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 to share the self-publishing experience with assiduous readers.

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:



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 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


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.


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.


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


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:

DRA000000     Drama     General

PER011030      Performing arts     Theater / Playwriting

PER011000      Performing arts     Theater / General


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.

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:


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 The competition website can be found at

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.

Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance – Goldin and Kutarna

2016, St. Martin’s Press, 304 pages

Back Blurb

Two award-winning Oxford scholars redefine the present day as a new Renaissance–a rare moment of flourishing genius and risk that promises to reshape all our lives. Da Vinci, Columbus, Copernicus, Luther, Gutenberg. These names recall an era in which an unprecedented rush of discovery and disruption broke through long-standing barriers and broke down equally long-standing powers. This rush entangled the whole world politically, economically and intellectually, and reshaped society. Now, the same forces that converged 500 years ago to spark genius and upend social order–great leaps in science, trade, migration, technology, education and health–are once again present, only stronger and more widespread.

In Age of Discovery, Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna show how we can draw courage and wisdom from the last Renaissance in order to fashion our own golden age out of this New Renaissance. Whether we’re seized by Gutenberg or Zuckerberg; the discovery of the Americas or the rise of China; copperplate or silicon etching; the Bonfire of the Vanities or the rise of ISIS; the spread of syphilis or the Ebola pandemic–a Renaissance moment dares humanity to give its best just when the stakes are highest.

Age of Discovery navigates the crises of our time and helps us all define a legacy that the world will still remember half a millennium from now.

Author Blurbs

Ian Goldin is a Professor of Globalization and Director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. He was Vice President of the World Bank, Chief Executive of the Development Bank of Southern Africa and an adviser to President Nelson Mandela.

Chris Kutarna is a Fellow at the Oxford Martin School and an expert on international politics and economics. He was a strategy consultant at the Boston Consulting Group and continues to advise senior executives in Asia, North America and Europe.

The New Renaissance

The first thing that caught my eye wasn’t the Goldin and Kutarna’s exciting thesis that we live in a New Renaissance, but rather, that a book from two Oxford academics would eschew the Oxford comma. This I noticed in the author blurb (see author blurb on Kutarana above): “He was a strategy consultant at the Boston Consulting Group and continues to advise senior executives in Asia, North America and Europe.” Notice no Oxford comma between “North America and Europe.” But if you look at the text inside the book, sometimes the hallowed Oxford comma is there, and sometimes not!–for example, page 129 reads:

Entrepreneurs have made a synthetic version with processes borrowed from the semiconductor industry, and as they tweak it, “gecko tape” will find uses in defense (all-terrain robots), manufacturing (replacing many screws, rivets and glues), and even athletics (fumble-free gloves for American football players).

In this passage, notice no Oxford comma between “rivets and glues” but an Oxford comma is there between “defense, and even athletics.” And then there is also a new device of what I guess can be called the “Oxford semicolon” to separate a list of items. This from page 166:

Chapter Two touched on how the same infrastructure, networks and investments that connect us also make it easier to coordinate crime and violence; disseminate hate; train up would-up hackers, fraudsters and bombers; and trade every illicit good from drugs to fake IDs to child slaves.

So there is a semicolon separating “bombers; and trade every illicit good.” But now compare this passage with the book blurb (printed in its entirety above):

Whether we’re seized by Gutenberg or Zuckerberg; the discovery of the Americas or the rise of China; copperplate or silicon etching; the Bonfire of the Vanities or the rise of ISIS; the spread of syphilis or the Ebola pandemic–a Renaissance moment dares humanity to give its best just when the stakes are highest.

Notice no “Oxford semicolon” separating “syphilis or the Ebola pandemic.” And then, going back to the Oxford comma, notice in the quote from page 166 (above) that there is no Oxford comma between “networks and investments.”

So it appears that the writer of the author blurbs and the book blurb (who doesn’t use the Oxford comma and the so-called “Oxford semicolon”) must be different than the book writers, who do use the Oxford comma and the so-called “Oxford semicolon.” But then again, inside the text of the book itself, sometimes you find the Oxford comma and sometimes you don’t. Is this because the book has two writers, Goldin and Kutarna? That’s one possibility. But the problem with that hypothesis is that even in the same passage (for example the passage quoted from page 129) it’s inconsistent. This inconsistency I found rather interesting and almost added to the pleasure of reading the book.

Great Quotes!

Chapter 9 kicks off with a great quote that’s traditionally attributed to Michelangelo:

If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.

Hard to resist a chuckle on reading that. I don’t know enough about Michelangelo to conjecture whether he would have said that, but I do know that painting the ceiling of the Sistine chapel was a debilitating exercise for him. I’d like to believe he said that, as it shows that he had a sense of humour.

For everyone wondering whether we live in an age of unprecedented manufactured risks, here’s a powerful quote from page 4:

Scientists alive today outnumber all scientists who ever lived up to 1980.

Scientists push the envelope. And when they push the envelope, sometimes unintended consequences result. So, it stands that, if there’s more scientists alive today poking the bear than there ever have been in human history, something is going to happen. And that ‘something’ is likely going to be something unexpected.

The Unexpected

Now, my favourite topic: the unexpected. Goldin and Kutarna have written a great book comparing our age to the Renaissance. For example, the Renaissance had Gutenberg. We have the internet. The Renaissance had Columbus sailing to the New World. We have globalization. I like that. Of course, I also wonder whether Goldin and Kutarna could have made a similar argument for any thirty or fifty year period since, say, 1800. It seems that the pace of human development has really picked up steam since the Industrial Revolution.

But, getting back to the unexpected. Goldin and Kutarna identify possible dangers to our modern-day Renaissance: bioterror epidemics, the rise of ISIS and other fringe movements, inequality, and climate change, to name a few. But really, what age in the past has been brought down or cut short by what it had seen coming? Look, for example, at the Great Depression. In the Roaring Twenties, the last thing the prognosticators were predicting was a Great Depression. The stock market, to the pundits of the time (including famed Yale economist Irving) “had reached a permanent high plateau.” Almost immediately after Irving said that, the stock market collapsed. The dangers that we can see coming we will work around. I call that human ingenuity. It is what we don’t know that will hurt us. Or, in other words, unexpected events.

I’ll leave you with that thought. Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.


The Kingfisher, or the Defining Moment

A few months ago, I moved from downtown Victoria to View Royal. It’s about twenty minutes from downtown. The new place is a condo unit on the Esquimalt Harbour, high bank waterfront. It’s set back about 50′ from the water’s edge and 30′ up. There’s a trail along the harbour complete with tsunami warning signs of a walker being swept out into sea. I call this place the “global warming villa” because, soon, instead of high bank, it’s going to be low bank waterfront. But there’s some time. The City of Victoria is projecting water levels to rise just over a centimetre each year. So at 1.5 cm/year, it’s going to be six centuries before it’s low bank waterfront. I don’t know if I’ll be around that long. But, while I’m around, it’s interesting to watch all the natural patterns that happen around here.

The most interesting thing about this place is watching nature’s cycles. The Esquimalt Harbour, towards the end, is a big mud flat. And, since the global warming villa is right at the end of the harbour, you really notice the tides. At full flood, the water comes, well, within 50′ of the building. At it’s ebb, it goes out a hundred feet and all that’s left of the harbour is a ten foot stream. As you can gather, the water’s not very deep. In fact, there’s an island maybe a thousand feet out: Cole Island. When this area used to be an artillery fortress (Fort Rodd Hill is close by), the munitions would be stored on Cole Island. The local residents say that the water’s shallow enough that they’ve seen intrepid individuals walk out there. Past Cole Island the water gets much deeper. So the first of nature’s cycles you see is the ebb and flow of the tides: at any given time, you never know if you’ll see the sparkling sheen on the water or the brown flats of mud.

Now there’s also the action of the tide coming in and out itself. Sometimes the tide comes in and its hungry. If the wind’s blowing, you can get up to 6″ waves. It actually looks quite aggressive. And then there’s the wildlife. In March, when I was first out here, it was the herons. What a patient bird! The water’s shallow enough that they can walk around. And then they wait. For a long time. For fish perhaps? They’re an awkward flier, which also makes them an interesting specimen for observation. Big wing span. Not very gracious. But their patience has won me over. It’s August now, and they’ve all left, which has bummed me out. Maybe they’ll be back next year? There’s eagles, hawks, turkey vultures, and a bevy of other animals. I see raccoons venturing out into the mud flats by day, which is strange: aren’t they supposed to be nocturnal? And the swans, I am told, when their haunts around Royal Roads University (a couple of kilometres away) become overcrowded, will come up my way. But of all the creatures, nothing has captured my imagination like the herons. Until now.

The other day, I saw this bird dart out of the trees. A smallish bird, maybe a bit bigger than my fist. It hovered for about five seconds maybe twenty-five or thirty feet above the water. It didn’t hover stationary like a hummingbird, but it hovered in these five seconds within a one cubic foot space. As it zigged and zagged within this cube, you could tell from the beating of its wings that it was going all out. And then it dove headfirst, vertically into the water where it plucked out something out. And then it beelined back into the trees. What a sight, especially the precipitous vertical dive! It turns out that this fascinating little bird is a kingfisher.

It strikes me that when this kingfisher hovers and dives headlong, it fulfils its purpose. The moment must be perfect as it strives with every nerve and every muscle to plunge into the bullseye on the water’s surface. This is its defining moment where all of its powers are concentrated on one aim and goal. This is its apotheosis, if such a thing can be said. And then an interesting and important question occurred to me: what is our equivalent of the kingfisher’s moment?

What is our defining moment? Is it a feeling like the one the Pixies describe in their cover of Head On?

As soon as I get my head around you

I come around catching sparks off you

I get an electric shock from you

This secondhand living just won’t do

And the way I feel tonight

I could die and I wouldn’t mind

And there’s something going on inside

Makes you want to feel

Makes you want to try

Makes you want to blow the stars from the sky.

Have you ever felt like blowing the stars out of the sky? That’s a great great line. Even better is the supporting line: “I could die and I wouldn’t mind.” Is this what the kingfisher feels?

Or is the kingfisher’s moment lecturing before a great crowd? They’ve come to hear you, what you have to say. Their attention’s rapt and you are nervous. But as you start talking, you can feel your initial smallness grow into a larger room filling presence. That’s a sort of triumph.

Or is the kingfisher’s moment like the moment when the master sleuth Hercule Poirot exposes the murderer?

Or is the kingfisher’s moment the same as when a prize-fighter drops an adversary onto the hard canvas?

But it seems there’s one big difference between ourselves and the kingfisher. For us to define ourselves, for us to reach that culminating moment where all of our powers are concentrated on one aim, we have to pay the price. In “Death on the Nile,” Poirot sums it up well as he converses with Jacqueline on a listless evening aboard the steamer:

Jacqueline: Ah, well, one must follow one’s star.

Poirot: Love is not everything.

Jacqueline: Oh, but it is. It is. You must know that Monsieur Poirot. Surely you understand?

Poirot: It is terrible, Mademoiselle, all that I have missed in life.

But is the opposite not true of the kingfisher?–to make the dive involves no sacrifice. Rather, not to make the dive incurs a sacrifice, as perhaps a meal is lost. That’s the difference between us and the kingfisher, and thereby hangs a tale.

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

The God Problem: How a Godless Cosmos Creates – Bloom

2012, Prometheus Books, 708 pages

Back Blurb

How does the cosmos do something it has long been thought only gods could achieve? How does an inanimate universe generate stunning new forms and unbelievable new powers without a creator? How does the cosmos create? That’s the central question of The God Problem.

In The God Problem, you’ll take a scientific expedition into the secret heart of a cosmos you’ve never seen. Not just any cosmos. An electrifyingly inventive cosmos. An obsessive-compulsive cosmos. A driven, ambitious cosmos. A cosmos of colossal shocks. A cosmos of screaming, stunning surprise. A cosmos that breaks five of science’s most sacred laws. Yes, five.

And you’ll be rewarded with author Howard Bloom’s provocative new theory of the beginning, middle, and end of the universe–the Bloom toroidal model, also known as the big bagel theory–which explains two of the biggest mysteries in physics: dark energy and why, if antimatter and matter are created in equal amounts, there is so little antimatter in this universe.

Author Blurb

Howard Bloom has been called “the Darwin, Newton, Einstein, and Freud of the twenty-first century” and “the next Stephen Hawking.” He is the author of The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of CapitalismGlobal Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century; and The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History.

Tragedy and Decay, Comedy and Creativity

I’m very interested in how nature creates order from chaos. For instance, it’s not immediately obvious why, when carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen come together, they’ll link themselves into amino acids. These amino acids in turn will become proteins, the building blocks of life. Then life itself–from plant to reptile to mammal–evolves towards ever higher levels of consciousness. My dog for example, lacks the consciousness to understand the reflection is an image of herself. Sometimes she tries to play with her reflection. Other times, she goes after her reflection as though it were a rival dog. But I have the consciousness to understand a reflection is a reflection. And I’m higher up evolution than my dog. To be sure, Darwin’s process of natural selection explains why evolution happens. But, as Darwin himself was aware, natural selection cannot explain why mutations should happen in the first place that drives life higher, towards more complexity. Darwin could not explain it, nor could anyone else, for that matter. Bloom has a great quote from the physicist Paul Davies, who sums up the problem in these words:

The central issue … is whether the surprising–one might even say unreasonable–propensity for matter and energy to self-organize “against the odds” can be explained using the known laws of physics, or whether completely new fundamental principles are required. In practice, attempts to explain complexity and self-organization using the basic laws of physics have met with little success.

The enigma of order from chaos goes beyond life. It’s everywhere. Look at a beautiful and complex structure such as the arms of the Milky Way galaxy. Gravity can explain the motions of each of its constituent stars. But it can’t explain why, in the vastness of space, galaxies–local pocket of order–should have arisen in the first place. According to the conventional rules of physics, things should be more spread out, more diffuse. And what is this conventional rule, you ask?–well, it’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Here’s the definition of the Second Law from the Libretexts site:

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the state of entropy of the entire universe, as an isolated system, will always increase over time. The second law also states that the changes in the entropy in the universe can never be negative. Why is it that when you leave an ice cube at room temperature, it begins to melt? Why do we get older and never younger? And, why is it whenever rooms are cleaned, they become messy again in the future? Certain things happen in one direction and not the other, this is called the “arrow of time” and it encompasses every area of science. The thermodynamic arrow of time (entropy) is the measurement of disorder within a system. Denoted as delta S, the change of entropy suggests that time is asymmetric with respect to order of an isolated system, meaning: a system will become more disordered, as time increases.

So, there appear to be two powers in everlasting opposition. First, there’s the Second Law. It’s the destroyer. Systems begin in highly ordered states. As high grade energy dissipates into heat, entropy increases until the point where nothing is possible anymore and the system suffers a heat death. It’s an ironclad law. Then, there’s this power that creates order from chaos. It’s nameless. We’re not sure how complexity spontaneously arises. But we can see it happening everywhere. And, worse of all, it seems to defy the Second Law. And this perceived contravention of the Second Law is really one of the great holes in twenty-first century science. Bloom’s book tries to fill in this gap.

The God Problem

Bloom begins by inviting the reader to be Bloom. He tells his story from childhood through the second person ‘you’. For example, when Bloom was a kid, he says he wasn’t very good at many things. But he was persistent. Since you are him (for the duration of the book), the book reads ‘you were persistent, and that’s how you discovered corollary generator theory’. What’s corollary generator theory? That’s one of his key terms for how the universe creates complexity: corollary generation is the process of unpacking implicit properties from axioms.

For Bloom, it all begins with the axiom. For example, it could be axiomatic that parallel lines never meet. Or it could be axiomatic that parallel lines meet in the far distance. After the axiom comes the process of unpacking the properties of the axiom, or corollary generator theory, as he calls it. If parallel lines never meet, the consequence is that space is flat. If parallel lines do meet, however, the consequence is that space is hyperbolic, curved like a saddle. So depending on the axiom, different ‘big pictures’ are possible. Yes, Bloom like coining terms.

So, what do axioms have to do with nature’s creativity? It turns out, that with a handful of simple axioms, complex structures are possible. Bloom’s search for how simple rules can produce complex structures leads him to the termite mound. Termite mounds can be built up to 13 metres and are amazingly complex structures. These structures come with a natural air conditioning mechanism that keeps the interior temperature constant. They are one of the wonders of the insect world. How are they built? They are built on a simple rule: when a termite runs across a termite dropping, it picks it up and puts it on top of the tallest pile of droppings in that area. So out of quite a simple rule, complexity is possible. The question Bloom wonders is: what if the universe is like that?–out of a handful of axioms, nature creates fascinating and complex structures.

‘The God problem’ to Bloom is a question of perspective: the natural world looks so complex, it must have been created by a higher power. But, if he is right, and complexity arises spontaneously through a handful of simple axioms, then God is no longer a necessary hypothesis. This serves Bloom well, who is a raging atheist. He points to John Conway’s Game of LIfe, Mandelbrot sets, and Wolfram’s computer simulations as proof that simple sets of rules can generate unpredictable and complex structures, and, with his proof, he asks whether the universe is like the Game of Life.

The God Problem reads like a history of science from Babylonian up to modern times. What Bloom does is he reinterprets scientific discoveries from ancient to modern times through the axiom (simple, basic assumption), corollary generator theory (unpacking the axiom), emergent property (the unexpected result of unpacking the axiom), and the new big picture (fundamental shift in understanding). For example, one axiom might be: what if the speed of light is a universal constant? Then you might use this assumption to ask how light and matter are intertwined. The emergent property would be E=mc squared, or energy equals mass * the speed of light. The new big picture would then be that matter and energy are related: you could make a nuclear bomb, for example. So while the nuclear bomb is quite complex, the idea behind it, the idea that light is a universal constant, is quite simple. So, the end result is that, even though the world appears to be quite complicated, this complexity might be based on simplicity. You just have to find the simplicity.

I enjoyed reading about the history of scientific discoveries through Bloom’s viewpoint. What I enjoyed less was his appeal to authority. Often he would say: this scientist won x, y, and z awards, so she’s very smart and therefore you should believe her. It smacked of someone saying: “Bob Dylan won a Nobel Prize in literature so you should listen to his music.” No, you should listen to his music because he rules. There are some unusual editorial conventions. Whenever he mentions a trade name, the copyright symbol (the little c with a circle around it) appears. So if he mentions iPhone, the iPhone is followed by a copyright symbol. His use of quotation marks is interesting too. Consider this example:

“Discussed” is a very mild word for what these men did. They were , says Proclus “renowned” for their “studies.” So renowned that Plato mentioned them as his “rivals.”

Are all the quotation marks necessary?–maybe the ones around discussed. But surely not around studies and rivals. These are all minor points, of course, but its amazing how jarring such little details are on a reader. My own book is going to the press soon so these little types of details catch my eye.

My major criticism of The God Problem is how the book promises too much. The inside cover, for example, compares Bloom to Einstein, Hawking, Newton, and Freud. I purchased the book believing this. And the book also promises the reader that it contains a proof of how the Second Law of thermodynamics is plain wrong. While it contains lots of example of complexity arising from simplicity, I don’t think it achieves this. And, after reading the book, I conclude that there’s no way Bloom is even remotely close to Einstein, Hawking, Newton, and Freud. It would have been a more satisfying read if the book hadn’t of promised so much. Take Bloom’s “Big Bagel” theory of the universe. It’s right at the end and wraps up the book. The Big Bagel model argues that the universe started from a singularity and is donut shaped. In fourteen or so pages, he explains how it solves the problem of the missing antimatter, the problem of dark matter, and dark flow. He came up with this theory during a brainstorm in 1959. So it’s his theory. But has he published anything on it in a scientific journal? It doesn’t appear like he has. Can he explain why matter went on one side of the donut and antimatter on the other? No. Then he mentions scientists who have published on the donut model in the 80s, 90s, and 00s. The work of these scientists lend credence to his big bagel theory. Wow. Especially the part about the theory being ‘his’. I wonder if the scientists who published on the donut model in the 80s, 90s, and 00s give Bloom credit for this model of the universe. I could look, but I doubt it. An interesting and disappointing read.

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

Risk Theatre Major Milestone – Signed up with Friesen Press

After years of wandering through the lowlands, it seems that the Risk Theatre project these days is travelling from peak to peak! As of July 6, 2018, Friesen Press has been retained to bring the title Tragedy is Risk Theatre: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected to the light of day. This, along with inaugurating the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition with Langham Court Theatre earlier this year, is a milestone event in the Risk Theatre project. Good students of the Classics will be familiar with the divide between logos (thought) and ergon (action) or theoria (theory) and praxis (doing). Sometimes–actually most of the time–you have one without the other, and this just doesn’t quite cut it. Now risk theatre fulfils both sides of the dichotomy. The Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition takes care of the praxis or ergon aspect of the project. And the book: Tragedy is Risk Theatre encapsulates the logos or theoria side of the dichotomy. This is a major milestone and a happy moment.

Friesen Press

I had originally thought that Friesen Press was an independent boutique publishing house. It turns out that they’re owned by Friesens Corporation, a major book printer headquartered in Manitoba, Canada. Friesen Press seems to be the self-publishing arm of Friesens Corporation: the corporation takes care of printing major titles such as the Harry Potter series or the Oxford Dictionary, and the press serves the need of emerging authors.

Friesen Press caters to emerging authors looking to self-publish. The press serves authors looking to self-publish who are looking for support. It’s like a one stop shop that takes care of editing, indexing, book layout, graphics design, distribution, marketing, and you name it. If you wanted, you could subcontract out all these specialities and probably save a few dollars at the cost of some more headaches and legwork. And if you’re interested in getting hands on producing the book, that’s what you’d go for. For example, that’s what Jacob Lund Fisker, the author of a book that I’ve learned a lot from–Early Retirement Extreme–did. He taught himself how to typeset with the LaTeX program, did the illustrations, took care of the promotion, etc., But then again, he’s a sort of Renaissance man who rails against specialization. He likes to do his own renovations, make his own soap, and get hands on. And actually, if I had the time, I’d probably like to go more hands on. But with the part-time plumbing gig, doing the PR for the tragedy competition, and editing the book, it makes sense right now to sign on with a one stop shop.

I did, however, practise some due diligence before signing on. Island Blue Print also caters to self-publishing authors. For a run of 100 books, they quoted $9.76 per unit to print (softcover, 5.5″x8.5″, 270 pages). Friesen’s quote came in a little lower, at $9.25, but this is based on 200 pages of text. It’s hard to tell how many softcover pages the 67,000 words translates into, but both the quotes are in the same ballpark. It was similar with the indexing quotes. Independent indexers were quoting anywhere from $800 – $2000. Friesen’s came in at the mid-range, just over $1400.

In the beginning, I was actually leaning towards Island Blue. That would mean hiring one person to typeset, one person to design the front and back cover, another person to index, getting my on ISBNs, taking charge of publicity and distribution myself, etc., But one thing that I learned quickly was that a lot of these separate trades would have to be on the same page. And there is a sequence to do everything in, a sequence with which I wasn’t very familiar. For example, the book designer that Island Blue recommended likes indexers to embed the index within the Word document. But I quickly found out indexers like to use their specialized indexing software and don’t like embedding indexes in Word. And then there’s the issue of compatibility: what if the book designer has technical issues with converting the embedded Word index into InDesign, the program of her choice? So the more I thought of it, the more it made sense to go to a one stop shop. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about these issues and would be able to focus on reading the proofs, which, the more I think about it, will be an eye busting task.

Friesen’s offers four different publishing paths for authors: Launch, Classic, Signature, and Masterpiece. They’re priced from $1999 – $14,999. I went for the basic Launch package. The more deluxe packages offer more support, multiple rounds of editing, more revision rounds, and better publicity and distribution. Here’s what the $1999 Launch path offers:

    • Hardcover, Softcover, and eBook Editions of Your Book
    • Editor’s Manuscript Evaluation (up to 60,000 words)
    • 2 Member Support Team (including dedicated Account Manager)
    • Up to 70% Royalty
    • 100% Copyright Ownership
    • Non-Exclusive Contracts
    • 3 ISBNs & Barcode
    • Up to 6 Promotional Copies (5 Softcover, 1 Hardcover)
    • Custom Book Cover
    • Custom Interior Layout
    • Black & White or Full Color interior
    • 1 Revision Round
    • Electronic Book Proof
    • 1 Hour Promotional Strategy Consultation
    • Marketing 101 Toolkit
    • 1/8 pg Placement & Summary in the FriesenPress Book Catalogue
    • Print Distribution: available for purchase through over 39,000 booksellers & the FriesenPress Online Bookstore
    • Lifetime eBook Distribution: FriesenPress Online Bookstore, (with ‘Look Inside!’ Submission), Google Play Books (with ‘See Inside’ Submission), and Apple iBooks
    • Digital Rights Management (optional)

The indexing would be an adder number on top of the $1999. So all in all, considering that Friesen’s will also take care of the distribution, it’s a pretty good deal. And, the appealing thing is that you, the author, can maintain control over the availability of the book. If you’re doing an academic title with a traditional press, chances are that they’ll print off a run of 400 copies. Most of them will end up in academic libraries. The title will be in print for five years. And then it’s out of print. If you go the self-publishing route, your title can stay in print for as long as you want it to be in print: you own the rights and have the option of buying the electronic files. This is a very big plus.

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

Well, it clocks in at just over 67,000 words. A decent sized book considering that a monograph is about 40,000 words and a really big monograph or a smallish book weighs in at 50,000 words. Tragedy is Risk Theatre is made up of an introduction and nine chapters.

The process at Friesen should take between 6-8 months. Things always seem to take a little longer than estimated, so it should hit the shelves at the beginning of 2019. Mark that date on your calendar!

Did I try going the conventional publishing route? You betcha! I sent out letters of inquiry to six publishers and one agent. What I learned is that this process is lots of work. Everyone wants the letter in a different format. Some want short letters. Some want small essays. Here’s a copy of a letter I sent to a literary agent:

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

When Arthur Miller looked back on writing Death of a Salesman, he lamented that: “there was no model I could adapt for this play, no past history for the kind of work I felt it could become.” Today’s dramatists have little desire to write tragedy based on yesterday’s outdated models. Today’s literary critics share the playwrights’ concerns. Terry Eagleton begins his 2002 book, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, by saying, point-blank: “Tragedy is an unfashionable subject.” While Aristotle’s Poetics laid out a brilliant model of tragedy’s structure and purpose, it had been around for over two thousand years. Today’s critics tire of rehashing the same hackneyed arguments on catharsis, pity and fear, and the tragic flaw over and over. Tragedy needs a new model in touch with twenty-first century values to captivate the public imagination as it once did in the days of Sophocles and Shakespeare. Tragedy is Risk Theatre fills the need by presenting an exciting and unique brand of tragedy. As the title suggests, this new model of tragedy is called risk theatre and it takes its inspiration from a surging public interest in chance, uncertainty, and the failure of models to predict unexpected outcomes.

In 2001, the hedge fund manager, Nassim Taleb, shocked the world by writing Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. In his scathing Wall Street critique, he argues that economists imperil the financial system because the fail to recognize that it is ultimately chance, and not their economic models, that moves the markets. In 2007, Taleb followed up with The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, and exploration of the incredible impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. The timing was perfect: the Great Recession was just around the corner. Since then, his books have sold millions of copies and have been translated into 36 languages. He has ignited surging interest in the philosophy of uncertainty, a new field of inquiry, which asks: “What happens when more things happen than what you expect will happen?” Risk theatre capitalizes on this growing interest in the unexpected by merging Taleb’s work with the established art form of tragedy. They are a natural match, since tragedy specializes in dramatizing low-probability, high-consequence events.

Risk theatre posits that the tragic stage is a casino where gamblers come to play at the no limit tables. This is the “risk” element of risk theatre: before the dice is thrown or the cards revealed, the protagonist’s desired outcome can only be understood imperfectly as odds for or against. One difference, and a critical one, between actual gambling halls and the stage or risk theatre is that on the tragic stage, money is a counterfeit currency. Only the human currency of values, emotions, and beliefs are legal tender on the tragic stage. For this reason, for a chance to wear the Scottish crown, characters such as Macbeth ante up the milk of human kindness, not a thousand or even a million dollars. Macbeth, like the Wall Street analysts who Taleb remonstrates, is smarter and better equipped than his adversaries. The odds are in his favour. But, like the Wall Street analysts, Macbeth overestimates his ability to predict the future and underestimates the impact of low-probability events. After all, what are the odds of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill? But when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill, Macbeth, like the overleveraged speculators during the Great Recession, comes face to face with the high-consequence event and loses all. Risk theatre promises excitement: its thrill is the same sort of pleasure the spectators huddled around the table experience when they watch the final match poker match between the “Cincinnati Kid” and Lancey “The Man” Howard. The Kid goes all-in knowing that he has played his hand by the book and that the odds are with him. But when Lancey makes the wrong move at the right time, the Kid loses everything.

Depending on their starting point, theories of tragedy highlight different aspects of tragedy. Hegel’s theory of tragedy, for example, by focusing on the moral collisions in tragedy (exemplified by the clash between Antigone and Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone), highlights the ethical element of tragedy. Or, in another example, Aristotle’s Poetics, by focusing on the fall of the protagonist (exemplified by Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex), highlights how tragedy elicits the feelings of fear and pity in the audience. Risk theatre, by focusing on gambling acts in tragedy (exemplified by Macbeth wagering the milk of human kindness for the crown), highlights the price heroes are willing to pay. Instead of drawing attention to the ethical elements of tragedy (such as Hegel’s theory), risk theatre directs our attention towards the opportunity cost of choice: either the milk of human kindness orthe crown, but not both. And instead Aristotle’s pity and fear, the tragic emotions of risk theatre are anticipation and apprehension: anticipation of the low-probability event and apprehension over the high-consequences. Risk theatre speaks to today’s audiences by aligning tragedy with public interest in low-probability, high-consequence events. Like Hegel and Aristotle’s theories, risk theatre can be applied to a wide variety of tragedies from ancient to modern times to produce exciting and fresh interpretations of classic plays for today’s audiences.

Tragedy is Risk Theatre contains a theoretical framework of tragedy, and analyzes the price characters are willing to pay in tragedies from Aeschylus to Miller to learn what our humanity is worth. In addition, Tragedy is Risk Theatreprovides today’s dramatists with Miller’s missing model, the model Miller lamented not having when he began working on Death of a Salesman. To guide the reader through the structure, idea, and practical application of the risk theatre brand of tragedy, the book’s nine chapters are divided into three parts. Part one examines risk theatre’s structure. Part two examines the philosophy of tragedy. Part three examines the poetics of risk theatre.

Risk theatre is based on a tripartite structure which reflects the insight that each dramatic act of tragedy is also a gambling act. It begins with the hero’s temptation. The hero is enticed to want something or to do something. In Death of a Salesman, for example, Loman is tempted by the success of Charley and his brother to pursue the American dream. After the hero’s temptation comes the wager. For a chance to live out the American dream, Loman antes up his dignity. After the wager comes the moment where the die is cast. After Loman signs the mortgage, he’s locked in and there’s no turning back. The low-probability, high-consequence event is his realization that, thanks to his life insurance policy, he’s worth more dead than alive. Temptation, wager, and cast constitute the basic structural unit of risk theatre. Depending on the dramatists’ goals, the basic structural unit can be configured differently. The different configurations are also discussed in part one of the book.

Readers interested in the philosophy of tragedy can turn to the second part of the book. Risk theatre is grounded on the principle of opportunity cost: the cost of what’s chosen is the next best alternative. Opportunity costs surround us in life. When we choose to buy a gallon of milk, we lose the opportunity to spend the money on a jug of juice. For Macbeth, the opportunity cost for a shot at the crown is his compassion; for Loman, the opportunity cost to pursue the American dream is his dignity. As they roll the die, they place human values at risk. By considering opportunity cost, risk theatre differentiates itself from other philosophies of tragedy. Other theories consider the ethical, political, and social aspects of tragedy. Risk theatre considers tragedy’s economic aspects. By looking at the price the protagonist is willing to pay, risk theatre answers the question of human worth. If a gallon of milk is worth $4.99, how much is the milk of human kindness worth? Well, according to Macbeth, it’s worth the Scottish crown. By dramatizing the tragic cost of desire, risk theatre reveals the limitations of measures such as “net worth” or tools such as the “cost benefit analyses” to capture human worth. By expressing worth in terms of human value rather than dollars and cents, risk theatre revolts against the commoditization of life and its values.

Dramatists wishing to create new risk theatre plays can turn to part three, which contains examples from tragedies of all periods help dramatists work through two problems: 1) how to motivate protagonists to take great risks, yet remain lifelike and 2) how to introduce the low-probability, high-consequence event into the play convincingly. To motivate protagonists to go all-in, dramatists through the years have resorted to seven commonplaces strategies: 1) proud heroes who are idealists, 2) secondary characters who love to give advice, 3) starring roles filled by characters who have access to surplus political, military, social, or economic capital, 4) supernatural appurtenances, 5) heroes who claim to suffer woes “greater than mortal man has ever borne,” and 7) unstable and volatile dramatic settings (e.g. war, revolution, and plague). Likewise, to incorporate the low-probability, high consequence event into the play, dramatists have access to a wide variety of replicable techniques. Unintended consequences may arise as a result of being overpowered by fate or the gods. They could also arise from the fallibility of human knowledge and errors in judgment. Tight coupling (leaving small margins for error) and the feedback between the characters can also lead to unexpected results.

The author, Edwin Wong, graduated from the University of Victoria with a bachelor’s degree and from Brown University with a master’s degree in the Classics. During both degrees, he concentrated on ancient theatre. The peer-reviewed journal Antichthon published “The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad,” his study on Homer, a poet whom Plato considers to be the first tragedian. He has presented on risk theatre at the University of Calgary in April 2017 and has forthcoming lectures scheduled in January and February 2018 at the Society for Classical Studies annual meeting in Boston and the University of Victoria. In addition, he is in continuing high-level talks with the Langham Court Theatre, University of Victoria Fine Arts Department, and the Playwright’s Guild of Canada to inaugurate an annual risk theatre playwright competition. It would be set up similar to the successful University of California, Santa Barbara STAGE International Script Competition. The STAGE competition challenges playwrights to write new science and technology plays, awards the top entrants with cash prizes, and produces the winning play. From the theory to the production, Edwin Wong is committed to the success of risk theatre.

Looking at tragedy as an existential wager between the protagonist and the world is a new approach that solves age-old questions. One question asks: “Why do audiences delight in tragedy, despite its unhappy themes?” Risk theatre answers by saying: “The thrill of tragedy is the same as the thrill of gambling. Just as audiences delight in watching gamblers go all-in, they delight in watching heroes up the ante.” Another question asks: “Why are the leading roles skewed towards kings and queens, as in King Oedipus, the Duchessof Malfi, Prince Hamlet, and so on?” Risk theatre answers by saying: “Characters are drawn from the higher classes because they have to have sufficient social, political, or economic capital to ante up.” Beginning from a simple observation—tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events—Tragedy is Risk Theatrepromises to revolutionize the interpretation and production of tragedy to return the art to the days when it was the greatest show on earth.

Market and Competition

The marketing for the book can be pursued on three different levels. First, as a theory of tragedy, the book appeals to literary theorists and students of literature and drama. The academic crowd will be interested in seeing a fresh approach to tragedy, one that goes beyond the usual discussions on the tragic fall, pity and fear, and the tragic error. Second, as a working model of tragedy, the book appeals to playwrights, actors, and theatregoers. The annual risk theatre competition will create a steady and ongoing interest in the topic. Third, as a new art movement tying together the fields of economics and risk management with gambling and theatre, the book capitalizes on the current public interest in uncertainty, unintended consequences, and low-probability, high-consequence events. This third crowd is the most diverse, and consists of risk managers, scientists, economists, and others who are interested in uncertainty. The goal of staging the winner of the risk theatre competition is to create sufficient buzz to kick-start interest.

Many well-written studies examine the political, social, anthropological, philosophical, and literary facets of tragedy. Political and social interpretations can be found in Terry Eagleton’s Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic(Blackwell 2003) or Raymond Williams’ Modern Tragedy (Stanford UP 1966). They look at how tragedy, by questioning norms, can incite political and social change. Anthropological approaches can be found in Richmond Hathorn’s Tragedy, Myth, and Mystery (Indiana UP 1962) and Herbert Weisinger’s Tragedy and the Paradox of the Fortunate Fall (Michigan State College Press 1953). These approaches call attention to the ritual elements embedded in tragedy. Philosophical approaches are exemplified by Walter Kaufmann’s Tragedy and Philosophy(Doubleday 1968) and Peter Szondi’s An Essay on the Tragic (Insel 1961). They draw on an illustrious pedigree of thought, from Plato to Aristotle and from Hegel through to Nietzsche. Finally, literary approaches such as A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy (Macmillan 1904) consider the merits of tragedy as a self-contained work of art. Tragedy is Risk Theatre differentiates itself from the crowd by examining tragedy from an economics perspective. It is a novel approach.

The only other title that approaches tragedy from an economics perspective is George Thomson’s Aeschylus and Athens (Lawrence & Wishart 1941). In this valuable study, Thomson blames the death of tragedy on the rise of coinage, which spread from Asia Minor to Greece in the century prior to Aeschylus. Tragedy, argues, Thomson, promoted egalitarian values in fifth century Athens by mediating the conflict between tribal custom and aristocratic privilege. The proliferation of coinage in Athens, however, gradually created a new class of profiteers more interested in exploiting slaves and subjugating neighbours than promoting egalitarian ideals. Tragedy, no longer able to mediate the class struggle between the profiteers and the oppressed, lost its impetus and died. While Tragedy is Risk Theatre also approaches tragedy from an economics perspective, it looks at the price an individual hero is willing to pay rather than the role of money in class struggle.

Chapter Outline


The art of tragedy has fallen into neglect. Dramatists lack a modern model of tragedy. Critics tire of rehashing the same old Aristotelian precepts over and over. Risk theatre offers playwrights and critics a compelling new model by calling attention to the casino-like elements of the tragic stage, a place replete with high stakes wagers, unexpected outcomes, and unintended consequences, a place where the low-probability, high-consequence outcome happens. Every time.


On tragedy’s structure. Risk theatre, taking its cue from games of chance, begins with the hero’s temptation, proceeds to hero’s wager, and finishes with a roll of the die. The hero pursues a hazardous enterprise, stakes his values, beliefs, or relationships on its success, and goes past the point of no return. Risk theatre has a tripartite structure. Example of its tripartite structure in well-known tragedies from ancient to modern times.


On tragedy’s structure. By positioning the fundamental components of temptation, wager, and cast at different intervals in relation to one another, the playwright can alter the tempo at which the drama unfolds. “Frontloaded” dramas set the temptation, wager, and cast at the beginning of the play: the play ends in reflection. “Backloaded” dramas set the temptation and wager at the beginning, and the cast towards the ending: suspense results. “Gradual” tragedies set the components at equidistant intervals: the focus is on the interplay between characters.


On tragedy’s structure. Different forms of tragedy arise should the dramatist dramatize the fundamental unit of temptation, wager, and cast once, in recurring cycles, or concurrently. “Standalone” tragedies, such as Macbethdramatize the cycle once. “Perpetual motion” tragedies, such as the Oresteia, dramatize the fundamental unit in recurring cycles. “Parallel motion” tragedies, such as Cinna, dramatize multiple characters going through the cycle of temptation, wager, and cast at the same time.


On the philosophy of tragedy. Risk theatre argues that tragedy is based on the idea of opportunity cost: the cost of choosing one alternative is the loss of the next best alternative. Macbeth can have the milk of human kindness or the crown, but not both. One may receive something for something, and nothing for nothing (as Lear likes to say), but never something for nothing. By looking at the opportunity cost of choice, tragedy creates an alternative marketplace to value life in the human currency of blood, sweat, and tears. What is the price the protagonist is willing to pay?


On the poetics of tragedy. Tragedy revolts against the monetization of life, a phenomenon that began with the invention of coinage in the sixth century BC. As the proliferation of coinage made it possible to value life in monetary terms (e.g. murder could be exonerated by paying “blood money”), tragedy arose in revolt to argue that human values must be understood in terms of the price we are willing to pay for them in blood, sweat, and tears. As a result, the stage of tragedy is an alternative marketplace where heroes price out existence. Four principles of how dramatists can reclaim human values through the art form of tragedy.


On the poetics of tragedy. For risk theatre to thrill audience, heroes must take on inordinate risks. Audiences don’t come to see heroes make nickel and dime bets. They come to see them wager all-in. Examples of the seven “commonplaces of tragedy” from a variety of plays showing how dramatists motivate heroes to take on extraordinary risks in a convincing manner. The seven commonplaces are: 1) proud and egocentric protagonists, 2) trusted advisors goading protagonists on, 3) starring roles filled by kings, queens, and others having an abundance of military, economic, or social capital, 4) supernatural appurtenances, 5) passions running white hot, 6) heroes claiming to suffer woes “greater than mortal man has ever borne,” and 7) curtain rises to scenes of adultery, murder, plague, war, and famine.


On the poetics of tragedy. Heroes who are smarter, stronger, and better equipped than their adversaries play to win. They don’t expect to lose. It’s the dramatist’s task to waylay them with the unexpected, low-probability, high-consequence event. From the ancient deus ex machinato the modern use of feedback and tight coupling, strategies dramatists employ to waylay heroes reflect the changing conception of chance, probability, and randomness through the ages. A brief survey of changing conceptions of chance.

8          US AND THEM

Tragedy may be defined by contrasting its worldview with philosophic, historic, or comic worldviews. Tragedy and comedy, as opposed to philosophy and history, are ex-ante arts. Philosophy and history are ex-post arts. Ex-ante arts feature characters who do not know the outcome. Ex-post art features outcomes that are already known: the aim is to explain how the outcome turned out the way it did. Tragedy differentiates itself from comedy in that the former operates in a closed system, while the latter operates within an open system. Closed systems are closed in the sense that resources are scarce; they are bound by the second law of thermodynamics. Open systems are open in the sense that resources are boundless.


A discussion of the lexical instability of the term tragedyfrom ancient Greece to today. The fruitful ambiguity of the term allows room for many competing interpretations of tragedy from “a story of wicked kings” to “a poem of praise.” This same ambiguity allows tragedy to be reinterpreted as risk theatre today. A discussion of why, from stock market crashes to artificial intelligence, risk is a hot topic today. Just as ages preoccupied with psychology produced psychological theories of tragedy, today’s age of risk produces the risk theory of tragedy.

What I learned from this exercise of sending out query letters is that, when you’re talking with the presses, you have to have something to negotiate with. If you’re writing the next blockbuster, you can ask them to take a chance on you. But tragic literary criticism is not likely going to be a blockbuster text. I’d imagine even a blockbuster text from an internationally known author on tragic literary theory (Eagleton, for example), would be lucky to sell a couple of thousand copies. If you’re writing a scholarly or academic title (which is sort of what Risk Theatre purports to be), the presses expect you to have the right credentials: tenured or tenure track professor at a major university. The university presses are backed by the universities, so money isn’t a problem. Their mandate is to further knowledge. But you need the right credentials to get in. And these are credentials I lack. So, what I learned is that well, I have nothing really to negotiate with. And when you’re negotiating from a position of weakness, chances are you’re not going to be successful.

But I guess, the important thing in adversity is to press on. After all, when Nietzsche got booted out of academia, he started writing books on “culture” and “modernity” that classicists weren’t supposed to write (he started off not as a philosopher, but as a Classicist). No one would publish these strange titles. He was ridiculed by the leading Classicist of the day, Wilamowitz. What did Nietzsche do? He went the self-publishing route and financed his first few books from a meagre university pension. He didn’t end up doing to badly, eh? Who even remembers Wilamops today?

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