authors for this service. Let’s see what they say.

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

Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life – Taleb

2018, Random House, 279 pages

Book Blurb

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Black Swan, a bold new work that challenges many of our long-held beliefs about risk and reward, politics and religion, finance and personal responsibility.

“Skin in the game means that you do not pay attention to what people say, only to what they do, and to how much of their necks they are putting on the line.”

In his most provocative and practical book yet, one of the foremost thinkers of our time redefines what it means to understand the world, succeed in a profession, contribute to a fair and just society, detect nonsense, and influence others. Citing examples ranging from Hammurabi to Seneca, Antaeus the Giant to Donald Trump, Nassim Nicholas Taleb shows how the willingness to accept one’s own risks is an essential attribute of heroes, saints, and flourishing people in all walks of life.

The phrase “skin in the game” is one we have often heard but rarely stopped to truly dissect. It is the backbone of risk management, but it’s also an astonishingly rich worldview that, as Taleb shows in this book, applies to all aspects of our lives. As Taleb says, “The symmetry of skin in the game is a simple rule that’s necessary for fairness and justice, and the ultimate BS-buster,” and “Never trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game. Without it, fools and crooks will benefit, and their mistakes will never come back to haunt them.”

Author Blurb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb spent twenty-one years as a risk taker before becoming a researcher in philosophical, mathematical, and (mostly) practical problems with probability. Although he spends most of his time as a flâneur, meditating in cafés across the planet, he is currently Distinguished Professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering. His books, part of a multivolume collection called Incerto, have been published in thirty-six languages. Taleb has authored more than fifty scholarly papers as backup to Incerto, ranging from international affairs and risk management to statistical physics. Having been described as “a rare mix of courage and erudition” he is widely recognized as the foremost thinker on probability and uncertainty. Taleb lives mostly in New York.

Great Writers Give You Great Ideas

Taleb, as assiduous readers will recall, planted the idea in my mind that a theory of tragedy could be based on risk. While wandering around the big Borders bookstore in Providence Place Mall one evening, his book Fooled by Randomness jumped out at me. Around this time, I had been reading a pile of economics books: A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Malkiel (recommended) and various books by Jeremy Siegel (less recommended). It was at this time I discovered concepts like the efficient market hypothesis and that finance is really quite interesting. There was also a personal reason to learn about investing. My seven year fairy-tale run in academia was coming to an end and it was time to become a civilian again. I still had an investment portfolio that, believe it or not, I had still been adding to while in university (to the tune of $25 or so a month–saving is a hard habit to break). I hadn’t really done anything with it since the Bre-X and Dot Com crash of 1999, but I figured it was time to get back into the game.

1999 was a bad year for investing. My Royal Bank advisor had steered me into tech (it’s the new economy) and precious metals (another hot sector) mutual funds. In addition to exorbitant management fees (round 3% those days), both sectors crashed. Panicked and bummed out, I sold and, by selling, locked in my losses. I lost interest in investing for six years. After which time, I decided if I was going to get back into the game, I would learn how the system worked and do everything myself in a self-directed account. So, I picked up Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness to become a better investor. But the unanticipated outcome was that I would also base a theory of tragedy around the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. But hey, that’s another story. Back to Taleb.

Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life

The book’s subtitle is “Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life.” What does that mean? Taleb’s argument is that symmetrical situations in which risk and reward are balanced are preferable to asymmetrical situations in which rewards can be had without risk. Take, as an example, building a house. The best case scenario is if you build the house yourself because you’re taking on the risk (if could go over budget, the design could be faulty, etc.,) and reaping the potential reward (if it goes well you save a bunch of money). When you take on risk for a shot at a reward, you have skin in the game.

But let’s say you don’t know how to build a house. You’d have to hire a general contractor (GC) to frame the house and look after the plumbers, electricians, glazers, and other subtrades. The good thing is that you have a pro to build your house. The bad thing is that the risks and rewards to your pro are less symmetric: he doesn’t realize the upside. If the house: a) comes in under budget, b) is built to higher standards, or c) is built three months ahead of schedule the GC doesn’t realize the benefits. To him, the risks and rewards are asymmetric. In other words, he doesn’t have as much skin in the game. Taleb’s solution: incentivize the GC with a performance bonus. That way the homeowner and the GC align their risks and rewards. They place their goals on a less asymmetrical and a more symmetrical footing.

That’s the gist of the book: have skin in the game. Talk is talk. Talk is cheap. You have to walk the walk. Don’t ask someone what hot stock to invest in or what their investing philosophy is. Simply see what they have in their portfolio. And beware of asymmetry: if you get advice where you, but not the person giving the advice, is exposed to the harm should the advice fail, run away.

Unsurprisingly, Taleb’s praise is directed to people who have skin in the game. He singles out the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, who fought in the front lines on the eastern front. In a more recent example of noblesse oblige, during the Falklands War, Prince Andrew also fought on the front ranks, where the danger was the greatest. By taking responsibility for their privilege, they had skin in the game. Martyrs (who die for their beliefs) and businesspeople (who stake their own funds) are further examples of those who have skin in the game. Whistleblowers who face smear campaigns while protecting the public also win Taleb’s praise. In fact, one of the dedicatees of the book is Ralph Nader, who was a victim of an intimidation campaign when he called out General Motors for defective products.

Also unsurprisingly, Taleb’s ire is directed to people who, by gaming asymmetrical situations, profit off the system without putting skin in the game. Journalists, politicians, and academics (especially economists) win his ire. He singles out journalists on BNN or Bloomberg who recommend stocks while they themselves don’t hold positions. The situation is asymmetric because viewers are exposed to harm if the recommendation fails while the journalist gets a paycheque either way.

Taleb singles out politicians who bail out failing institutions: the politicians take the credit for saving the world while it is the taxpayers who fund the bailouts, not the politicians. Taleb devotes significant attention to Bob Rubin, a former Secretary of the United States Treasury. As Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton, Robert Rubin had opposed regulating collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), credit default swaps, and other derivative instruments that Warren Buffett would later refer to as “financial weapons of mass destruction.” After his tenure as Treasury Secretary, he received over $120 million from Citibank, which was rolling in the cash by offering these selfsame derivative financial instruments. But when these derivative instruments led to the 2008 financial crisis and banks needed to be bailed out, the bailout money came out of taxpayers’ pockets, not the pockets of folks like Bob Rubin who had made a fortune by promoting them. To Taleb, this “Bob Rubin Trade” showcases asymmetry: heads I win, tails the taxpayers lose.

Taleb also singles out academics, mainly economists. To Taleb, they come out with fancy economic models and give their models the stamp of approval with their academic credentials. But since academics are divorced from reality (one of his quotes runs: “In the academic world there is no difference between academia and the real world; in the real world there is”) their models seldom work. Economists create asymmetry because real world traders are exposed to harm if they use the economists’ models while economists continue to collect their salaries no matter whether they are right or wrong.

The Lindy Effect

An interesting concept that gains prominence in Skin in the Game is the Lindy effect. The Lindy effect (named after the New York delicatessen where the idea began) states that the longer something survives, the longer it is likely to survive. A Broadway play, for example, that has been playing for 400 days is likely to play for another 400 days. A religion that has been around for a thousand years can be expected to be around for another thousand years. A book that has been in publication for fifty years is likely to be in publication for another fifty years. If, after fifty years it is still in print, then it will likely last another hundred years. If after another hundred years it is still in print, then it will likely survive another 200 years. And so on.

What is the relationship between the Lindy effect and the idea of skin in the game? According to Taleb, concepts and ideologies also have skin in the game. The role of a writer, for example, should not be to please book reviewers (who are not experts and do not have skin in the game) but to please future readers. Time, to Taleb, is the ultimate arbiter. You can fool some of the people today, but if it stands the test of time, it’s legit. Take, say, a fashionable diet, something like the Atkins diet. It’s new, so who knows if it’s good or bad for you. But take fasting days. Many religions have had fasting days for a long, long time. Fast days are “Lindy proof.” They stand the test of time. Because they stand the test of time, they are very likely to be good for you. Consider also coffee (which has been around 600 years) versus today’s latest energy drinks (which have been around a decade). Which do you think will stand the test of time?

I’m not sure about this point, but what I think Taleb is saying with the Lindy effect is this: when you take risk, you have skin in the game, which is good. Risk and volatility is sort of the same thing: if the ride gets too volatile, it’s game over for your endeavour. Volatility and time are also sort of the same thing. So, when you’re taking risks to put skin in the game, you’re actually going one-on-one against time. If you have an idea, to put maximal skin in the game, you want to go against all the other ideas that were and will be out there. It’s a tough game, but there is a reward: the Lindy effect. If you make it to the top, chances are you’ll (or your idea) will stay alive. Not sure if that’s it, but that’s my interpretation of the Lindy effect as it relates to this volume.

Now, this is the fifth volume of Taleb’s Incerto series and it seems with the Lindy effect he’s come full circle. So, the Lindy effect says that something which has survived a long time will likely keep surviving. Unless, of course, this something runs into a black swan. Assiduous readers of Taleb will remember that the second volume of Incerto was called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. The black swan phenomenon is when highly improbable events happen that change everything. Take the very idea of the black swan. The idea came from the Roman poet Juvenal, who said that “a good person is as rare as a black swan.” The punchline is, of course, that black swans don’t exist. So, for hundreds of years, the phrase “black swan” came to denote something that doesn’t exist. And, what is more, the Lindy effect made the “black swan” analogy more and more prevalent as time went on. Until of course, an actual black swan was sighted in Australia by a Dutch sailer in 1636. So, it was a black swan event (sighting a creature that was not supposed to exist) that brought an end to the Lindy effect on the original use of the term “black swan” as understood by Juvenal. It will be very interesting if, in a future work, Taleb pits these two contrasting phenomena against one another.

Does Risk Theatre Have Skin in the Game?

It’s always interesting to tie the books I’m reading back into what I’m doing. This keeps things real. It gives reading a purpose. Here’s a quote from Skin in the Game that confirmed I was on the right track:

The deprostitutionalization of research will eventually be done as follows. Force people who want to do “research” to do it on their own time, that is, to derive their income from other sources. Sacrifice is necessary. It may seem absurd to brainwashed contemporaries, but Antifragile [the previous title in the Incerto series] documents the outsized historical contributions of the nonprofessional, or, rather, the non-meretricious. For their research to be genuine, they should first have a real-world day job, or at least spend ten years as: lens maker, patent clerk, Mafia operator, professional gambler, postman, prison guard, medical doctor, limo driver, militia member, social security agent, trial lawyer, farmer, restaurant chef, high-volume waiter, fire-fighter (my favorite), lighthouse keeper, etc., while they are building their original ideas.

It is a filtering, nonsense-expurgating mechanism. I have no sympathy for moaning professional researchers. I for my part spent twenty-three years in a full-time, highly demanding, extremely stressful profession [he founded a hedge fund called Empirica Capital, which, coincidentally, bet on black swan declines in the stock markets] while studying, researching, and writing my first three books at night; it lowered (in fact, eliminated) my tolerance for career-building research.

For the last eleven years, I’ve been writing a book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. But, the book was not enough. As Taleb would say, writing the book is like “talking the talk.” Like the Efficient Market Hypothesis, the Black-Scholes equation (for pricing options), and other economic models that Taleb disdains, the risk theatre model of tragedy, while not an economic model, is an academic model nonetheless. As an academic model, it could use some more skin in the game.

To give the risk theatre model of tragedy some more skin, I started up, with Langham Court Theatre, the 2019 Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition. We would award cash prizes to dramatists worldwide to write risk theatre tragedies. We would help these dramatists develop risk theatre to the highest levels by workshopping their plays. And, to help offset travel and accommodation expenses, we’d offer a stipend for dramatists to come attend the workshop in Victoria, Canada.

To fund the book and the competition, I work a real-world job as a project manager for PML Professional Mechanical. I oversee $25 million of construction projects: a mixed use commercial building with Save-on-Foods as the anchor and two residential towers above for Bosa/Axiom, a distinctive condo called the B&W (it’s clad in sections of black and white bricks) for Abstract Developments, and two 20-storey towers for Chard Developments. In other words, I’ve got skin in the game. If Taleb’s thesis is correct, the book and the theatre competition stand a greater chance of success because I’m putting my money where my mouth is.  Here’s hoping. Time will tell.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work. By the way, this is a great book. Read it. If you haven’t read any volumes in the Incerto series, and are looking for a place to start, you couldn’t go wrong with the second volume, The Black Swan.

Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition – September 2018 Update

Stats, stats, stats!

Thank you assiduous playwrights for all your entries! Here are the vital statistics since the competition began a little over three and a half months ago on June 1, 2018. Thirty-five 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 30 entrants

Canada 2 entrants

Australia 1 entrant

England 1 entrant

Ireland 1 entrant

Of the American entries, twenty-one are from the east and nine are from the west. There is a concentration of dramatists in New York (six 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 25 men and 10 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!

It’s harder to differentiate between ethnicities by looking at names (but it is possible. Take Edwin Wong. If you had guessed I was Asian, and, more specifically, Chinese, you’d be correct). Just by taking a look at names, I’d guess that there’s 33 Caucasian entrants, 1 Asian, and 1 Middle Eastern. Tragedy, which started in sixth century Greece, has been traditionally a western art. But tragedy rebooted as risk theatre can transcend the east/west dichotomy. The risk of low-probability, high-consequence events can take place anytime, and anywhere. As a theatre of risk, the art of tragedy knows no bounds.

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

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

The (mis)Behavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Financial Turbulence – Mandelbrot and Hudson

2004, Basic Books, 328 pages

Back Blurb

The (mis)Behavior of Markets offers a revolutionary reevaluation of the tools and models of modern financial theory. From the gyrations of the Dow to the dollar-euro exchange rate, mathematical superstar and inventor of fractal geometry shows us how to understand the volatility of markets in far more accurate terms than the failed theories that have brought the financial system to the brink of disaster. Updated with a new preface on the financial crisis of 2008, Mandelbrot’s insights are more valuable than ever.

Author Blurbs

Benoit Mandelbrot is Sterling Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Sciences at Yale University and a Fellow Emeritus at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Laboratory. The inventor of fractal geometry, he has received the Wolf Prize in Physics, the Japan Prize in science and technology, and awards from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the IEEE, and numerous universities in the United States and abroad. His many books include Fractals: Form, Chance and Dimension, which later expanded into the classic The Fractal Geometry of Nature. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Richard L. Hudson was managing editor of the Wall Street Journal’s European edition for six years, and a Journal reporter and editor for more than two decades. He is a graduate of Harvard University and a former Knight Fellow of MIT. Now the CEO and editor of Science Publishing Ltd., he lives in Brussels, Belgium.

A Fractal View of Financial Turbulence?

Fractal (from Latin frango “to break” e.g. fracture, fraction, fragment, etc.,) geometry was invented by Mandelbrot. It is a real-world, anti-Euclidean geometry in that it is the geometry of rough surfaces as opposed to the straight lines and perfect planes of Euclid. You can use fractal geometry to model structures where similar patterns recur in smaller and larger scales: for example cauliflower heads (a small head is a smaller version of a larger head) or coastlines (little nooks and crannies are scaled down versions of fjords). The immediate question than is: what do fractals have to do with financial turbulence? Well, the answer is that, rises and declines in stock prices also recur in similar and recurring patterns in smaller and larger time scales. For intuitive proof, compare one day, one month, one year, and one decade stock charts. Would you be able to tell, were the dates removed, which was which? Wall Street pros can’t. It’s just a bunch of wiggly lines. Wiggly lines that go back and forth like the coastline. And, like the coastline that exhibits self-similarity under 1x, 10x, and 1000x magnification, the stock chart exhibits self-similarity in one day, one month, or one year intervals.

This was Mandelbrot’s key insight, and a momentous one. It’s momentous because the implication is that, even if stock and commodity prices don’t go up and down randomly (they react to news, world events, and investor sentiment), their fluctuations can be modelled by the rules of probability as though they were random.

Late Work

One of the appealing things about The mis(Behavior) of Markets is that it is a late work. He turned 80 in 2004, the year the book came out. Long time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been a fan of late works for a long time: Beethoven’s Opus 111, Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, Mozart’s Requiem (unfinished at the time of death and played at his funeral), Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo, Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus (he successfully defended himself in court against charges of senility by citing his play), and Goethe’s second part of Faust. Directness of theme, abandonment of artifice, a brutal sense of honesty, a heartfelt and personal expression, a sense of possibility, and a glimpse of the bigger picture characterize the best late works. There’s an excellent book that talks about late style by scholar Edward W. Said entitled On Late Style: Music and Literature against the Grain. It’s fitting that that work is itself a late work.

Mandelbrot himself was keenly aware that he was himself producing a late work in writing The (mis)Behavior of Markets. Here’s a telling quote from the book (in the prelude written by coauthor Hudson):

In 2004, in his eightieth year, Mandelbrot continues making trouble. He works the same full schedule–including weekends–as he always has. He continues publishing new research papers and books, lecturing at Yale, and traveling the world of scientific conferences to advance his views. Why not? After all, as he points out, Racine’s most enduring play, Athalie; Verdi’s greatest opera, Falstaff; Wagner’s Ring Cycle–all were written in the twilight of life, when the artist, after years of experience and experimentation, was at the height of his powers.

Prejudice against the Speculative Markets

Mandelbrot devotes a chapter of the book to mathematician Louis Bachelier. Bachelier had dared to write base his dissertation on the volatility of bonds at The Bourse at the Paris exchange. His idea was that, although you could never know where future bond prices would end up, you could mathematically evaluate the odds of the fluctuations because bond prices would follow a ‘random walk’. The random walk is based on the random path of pollen grains suspended in water. And just as the path of pollen grains could be plotted on the bell curve, so could bond prices.

Unfortunately for Bachelier, academia deemed The Bourse to be to degraded of a place for true mathematicians. So, instead of graduating with a ‘trés honorable’ honour, he received a ‘mention honorable’. This consigned him to a life of obscurity. It wasn’t until the 1950s, a decade after his death, that his star picked up. Some are born posthumously.

Now it seems that the prejudice against true mathematicians working in finance remains to us today. Since my childhood, I’ve loved reading science books. Inevitably, each one will mention Mandelbrot and how fractal geometry is the best thing since sliced bread. But, you know, I don’t think any of them talked about Mandelbrot’s pioneering work in the 1960s examining price volatility in cotton markets (in the 60s, historic data on cotton pricing was complete, readily available, and accurate). Since then, Mandelbrot has devoted a lot of time and published quite a bit on how markets work. Heck, Eugene Fama was one of his students (he supervised his dissertation). But it wasn’t until I stumbled on this book (probably through a Marketwatch or Bloomberg article) that I had any idea that Mandelbrot had anything to say about the markets. In fact, I was so surprised when I found out, I googled to see if this was the Mandelbrot or another fellow with the same name.

So, You Think You Know What Risk Is…

Risk can be many things. Risk can be loss. Risk can be when something happens that you didn’t expect would happen. These sorts of risk are hard to quantify. But, if risk is volatility, it can be quantified. Take the 52 week high and low of Apple stock. The range between the high and low is the volatility. This sort of volatility can be expressed mathematically, using the laws of probability–that’s why the economists like it. They put in into formulas and win Nobel Prizes.

Beginning with Bachelier, it was thought that, if one graphed the daily movements of a stock, the price data would arrange itself into the standard distribution of a bell curve. The mean price would fill out the familiar bulge in the centre of the curve, and the larger price swings would be captured in the ‘tails’ of the curve. The larger the price swing, the less probable it is to happen. The bell curve is popular because it fits many natural phenomena. Human height, for example, fits a bell curve: 68% of American men are between 68-72 inches tall; 95% are between 66-74 inches tall; 98% are between 64-76 inches tall. The bell curve doesn’t rule out a 10′ giant. But the tail at this extreme is so flat that you would never expect to see one. IQ scores and the returns on betting on a series of coin tosses also fit a bell curve.

The idea of using the standard distribution of the bell curve to represent market risk was so prevalent that when Bachelier was rediscovered in the 1960s, the standard tools of finance all took it up. As a result, the standard tools MBA students learn to model the market are all based on the mild and predictable sort of risk the bell curve predicts. These tools are: modern portfolio theory or MPT by Harry Makowitz, the capital asset pricing model or CAPM by William Sharpe, and the Black-Scholes formula by Fischer Black, Myron Scholes, and Robert Merton. Markowitz, Sharpe, Scholes, and Merton all received Nobel Prizes for their work. Black would have as well, if he had lived another two years (the Nobel is not awarded posthumously).

The question Mandelbrot poses is: what if the bell curve is wrong? What if the odds of catastrophic ‘tail’ events in the market such as the 29.2% decline on Black Monday (October 19, 1987) are a thousand or a million times more likely than what the standard model posits? And, what is more, what if the stock market has a memory?–the standard model is based on a random walk. Like how each flip of the coin, the daily movements of the stock market are independent of one another. But, what if, in the real world, volatility cascades? Cascades in that a 3% drop one day increases the odds that it will continue to fall in the following days? Mandelbrot’s answer? If the bell curve is wrong, then we are like shipbuilders who think gales are rare and hurricanes are myths. We sail into doom. And we encourage others to sail into the storm with the comfort of dead wrong economic models. It’s like if we planned a mission to go to Mars based on old Ptolemaic models of the solar system.

To show how the bell curve is a poor measure of risk, Mandelbrot provides examples from the cotton, commodity, and stock markets: the data doesn’t fit the curve. ‘Impossible’ tail events happen in reality far more frequently than the bell curve allows.

The Solution

This was the most confusing part for me. Mandelbrot himself says that the math isn’t complete. Just as Bachelier had to wait a good 60 years for the math to catch up to his ideas, Mandelbrot’s ideas of fractal turbulence may have to wait another generation or two. He himself says the math is very hard. This book is more a call to arms that something has to be done. He does offer some suggestions, though.

In addition to the standard, bell curve distribution, there appear to be other probability distributions. There’s the Cauchy distribution. And there’s also a whole family of L-stable or ‘Levy’ distributions. These other distributions, from what I gather, have fatter tails. But they too, don’t capture the how real world risk works. It may be that they overstate the odds of catastrophic tail events. And it does not appear possible to insert other types of probability distributions into the standard models of finance (e.g., Black-Scholes, MPT, and CAPM). All the standard model, for some reason that a mathematician would understand, use the bell curve because it fits into the equation. Here I could be wrong, but that’s what I’m gathering.

In the future, the multifractal model of financial turbulence might be able to create a ‘fingerprint’ of a stock’s volatility. Right now, one of our best models of risk is the VaR or ‘Value at Risk’ model (also based on the bell curve). You start off by deciding how safe you want to be. Let’s say the maximum loss you are willing to take in a year is 10%. You then find a stock using the VaR model where, 95% of the time, the losses will be 10% or less. How is this safe, asks Mandelbrot?–the point is that 5% of the time, the losses can be more than 10% and up to 100%. It is only the illusion of safety. But let’s say someone uses the multifractal model to create a fingerprint of a stock’s volatility. This, to me, would still be based on historic price data. If the company hasn’t gone out of business, would the fingerprint capture the possibility of the stock going bankrupt, or, in other words, going down 100%?

Mandelbrot says many times that it’s not possible to make money (yet) from this multifractal view of stock market volatility. That may be true, but I wonder…if all the standard models underestimate volatility (because they use the bell curve), then wouldn’t that mean that the market is underpricing volatility? There should be some way of betting on irrational gains and losses and making money. Let’s say the market is saying that the odds of a 10% daily collapse is 1:1,000,000. But the odds are actually higher, 1:100,000 or something like that. There must be some financial instrument you could use to short the market so that when the 10% daily collapse happens, you could clean up since you know the ‘true’ odds and the market, which uses the incorrect model, has mispriced that eventuality.

Another idea to make money: if volatility is greater than commonly thought, would that be an argument for buying an equal weight index rather than a market weight index? With an equal weight index, you would have the same constituent stocks as an index investor (in a market weight index such as the S&P 500). But since stocks bounce up and down from their ‘average’ or ‘mean’ price, each time you invest fresh money, you would buy whichever stock had fallen the most. If you used a buy and hold strategy, because volatility is greater, you should be able to pick up a couple of points over the market weight buy and hold investor. Or?

Of course, these ideas aren’t based on the multifractal model, but rather, on volatility itself. Perhaps the way to make money on the multifractal model would be to market it to a data company such as Thomson Reuters. Thomson Reuters would use the mathematical model to project future growth, volatility, and other parameters of a stock. It might even use the model to draw future stock charts and run them through Monte Carlo simulators. Investors would, in turn, use this information in putting together resilient and efficient portfolios which maximize return and minimize risk.

Betting on Volatility and Turbulence

I should mention that I’ve put money on a sort of equal weight index. In March 2015, I picked 20 small companies in my play portfolio. They were picked somewhat randomly, but not completely at random. Since, for the most part, I’m an index investor, and the Canadian TSX Composite is dominated by financials (banks and insurance), oil & gas, and materials (mining), one rule was that none of these 20 companies could be from these sectors. The idea was that I wanted the small-cap portfolio to zig when the TSX Composite was zagging. So I ended up picking some industrials, consumer staples, healthcare, and technology stocks. Why small-cap? Well, I wanted to capture volatility and small-caps tend to move up and down violently than their more stable large cap brethren. In this small-cap portfolio, the idea is never to sell. But whenever I added money to the portfolio, I would top up the stock that had been most hammered (to keep the portfolio equal weight). This way, when things turn around (which they will do unless your pick goes bankrupt), you’ll pick up a little extra because you’ve said yes to volatility. Why 20 stocks? Well, you have to have enough stocks to have some winners and losers. And you can’t have too many stocks that you’re just replicating the index. Between 20-30 seems like a good number where the losers will hit you, but not too hard and the winners will help you, but also not too much. If you have too few stocks, and just happen to pick the losers, you’re going to get really hurt. But if you have too many stocks, the winners aren’t really going to impact the portfolio that much. It’s a question of concentration.

It seems that some Paris firms are doing something similar and calling this a multifractal strategy. Mandelbrot dismisses such attempts in his book as being far from multifractal: to him, it is just betting on stocks ‘reverting to the mean’. He’s absolutely right. But I can’t help but think that if volatility is so great, and if volatility is the measure of how much a stock deviates from its mean price, then shouldn’t it be easy to pick up a few extra points by a continual buying and holding equal weight strategy? Here were my picks from three and a half years ago and the performance:

AG Growth International (AFN) +17.8%

AGT Food and Ingredients (AGT) -28.0%

Alcanna (CLIQ) -21.4%

Boston Pizza Royalty Income Fund (BPF.UN) -21.5%

Boyd Group (BP.UN) +133.5%

Capstone Infrastructure (CSE) taken private at a gain of +37.6%, used proceeds to buy Cipher Pharmaceuticals

Chemtrade Logistics (CHE.UN) -27.6%

Cipher Pharmaceuticals (CPH) -49.6%

Clearwater Seafoods (CLR) -39.0%

Descartes Systems (DSG)  +126.2%

Great Canadian Gaming (GC) +74.7%

Highliner Seafoods (HLF) -59.3%

Innergex Renewable Energy (INE) +17.4%

Intertape Polymer (ITP) -7.3%

K-Bro Linen (KBL) -20.2%

Morneau Shepell (MSI) +56.2%

NFI Group (NFI) +257.3%

Northwest Company (NWC) +13.7%

Park Lawn (PLC) +4.4%

Premium Brands (PBH) +246.5%

Student Transportation (STB) taken private at a gain of 38.9%, used proceeds to buy Park Lawn

Western One (WEQ) -44.2%

If you look at the returns, I think you’ll agree there’s no shortage of volatility: the best performer was NFI (a maker of buses and motorhomes) at +257% and the laggard was Highliner Seafoods (a maker of fishsticks) at -59%. In the portfolio, two stock more than tripled (NFI and PBH), two other stocks more than doubled (BYD and DSG), and three stocks lost more than 40% (CPH, HLF, and WEQ). The volatility is there.

But the question is, how did the portfolio do? In three and a half years, with dividends, it’s up 26.3%. That equates to a rate of return of 6.9% each year. Compare this to the S&P TSX Small Cap Index (market weight). Total return in the last three and a half years is 20.1% for an annualized return of 5.7%. The little equal weight portfolio has done well compared to the market weight index. But of course the results are statistically meaningless as the two portfolios hold different stocks. You’d have to compare a market cap to a equal weight portfolio tracking the same index to draw meaningful conclusions. Perhaps a topic for a future blog?

One insight, does, however, emerge from this small cap portfolio: the business model really gives you little idea of how a stock will perform. Who knew that a bus and motorhome manufacturer (New Flyer) would triple? Who knew that Premium Brand Holdings, a company that makes Starbucks breakfast sandwiches and the sliced meats you find at grocery stores would be a top performer?–geez, they just make black forest ham! Who knew that a worldwide lentil distributor would be down a third? Aren’t people supposed to be eating more lentils? Who knew that Highliner Seafoods would be down over half? Isn’t seafood consumption up and growing? And why is K-Bro Linen down a fifth?–don’t they have the lock on hospital linen cleaning contracts in all the major cities?

If you had asked ten experts three and a half years ago to predict where these 20 stocks were going, I don’t think any of them would even be remotely close. You would have to have known that India would have frozen out Canadian lentils (AGT). You would have to have known that the government would have stripped CLR of part of their arctic clam license. You would have had to have predicted that oil would go down to twenty dollars a barrel (WEQ). You would have had to have predicted Valeant’s business model would explode, dragging down the whole pharmaceutical industry (CPH). How could anyone have known? And you know, it’s going to be like this going forwards. The things that will affect this small cap portfolio are the things we don’t know yet. Until then, I’ll keep picking up a few points on volatility. That I do know will be there. Funny, the only certain thing is that things are uncertain.

A Mystery

Mandelbrot spends a bit of time talking about power laws. Instead of a bell curve distribution where the tails are imperceptible, cotton prices, wheat prices, interest rates, and some stocks follow a power law distribution which allows for large price swings. Gravity and earthquakes also follow a power law distribution: double the distance or power, and the force of attraction or the frequency is four times less. In a section of the book, Mandelbrot tells the story of Harold Edwin Hurst, a hydrologist who cracked the code of how high to build a dam to tame the Nile.

The problem with calculating how high to build the dam was that the Nile would not only experience really dry and really wet years, but also that the wet and dry years would cluster together in an unpredictable pattern. In his attempt to understand flooding, Hurst looked through any reliable, long-running records on climate he could find, from tree ring growth, sunspot patterns, discharges from Lake Huron, and annual water levels at Lake Dalalven in Sweden. People thought he was a crack, since how could such varied phenomena be related? He looked through 51 different phenomena, and found that everywhere he looked, the range obeyed a three-fourths (0.73) power law. It was as though this three-fourths power law is a constant of nature. Now this is interesting. It makes me want to learn math so that I can figure out why this is. This is one of these questions that you could spend your life looking into.

I have to agree with Taleb that this is “the deepest and most realistic finance book ever published.” I read it three times. And, if I didn’t have a stack of other deserving titles, I would have read it a fourth time.

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

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy – First Review (Friesen Press)

Here’s the first review! Note the book title has changed. I’ve taken the reviewer’s suggestions and written a new coda. Onwards!–

Editor’s Manuscript Evaluation

Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected

By Edwin Wong

Overview

This study of a “new working model of tragedy” celebrates the art form of theatrical tragedy and asserts that the time is now for its revival. The author posits that in the absence of a clear and consistent definition of tragedy, a new framework for understanding the centuries-old medium, called ‘Risk Theatre,’ gives it modern relevance.

Introduction

This is a fascinating exploration advocating for the resurgence of the classical art of tragedy in these tumultuous times. I really enjoyed learning about the history of this art form, its way of defining itself in contrast to other arts, its particular closed structure, and its dependence on a worldview that centres instability and sorrow. I was particularly drawn in by the examples you gave of how tragedy has been used to speak truth to power. I admire your passionate dedication to this quest of “restoring the greatest show on earth to its rightful throne” even though, as you note, others before you “have tried and failed” to do so. You’ve made a near-bulletproof argument for tragedy’s rebirth under the name of Risk Theatre.

Since it is clear that a great deal of work has already gone into this exceptionally well-structured study, I am in the happy position of having to search for nits to pick. To be honest, I have little to offer in terms of suggestions for structural changes, and what feedback I have is largely built on connecting a couple of final dots before the book goes to print.

I will begin with just a couple of broader points for you to consider, though they are meant as options not prescriptions for mandatory change. I then look more closely at the writing itself before offering my suggestions on how to move forward with the project to prepare for publication.

Content

Many of the manuscripts I review are in the early stages of development, and an editorial evaluation like this would typically include lengthy suggestions for adjustments to help bring out a project’s strengths. As mentioned above, this is not the case here, since study is already of high quality and the manuscript’s structure is clear and intuitive. As such, I have only a few suggestions for its content and form.

My main concern is that the connection between tragedy and the modern moniker you propose, Risk Theatre, isn’t always clear. Diverging away from the central theme—that Risk Theatre as a viable way of reviving this classical art form—provides a great deal of background information (about, for example, how and why tragedies are structured the way they are), which is essential to your argument but that run the risk of being distracting. Digressing too often or too far from the central theme can confuse readers, but I don’t think that these diversions are at all tangential. On the contrary, they’re key to understanding your thesis.

What I would like to see, then, are some stronger links made and reinforced between classical tragedy and neoclassical risk theatre throughout the volume. You do a great job of affirming how they intertwine at both the beginning and the end of the book, but in the middle (chapters 4-8) the focus on risk theatre’s role in resurrecting tragedy can feel obscured. To put it simply, I sometimes forgot how risk theatre factored into the discussion, and had to flip back to earlier chapters to remind myself. I think that clear and straightforward statements answering the question, “What is the implication of this for risk theatre?” at key intervals, such as after the discussion of countermonetization for example, would mitigate the problem of readers feeling disconnected from the book’s thesis or confused about the relevance of these discussions.

The only other element that felt like it was missing for me in this wide-ranging discussion was how tragedy’s modern iteration, Risk Theatre, might be ‘used’ (for lack of a better word) by modern audiences. I was left wondering if you see a role for this art form in, for example, political critique, social movements, or the like. You made such great, explicit connections between classical tragic productions and their environment and contexts, and I wondered what you thought about the role of Risk Theatre in society at large. It feels to me like you don’t believe it’s a neutral medium, but this wasn’t commented upon directly. Consider adding a discussion of this in the final chapter, ‘Why Risk Theatre Today?’ I think a few extrapolations about how this medium can interact with the modern world would go a long way toward further solidifying your central argument that “its time is now.”

Finally, I found that the end of Chapter 9 closes a little too abruptly, and it could be restructured slightly with the addition of a concluding section. A couple of paragraphs that reiterate for the last time why Risk Theatre deserves your advocacy would remedy this feeling of being left hanging.

Writing and Editing

Your writing style, particularly its logical progression, is incredibly satisfying. Your academic experience is evident in the way that you structure the discussion: outlining theory, zooming in to demonstrate with precise examples from myriad classical texts, then reiterating the implications of those examples for your study. Often I found myself asking a question, only to quickly note that you’d gone on to answer it in the next passage. This is the mark of a writer who anticipates his audience’s needs and seeks to fill them proactively. The style comes across as exceptionally professional and has the kind of gravitas needed from a writer positing a brand new theory. Not only is your tone confident, but you’ve ‘shown your work’ so to speak; you explain how you came to each assertion with impressive clarity.

The only thing that was lacking for me, in terms of the writing itself, was a little more of your personality. It’s evident that this manuscript has been a labour of love for you, and it’s fascinating to me when people have such niche interests. I simply wanted to know more about why Risk Theatre grabs you. The most compelling arguments, to me, are those whose champions can articulate why the object of their attention is so meaningful to them personally. Consider inserting yourself into the story just a little more. The preface could be a place for this.

Finally, while I had essentially no concerns about the book’s mechanics. My only note is to please be aware that the following passage is repetitive and should be revised:

• Page 260: “Risk theatre is tragic theory for today’s risk age because the stories of Macbeth, Eteocles, and Oedipus force us to examine the meaning of risk, the likelihood of the unexpected, and the impact of unintended consequences. In short, risk theatre is a tragic theory for today’s risk age [this phrase is repeated from the first line in this passage]. Like Nietzsche’s psychological theory of tragedy or Hegel’s mechanistic theory, risk theatre emerges today—if not by my hand, then I would think by another’s hand—because its time is now.”

Should you wish to ensure accuracy with regards to the manuscript’s technical side, you may wish to consider a final proofread, although your book is in great technical shape.

Next Steps

Your task at this point is to work through the manuscript to make any changes you feel are appropriate based on this evaluation and other feedback you have received. Focus on larger changes first, like ensuring that there are explicit connections made between the elements of tragedy discussed in depth throughout the book and the central theme of Risk Theatre as a viable, modern way of revitalizing the art form. From there, it should be in great shape to move forward.

Your publishing specialist can answer any questions you have about the next steps.

BISAC and Search Keywords

One of the ways that book buyers will be able to find your book online is through searching keywords on sites such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. These words serve as flags for online databases. You can choose up to seven keywords to help guide people to your book. Some good examples are main ideas, characters, and themes. What would a potential readers search for on Google to help them find your book? You can have a maximum of seven keywords, but they can have up to twenty characters each (this is because some keywords are phrases, i.e. “Good Versus Evil”).

  • Cast
  • Countermonetization
  • Myth of the price you pay
  • Risk Theatre
  • Temptation
  • Tragedians
  • Wager

BISAC Codes

Book Industry Standards and Communications codes (BISAC) are numbers that represent book categories. Whereas the search keywords are to help the reader locate your book, the BISAC codes are in place to help the retailer or book seller know in which section to stock your book. You are allowed a maximum of three codes for any given book, and they are sorted in order of relevance.

The following codes stand out to me as most appropriate for your book. If you would like to review them, the full list of BISAC codes is available here: http://bisg.org/page/BISACEdition

DRA000000     Drama     General

PER011030      Performing arts     Theater / Playwriting

PER011000      Performing arts     Theater / General

Conclusions

This is a great project that I am certain will be highly valued by the theatre community, particularly those who struggle to justify the relevance of staging classical productions. You’ve given them a solid argument to take forward about the modern relevance of this ages-old format. The manuscript is already in great shape, and I hope this feedback will give you clear direction on where to go from here to give the book a final polish.

I wish you all the best with the rest of the publishing process and continued success as a writer.

Sincerely,
Your FriesenPress Editor

Book Update – More Milestone Dates!

One of my favourite Nietzsche quotes is “I like to travel from peak to peak.” Well, that’s not exactly the quote, but that’s how I remember it. The quote actually runs: “In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak; but for that, one must have long legs.” In the last couple of weeks, it’s felt like the project has been going from peak to peak. Sure, there’s still lots of time for unexpected events to put a wrench in things (after all, this is the premise of risk theatre), but while the going’s good, I’ll take it! So, assiduous readers, here are the most recent milestones.

Final proofread complete! A good friend, Mark Grill, took on this duty. He’s edited articles that have appeared in top journals such as Science and Nature so it was a bit of a coup for me that he took this on. He’s got a comparative literature degree from the University of Chicago so much of the material would have been familiar to him. He got the manuscript on July 30 and turned it around by August 11–blazing quick. I was very happy with his work. He really has a gift for editing and proofreading. For example, there were a few foreign words in the text. One was Trauerspiel, which I had translated in quotes beside it as “mourning plays.” Of course, Trauerspiel in German is singular. Trauerspiele would be the plural. He noted and caught all sorts of little things like this. I was grateful to the point where I wrote him up a glowing recommendation, which runs like this:

Mark proofread my 70,000 word book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, a complex and dense work on chance, uncertainty, and the tragic theatre in under two weeks. I accepted nearly all of his suggestions. He has the rare x-ray eyes to uncover the most direct way of expressing thoughts with words. His proofreading was absolutely thorough and invaluable. He will be able to do the same for you at a highly competitive price point. Highly recommended.

I was particularly happy with the use of ‘x-ray’. The playing of one of my favourite pianists has been called ‘an x-ray interpretation of Bach’. I always liked that line. The pianist, is, of course, the inimitable Glenn Gould.

The author blurb and book blurb are complete! A big thank you to Keith Digby and Sarah Milne for some really great suggestions that added kick to the presentation. Here’s how the book blurb reads:

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 complex 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 far-reaching 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. Not only does Wong reinterpret classic dramas from Aeschylus to O’Neill through the risk theatre lens, he also challenges dramatists to create tomorrow’s theatre. Because today is an age of unprecedented risks, we need compelling, high-stakes tragedies to capture the growing unease with today’s risk-takers who are hurling us into an abyss of unintended consequences.

And here’s how the author blurb reads:

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. 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 has lectured in Canada and the USA on risk theatre and welcomes opportunities to speak. He currently lives in Victoria, BC and blogs at melpomeneswork.com. The competition website can be found at risktheatre.com.

Wow, I could really get used to addressing myself in the third person! Caesar also referred to himself in the third person in his histories: The Gallic Wars and The Civil War. They’re quite fun to read, as every time you read: “And then Caesar put on his red cape to bolster the flagging morale of the troops on the right flank…” you know that, well, Caesar is giving the air of impartiality but he’s really just talking about how great he is! And the kicker is I think he really enjoys it!

The title has changed again! Now the book is called: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The old title was: Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. The new title better expresses the idea that this is a theory of tragedy.

Font has been chosen! Going with Berling, the same font that Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the Markets was set to. Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb was the book that set me off on this journey. It was at the Providence, RI Borders Bookstore (in the Providence Place Mall) that I first saw this book in the winter of 2006. I was working on my thesis and hey, what better thing to do to procrastinate than to go to the bookstore and look at other books! Well, this book was sitting in the economics section and it stood out as sort of a ‘renegade’ title: Taleb was part of Wall Street, but he also railed against the tools Wall Street was using to measure risk. Remember, these were the days right before the Great Recession. His title would prove to be quite prescient in light of the train wreck right around the corner. Well, it was after encountering this book that it first occurred to me that tragedy dramatizes well-thought out plans that go awry in quite unexpected ways. In other words, tragedy could be conceived of as a theatre of risk. It dramatizes and simulates risk on the stage. It was too late, of course, to rewrite my thesis. But it was then that I knew I had to start from scratch. Again (I’ve been trying to come up with a theory of tragedy since 2000; this is attempt 3). So, it is a little tribute to Taleb that my book will also be set in the typeface of his first book. Fitting.

The proofread text has been sent to Friesen Press where the Microsoft Word document will be transferred into Adobe InDesign, LaTeX, or some other typesetting system (not sure which software Friesen uses). From there, I have one revision round, or one chance to catch any final errors that are still in the text or arise when the Word document is typeset. Once I approve that, they’ll start generating the index. Friesen’s is saying first printing January 2019 (six month process). But really, this date should be able to be pushed back to November or December. I mean, it doesn’t seem like there’s that much left. Let’s say the typesetting and revision round takes us to end of September (that’s a month and a half). The index takes a month. This takes us to the end of October. The cover design can be done concurrently with indexing. So, the package will be ready to go to the printers by the end of October. From there, the lead time for a small run would be what…one month? That sets us in December. Of course, December is a peculiar month, full of holidays and time off. We shall see.

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