Author Archives: Edwin Wong

About Edwin Wong

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

How Much Does It Cost to Self-Publish a Book?

The Price One Pays to be a Writer

Even wonder how much it costs indie authors to self-publish their books? Well, you’ve come to the right place! My book The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected has just hit the shelves at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. In this book, I address a fundamental question: what makes tales of woe such as MacbethOedipus the King, and Death of a Salesman so appealing? It’s a most enduring question that’s fascinated thinkers from Aristotle to Hegel and Nietzsche. My argument breaks from the classic interpretations and offers a contemporary interpretation by arguing that tragedy fascinates because each dramatic act is also a gambling act. Heroes make risk run riot by placing delirious, all-in bets. By going all-in, they trigger unexpected and catastrophic events. Tragedy mesmerizes us because it dramatizes the price heroes pay. But of course, in this blog, we’re not talking about the price heroes pay, but the price indie writers pay to see their self-published masterpieces see the light of day.

Well, the first cost self-published writers pay is the opportunity cost lost in doing the next best thing they could have been doing, were they not writing a book. Of course, “Child’s play,” you say, “the book’s the thing.” Well, very good. It had better be the thing, because, for 95% of writers, writing a book will be 100% harder than they thought. “But what about the dollars and cents cost?”, you ask. Here’s a breakdown. These are 2018 prices in Canadian dollars.

Editors and Proofreaders $6100

$6100, are you kidding me? No, I am not. Here’s the perennial question that comes up all over the place: do I need an editor or proofreader or can I save a few bucks doing it myself? As a rule, the more experienced the author, the more they count on the expertise of professional editors and proofreaders to help guide the text to the finish line. It is generally the amateur writers who eschew the use of these worthy professionals. And it shows in the finished product.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy went through two structural / copy edits and one round of proofreading. The first structural / copy editor charged $1500. He marked up the text and removed many colloquialisms. He also had the nerve to tell me which parts of the book were getting repetitive or annoying. In hindsight, I sort of knew which parts of the book were weak, but without an expert calling me out, I wouldn’t have sunk the considerable energy that was required to make revisions. Thanks to my first editor, the manuscript became more robust.

My second structural / copy editor brought to light a few factual errors. It’s amazing how many little mistakes can persist in a text. She also added subheadings throughout the book. The idea of subheadings would never have occurred to me. She also moved paragraphs around into different chapters. The changes were substantial. In hindsight, she made the book much more readable and was worth every cent of the $3600 she charged. The subheadings were an invaluable addition

Finally, I had a proofreader go through the manuscript with a fine tooth comb. The cost was $1000 and worth it all, and more. He dug out the deeply embedded errors that defied all my best efforts to root out. For example, in one passage, I mentioned a foreign term in the plural. But I translated it into a singular English noun. Proofreaders have x-ray eyes. If you want your text to go far, hire the best editors and proofreaders that you can. Extra rounds help as well. Could my book have used further editing? Probably. But at some point, you have to let it go out into the world to fend for itself. Don’t be like the composer Anton Bruckner, who edited his symphonies without end to the point where many of his edits were questionable.

Friesen Press (typesetting, book / cover layout / distribution) $1889.05

After your Microsoft Word manuscript has been edited, the next step is to get it typeset. Printers work with LaTeX and Adobe InDesign files, not PDF or Word files. The typesetter converts you Word file into a format such as InDesign that the presses use. You can hire a typesetter and then a printer of your choice or you can give your script to one of the many one stop shops such as Friesen Press. Starting at $1999, these self-publishing companies will typeset your manuscript, design a front and back cover, assign ISBN numbers, and distribute your book. The distribution is worth it in itself. Your book will become available on Amazon (with ‘Look Inside!’ submission), Barnes & Noble, Chapters Indigo, the FriesenPress Online Bookstore, and Google Books. My book came out February 4, 2019, and it was available for sale immediately on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the FriesenPress Bookstore. Chapters Indigo hasn’t listed it yet so I’ve written to them. To self-publish my book, I went with the ‘Launch Path‘ package at Friesen Press. After a 10% discount, the total came to $1889.05.

From when I paid for the ‘Launch Path’ package at Friesen to when the book was available for sale was a six month journey. Capable publishing specialists at Friesen helped me along the way. I highly recommend Friesen Press to all aspiring indie writers. They provide a valuable service.

Extras at Friesen Press (cover image, indexing, revision round, proof copy) $2027.05

While the ‘Launch Path’ package at Friesen includes cover design, there was a specific image I wanted to use. In the game of poker, there is a hand called the ‘Dead Man’s Hand.’ A pair of black aces on eights, it is a visual representation of the unexpected, or, of a low-probability, high-consequence event (e.g. a low-probability of drawing the combination, but, once drawn, it has high-consequence because it signifies death). They charged two hours of design time to come up with the image: $144.90. The Dead Man’s Hand is a very memorable image. Money well-spent. Of course, well-spent money adds up quickly!

As a non-fiction title, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy required an index. This wasn’t included in the ‘Launch Path’ package but was available as an add-on at $1535.63. I priced out indexing services from independent indexers and found the quote from Friesen Press to be very competitive. One reason for Friesen’s competitive prices is that many of their hires are fresh out of university. Though they do business internationally, their office happens to be in downtown Victoria. I’ve been there a few times to sit down with the publishing specialists, and noticed that the office is populated by recent grads. I think Friesen tends to hire students coming out of creative writing programs at the University of Victoria. These grads, in turn, use Friesen Press as a launch pad for their own bright careers.

The ‘Launch Path’ package comes with one revision round. This means that, after the text is typeset, you have one opportunity to review the manuscript to make sure all the t’s are crossed and all the i’s dotted. After I signed off on the first revision round, I noticed that there were still several errors. That necessitated the purchase of a second revision round at $208.95. After the second revision round, more errors cropped up, but they were kindly able to amend these free of charge. For example, the indexer noticed some footnote entries were inconsistent. There probably still are a couple of errors in the text here and there. I plan to do a thorough read once I get my own physical copy (I still don’t have a copy myself!). These errors can be corrected in the second edition. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s truly mind-boggling how resistant these tiny errors are to editing. Like weeds in a garden.

Finally, Friesen sold me a physical softcover proof at $137.57. The ‘Launch Path’ package includes only digital proofs (their more expensive packages include physical proofs, however). $137.57 was not a very good deal, but I had wanted to donate a copy to the Greater Victoria Public Library for their 2018 Emerging Local Authors Collection, and the deadline was January 25, 2019. The GVPL graciously extended the deadline to end of February, and the only way to get them a copy was to fast-track a proof copy. I got the proof copy to them in time, and The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy will be on the library shelves come this May. It’s exciting to have a volume available at the library. I’ve got a journal article at 300+ academic libraries all over the world, but this will be the first time I’ll have a book in the library anywhere in the world.

Book Bulk Order (150 Copies) $2245.87

What’s a book without copies on hand? Friesen Press quoted me $2245.87 for a bulk order of 150 softcovers. That’s with a 20% discount for the first order. It works out to be $14.97 for a copy and includes shipping. I’ll send some of these copies out to reviewers locally. If I’m giving away complimentary copies, it makes more sense, believe it or not, to distribute copies through Amazon or Barnes & Noble. For complimentary copies in the US, if I use Barnes & Noble, shipping is free if you join their member’s club at $20 a year. So, for $14.99 (list price USD), I can distribute complimentary copies. It would cost me $14.97 (price of book in CAD) and $18 (shipping through Canada Post) to deliver to the States. That works out to be $32.97 CAD or roughly $25 USD. That’s $10 USD more than going with Barnes & Noble. It’s the same with sending complimentary copies in Canada. Going through amazon.ca, the cost works out to $25 CAD to ship in Canada. For me to go through Canada Post, it would cost in excess of $30 CAD. And I would also have to package the book, run down to the post office, wait in line…

By the way, if you go through Friesen Press, you can set the prices on your soft and hardcover books. And Friesen will also collect your royalties for you (distributed every quarter). It is a well-thought out system. I purposely set the price of the book low to encourage sales. The price is set $1.00 above the cost for the print-on-demand or POD press to produce the book. Amazon or Barnes & Noble earn $0.25 per book and I earn $0.75. 100% of my earnings go towards funding the theatre competition.

Publicity $500 and Counting

There’s a lot of ways this self-publishing cottage industry makes money from aspiring indie authors. One way is by selling paid reviews. Kirkus, BlueInk, Foreword Clarion, City Book Review, and others offer this service, which ranges from $200-$600. There are also a few places that offer free reviews such as Book Life and Midwest Book Reviews. I decided to go with a Kirkus review to start. For $375 USD = $500 CAD (after a $50 online coupon), they provide a 250 word review which links to the book’s Amazon or Barnes & Noble page as a professional review. I’ll post the review whether it’s positive or negative (you are given the option to hide the review if it’s negative). To me, it’ll be really interesting to read about what people think about the book. I’ll probably purchase a few more reviews in the future.

The other promotion I’m thinking of is offered by GoodReads. For $119 USD = $160 CAD, you can give away so many copies of your books in a lottery. You pay the price to ship the book to the GoodReads members. In return, they read your book and are encouraged to leave a review on the GoodReads site. This sort of grassroots approach appeals to me, as your reviewers are folks who are interested in the book. But it could get expensive quickly, as you’re paying $119 to essentially give away and ship your book.

So, you want to write and self-publish as book? That’ll be $12,761.97 please! If you have something to write, I would hope that it is fairly important! For me, I guess that is the sticker price of doing Melpomene’s work.

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

 

Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwright Competition – February 2019 Update

Stats, stats, stats!

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

USA 55 entrants

Canada 8 entrants

Australia 1 entrant

England 3 entrants

Ireland 1 entrant

Japan 1 entrant

Italy 1 entrant

Greece 1 entrant

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

The breakdown between male and female entrants stands at 50 men and 21 women. While the balance may seem to tilt towards male writers, in a historical context, the numbers are quite progressive: prior to the twentieth century, I only know of one tragedy written by a woman. That play is The Tragedy of Mariam, the Fair Queen of Jewry, written by Elizabeth Cary in 1613. The times, they are a changing!

The risktheatre.com website is averaging 29 hits a day in January. Most hits in a day was 196 back in June 2018 when the contest launched. That month also saw 2000+ hits. February 2019 is on pace for 900 views. So far, so good!

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

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

Complimentary copies have started going out to the hardworking playwrights who have sent in their scripts. Complimentary copies will be distributed on a FIFO or first-in, first-out basis: the first playwrights who submitted plays will receive priority copies. The distribution process is expected to take three months, after which time everyone will have a keepsake from the competition. Keep up the good work and thanks for contributing to the success of this one of a kind competition. The book isn’t necessary for the competition: the judges will be scoring plays based on the parameters found in the ‘Guidelines’ section of the risktheatre.com website.

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

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

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Cover

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Cover

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

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

Book Blurb

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

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

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

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

Author Blurb

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

Emerging Local Authors Collection

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

Preview the Book at Google Books!

Preview the book for free by clicking this link.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters Indigo, Bolen Books, and Munro’s Books!

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

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

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

Here’s where assiduous readers can get a hold of their very own copy of The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. All proceeds from the book go back into the playwright competition. Please tell your theatre friends and colleagues about this new and exciting dramatic manifesto! Please leave feedback at Goodreads, Amazon, or B&N. Even a few words can help other readers make a choice.

Munro’s Books

Softcover $19.95 available at their downtown Victoria branch on 1108 Government Street in Victoria, BC

Bolen Books

Softcover $19.95, available at their fantastic bookstore on 1644 Hillside Avenue in Victoria, BC

Amazon.com

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

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

Amazon.ca

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

Barnes & Noble

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

Friesen Press Online Bookstore

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

Chapters Indigo

Softcover $22.50, Hardcover $33.50, shipping in Canada $7.08

Reviews of The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

“The author’s passion for his subject comes across in nearly every statement . . . An ambitious, though-provoking critique of tragedy in the 21st century.”—Kirkus Reviews

*****THE RISK THEATRE MODEL IS A COMPELLING REINVENTION OF DRAMATIC STORYTELLING Edwin Wong has reinvigorated the ancient art of tragedy through his compelling Risk Theatre lens. Bravo! At heart, the book is a call to action for dramatists in our modern era to reinvent tragedy to address our brave new world of mesmerizing cacophony and unfathomable consequences. This is a fascinating read for anyone–but a “must read” for modern storytellers.

Roger Walker – Amazon

*****I have just finished reading Edwin Wong’s ‘The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy’ and, although I was initially skeptical of his bold claim of an original theory of tragic drama, I was intrigued at the prospect of reading about this classicist’s main belief. As I turned the pages his theory grew on me and I found myself both convinced and gripped by this new perspective on tragedy. His low- probability, high-consequence outcome theory does indeed resonate with the risk takers of today and I thoroughly recommend this scholarly work to anyone interested in both theatrical and real life tragedy based on risk. As the author himself writes, ‘A working model of tragedy that is both original and rooted in tradition.’

A remarkable book in every way. A must for every serious dramatist to read, ponder over and act upon.

David Duncan – Goodreads

*****IF YOU EVER PLAN TO WRITE, READ OR ACT IN A TRAGEDY THIS IS THE BOOK FOR YOU! The author writes that “after two and a half millennia, tragedy is still a term in search of a definition.” He interestingly describes how each age creates its own model. The ancients “assigned the unexpected outcome to the will of the gods” while the Elizabethans established “the first great age of tragedy in the era of probability”. Mr. Wong provides a model for our highly technological time where “the possibility of doing great good or evil has increased” where “the unexpected always prevails”. He makes a very convincing case that the study of tragedy enhances our understanding of life and its value. As did I, readers of this highly stimulating book will undoubtedly ask themselves what they would be willing to wager in their lives and for what. As an actor who has performed in tragedies, and a playwright who has attempted to write one, I know that this is a book to which I will often refer.
PS: Be sure to read the footnotes which are chock full of good stuff from Wild Bill Hickok anecdotes to the link between tragedy and goats! Tragedy will rise again!!

Alan Thurston – Barnes & Noble

*****INNOVATIVE, ENGAGING, & VERY THOUGHT PROVOKING! Wong’s insightful and excellently-sourced treatise on “risk theatre” reframes our understanding of tragedy in terms of how hero’s (often flawed) analysis of risks and rewards prompts them to make decisions that set actions in motion leading to their tragic outcomes. He organizes information so effectively, providing relevant examples from classical and modern drama. You are never bogged down in the philosophy- rather, you are encouraged to expand how this new framework will inspire NEW content. Wong is hopeful in his desire to push the bounds of what modern tragedy will look like, and readers of this text and playwrights inspired by it are better for it!

Emily McClain – Amazon

****Anyone who has taken a story writing or screenplay class in America has likely come across The Hero With a Thousand Faces at some point. If not the exact book itself, then another author has often either borrowed quotes or elements of Campbell’s classic hero’s journey. Some teachers consider it inseparable to modern cinema and media; it’s just about everywhere.

But if Campbell’s ideas cause resistance—which is becoming a trend nowadays, in my personal experience at least—Wong’s smooth model may be a wiser introduction. Campbell’s form may get learners lost in the message, the process, and the terminology for understanding a work. Wong’s methodology encourages a focused structure for a character’s thought processes throughout the story. It’s through establishing their personal risks and the consequences of their actions that there can be a real momentum. For me, and I’m sure others, that is the best-if-felt heart. Makes a story beat and dance with life.

Sure, Wong arranges his processes for the tragedy genre in mind, so there are certain constraints that may not apply. Like a fateful mishap tripping the heroes’ supposed victory and leading to a death may not be appropriate for a children’s book. But I believe most of Wong’s proposed techniques can be used for anything that has a story. I’d recommend this for anyone who wants to write or needs a refresher on character building, not just in the theater world too. Useful framing device if you’re feeling stuck.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a nimble read. If I were to criticize the writing, it’s close to a dry textbook with cohesive examples. Depending on the type of reader you are, that might mean a fascinating analysis or a snore fest. Several popular Shakespearean examples too, so that might not be up your alley to reread if you’ve already read so much of Shakespeare.

For me though, I enjoyed the overall experience and I learned something. If I lived in LA, I’d be up to seeing it in person too. Maybe someday, eh?

I received the book for free through Goodreads Giveaways.

Cavak – Goodreads

*****VERY INTERESTING READ Interesting review of risk as related to everyday life.

Gordjohn – Amazon

*****AN IMPORTANT WORK ON A FASCINATING TOPIC I loved this book! The author is a fan of my favorite playwright, Eugene O’Neill, and even quotes one of my favorite passages from LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, where James O’Neill laments sacrificing his career for money, and wonders what is was he wanted.
The book itself is an entertaining and insightful reimagining of a model for modern tragedy – Risk Theater – into today’s world of technology and global risk. I think this is an interesting premise, as the modern tragic heroes are not kings but hedge fund managers and tech moguls, playing games of chance that risk the lives of people around the world.
The author has a deep knowledge of the classics which he utilizes to build a guidebook for how playwrights can use the concepts of existential gambles, unexpected events, and “the price you pay.” I particularly liked his theory or counter monetization, a welcome answer to a society that too often worships money at the expense of deeper values, and how that relates to a modern way of looking at tragedy.
The Risk Theater Model of Tragedy offers a fresh perspective not only of the classical theater but more importantly how we can restructure the old paradigms in a way that speaks to modern audiences. It’s an important work, and will hopefully inspire playwrights everywhere to reimagine classical themes in a dynamic and exciting ways.

Mike – Amazon

*****A POWERFUL TOOL FOR WRITERS As an emerging playwright challenged to write high stakes drama that often has tragic consequences, I am grateful to Edwin Wong for his book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. It gives me a powerful tool and template to write modern tragedy. It belongs on every playwright’s desk.

Marc Littman, playwright – Amazon

*****Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! Stunning! I had to re-read the “The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy” by Edwin Wong. It was too good. It is a delight to recreate the possible scenarios exposed by the author in a very original thematic treatment of theater that invites further discussion and analysis. It is also a compendium of high academic and cogent discourse, a complete high level ‘theory’ on how to model and perform stage plays. He couples it with almost a ‘how-to’ reference guide on how to produce compelling theater by presenting the reader with an exhaustive analysis and classification of different facets of prior stage productions, from the Greek classics to modern times’ productions. The book is chock’full of insights and intriguing revelations. Edwin draws a narrative comparing and contrasting different elements of risk and relates these to modern audiences. The author’s vast breadth of knowledge, drawing upon his years of experience as a theatre critic and forward thinker in the performing arts world has crafted together a robust tome with incredible completeness and complexity – which should be on every aspiring playwright’s desk. I can anticipate a wave of theater academics referencing this book in their class syllabus.

Conchita – Amazon

*****If you haven’t read a scholarly book in a while and you feel that your brains are getting rusty, I recommend THE RISK MODEL of TRAGEDY. It manages to be highbrow but lucid, free of the cant of so much modern critical theory. The theatrical genre of tragedy was deemed to be needed along with comedy in ancient Greece, Elizabethan England, and should be re-invented in the USA today, if we truly want to be great. What are we afraid of?

Daniel Curzon – Barnes & Noble

“A fascinating exploration advocating for the resurgence of the classical art of tragedy in these tumultuous times . . . A nearly bulletproof argument for tragedy’s rebirth under the name of Risk Theatre.”—Editor, Friesen Press

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

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

404 pages, Penguin, 1969

Book Blurb

‘No warrior will ever do a darker deed’

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

Author Blurb

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

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

There you have it!

The Nibelungenlied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Was Twelfth Century Life Actually Like?

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

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

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

The Nibelungenlied as Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

506 pages, Penguin, 1986

Book Blurb

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

Author Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short History of Financial Euphoria – Galbraith

113 pages, Penguin, 1993

Book Blurb

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

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

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

Author Blurb

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

Quotes from A Short History of Financial Euphoria

Foreword to the 1993 Edition

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

Chapter 1: The Speculative Episode

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

Chapter 2: The Common Denominators

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

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

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

Chapter 4: The Classic Cases, II: The Bubble

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

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

Chapter 5: The American Tradition

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

Chapter 6: 1929

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

Chapter 7: October Redux

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

Chapter 8: Reprise

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

So, what can be done?

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

The Review…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deflation: What Happens When Prices Fall – Farrell

228 pages, Collins, 2004

Book Blurb

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

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

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

Author Blurb

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

Deflation: What Happens When Prices Fall Review

Chapter 1

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

Chapter 2

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

Chapter 3

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

Chapter 4

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

Chapter 5

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

Chapter 6

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

Chapter 7

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

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

Chapter 8

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

Chapter 9

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

Chapter 10

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

Chapter 11

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

Some Thoughts…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition – January 2019 Update

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

Exciting New Playwriting Opportunity!

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December 28, 2018. Victoria, BC, Canada

Hello fellow playwrights and theatre artists,

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

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

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

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

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

Yours truly,

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

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

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

2011, Penguin, 358 pages

Book Blurb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author Blurb

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

Idea Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition – December 2018 Update

Stats, stats, stats!

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

USA 43 entrants

Canada 4 entrants

Australia 1 entrant

England 2 entrants

Ireland 1 entrant

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

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

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

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

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