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2018, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 274 pages

Book Blurb

How do neurons turn into minds? How does physical “stuff”–atoms, molecules, chemicals, and cells–create the vivid and various world inside our heads? The problem of consciousness has gnawed at us for millennia. In the last century, massive breakthroughs have rewritten the science of the brain, yet the puzzles faced by the ancient Greeks remain. In The Consciousness Instinct, the neuroscience pioneer Michael S. Gazzaniga weaves together the latest research and the history of human thinking about the mind, giving a big-picture view of what science has revealed about consciousness.

The idea of the brain as a machine, first proposed centuries ago, has led to assumptions about the relationship between mind and brain that dog scientists and philosophers to this day. Gazzaniga asserts that this model has it backward: brains make machines, but they cannot be reduced to one. New research suggests the brain is actually a confederation of independent modules working together. Understanding how consciousness could emanate from such an organization will help define the future of brain science and artificial intelligence, and close the gap between brain and mind.

Captivating and approachable, with insights drawn from a lifetime at the forefront of the field, The Consciousness Instinct sets the course for the neuroscience of tomorrow.

Michael S. Gazzaniga

is the director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the president of the Cognitive Neuroscience Institute, the founding director of the MacArthur Foundation’s Law and Neuroscience Project, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Sciences. He is author of many popular science books, including Tales from Both Sides of the Brain.

The Consciousness Instinct: Unraveling the Mystery of How the Brain Makes the Mind

Contrasting Viewpoints on Consciousness

Gazzaniga starts by outlining the major theories on consciousness. There are the reductionists and materialists (e.g. Freud and Galen) that believe that mental states and consciousness arise from material interactions between neurons, atoms, and molecules. The reductionist and materialists are deterministic in outlook. Determinists believe that the future follows rigidly or is “determined” by the past. Behaviorists, such as Skinner, form a subset of this worldview.

Then, thanks to Descartes, there are the dualists. To the dualists, mental states, the mind, and the soul are separate from the material body and brain. Dualism, according to Gazzaniga, set back science two thousand years: Aristotle, while he believed in a soul, also believed that the soul dies with the body. According to Descartes, the soul was immortal and immaterial, and being an “essence,” was not subject to scientific scrutiny.

Then, there is a third theory called mentalism. Mentalists such as Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga himself believe that “emergent mental powers must logically exert downward causal control over electrophysiological events in brain activity.” In other words, mental states, the “I,” and consciousness can impact and alter the physical brain. In the 1970s, the mentalist camp was a small minority. Most scientists were materialists.

The New Paradigm

In The Consciousness Instinct, Gazzaniga offers a new paradigm to break free from the old debate between materialists, dualists, and mentalists. His new paradigm of consciousness is based on the latest breakthroughs in understanding how the brain works and also his observations of how people with broken brains function. According to Gazzaniga:

Today we have at our fingertips a vast amount of rapidly accruing new information, and with a little luck, it affords new perspective on how the brain does its magic. The ideas of Descartes and other past thinkers that the mind is somehow floating atop the brain, and the ideas of the new mechanists that consciousness is a monolithic thing generated by a single mechanism or network, are simply wrong. I will argue that consciousness is not a thing. “Consciousness” is the word we use to describe the subjective feeling of a number of instincts and/or memories playing out in time in an organism. That is why “consciousness” is a proxy word for how a complex living organism operates. And, to understand how complex organisms work, we need to know how brains’ parts are organized to deliver conscious experience as we know it.

Descartes believed that consciousness arose from the pineal gland in the brain. Gazzaniga and other neuroscientists understand otherwise. It’s always easier to see how something works by looking at how broken specimens function, and the brain is no different. By looking at people with broken brains, we now know that the brain is a modular organ, built up from many discrete modules, each with its own function and history in the evolution of the species. When one module, or multiple modules are damaged, consciousness remains. What this tells us is that consciousness does not reside in a specific area of the brain. Consciousness is a phenomenon or epiphenomenon that arises from the feedback between the different modules of the brain. It is a deep-rooted function which is incredibly hard to stamp out, even in the most damaged brains.

Split-brain patients offer the strongest testimony to how consciousness is not tied to a specific neural network:

Disconnecting the two half brains instantly creates a second, also independent conscious system. The right brain now purrs along carefree from the left, with its own capacities, desires, goals, insights, and feelings. One network, split into two, becomes two conscious systems.

They used to–and perhaps they still do–perform split-brain surgery to cure epilepsy. The surgery works, and after the nerves between the two cerebral hemispheres are cut, consciousness is also cloven. Here’s an interesting story Gazzaniga shares of Case W.J. After his split-brain surgery, Gazzaniga had tested him to see the results of the surgery:

More crazy yet, in the early months after surgery, before the two hemispheres get used to sharing a single body, one can observe them in a tug-of-war. For example, there is a simple task in which one must arrange a small set of colored blocks to match a pattern sown on a card. The right hemisphere contains visuomotor specializations that make this task a walk in the park for the left hand. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, is incompetent for such a task. When a patient whose brain has recently been split attempts the task, the left hand immediately solves the puzzle; but when the right hand tries to attempt the task, the left hand starts to mess up the right hand’s work, trying to horn in and complete the task. In one such test, we had to have the patient sit on his bossy left hand to allow the right to attempt the task, which it never could accomplish!

If consciousness does not arise from a specific area of the brain, and the dualists and reductionists are mistaken, then from where does it arise? Gazzaniga’s calls his solution complementarity. It’s sort of an awkward word, but I see how he came up with it: the word is a bold rejection of Descartes’ term duality, or the mind – brain split.


The physicists posit that there are two worlds. There is the world of classical physics. This is Newton’s world. The world of objective observers. Processes are deterministic and predictable. Objects in the classical world can be waves or particles, but not waves and particles simultaneously. There is a spooky force over distance (e.g. gravity), but they got over this centuries ago. Classical physics explains the macro world (larger than an atom) quite well. Then there is the world of quantum mechanics. Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, and others came up with this model to explain the subatomic world. This is the world where there are no objective observers. Observers, by observing, alter the system. Processes are probabilistic and unpredictable. Reality is spooky as objects in the quantum world exist as a blur, as both particles and waves simultaneously. It is only the law of large numbers that levels out the blur so that material objects appear concrete. Complementarity describes how subatomic objects exist as both particles and waves simultaneously.

The observer plays a crucial role in the quantum world. By observing quantum processes, the observer collapses the complementary reality of the subatomic object into either a wave or a particle. Choose one experiment, light acts like a particle. But choose another experiment, light acts as a wave. Physicists refer to the inescapable separation of a subject (the measurer) from the object (the measured) die Schnitt. It seemed that human consciousness played a role in collapsing quantum wave functions.

But was human consciousness required in breaking down quantum wave functions. Theoretical biologist came up with an amazing breakthrough when he argued that lower levels of consciousness was able to do this. How low?

Pattee proposes that the gap resulted from a process equivalent to quantum measurement that began with self-replication at the origin of life with the cell as the simplest agent. The epistemic cut, the subject/object cut, the mind/matter cut, all are rooted to that original cut at the origin of life. The gap between subjective feeling and objective neural firings didn’t come about with the appearance of brains, it was already there when the first cell started living. Two complementary modes of behavior, two levels of description are inherent in life itself, were present at the origin of life, have been conserved by evolution, and continue to be necessary for differentiating subjective experience from the even itself.

What Pattee claims is that quantum measurements do not require the physicist-observer. Quantum measurements can take place even on a cellular level. For example, enzymes such as DNA polymerases perform quantum measurement during cell replication.

DNA, Materialism, Symbols, and Life

Materialists say that DNA, being made of chains of atoms, must obey the laws of nature. But, according to Pattee, the materialists don’t see that DNA is also a symbol: it contains the description of the organism. And while DNA contains the description of the organism, it is not the organism in itself. To turn DNA into the organism, two separate steps are required: translation and construction. RNA and other proteins and enzymes “read” the DNA to translate DNA and construct the organism. If the physicist-observer is the highest level of consciousness, the simplest level of consciousness, according to Gazzaniga and Pattee, is the RNA reading the DNA. Like how the physicist-observer observes subatomic particles, so too, the RNA observes the DNA sequence. At the very beginning of life, there was observation. And this observation was carried up to higher and higher levels of consciousness by evolution so that, to continue the analogy, the DNA is likened to the physical brain and the RNA likened to the subjective experience of “I.” This is an exceedingly bold claim.

From Whence Consciousness?

So, “consciousness” began with the beginning of life from when RNA and other bondmaker molecules “gazed” onto the DNA template or blueprint. This gaze between RNA and DNA eventually became human consciousness. But where does our consciousness arise? Gazzaniga uses a soda water analogy to illustrate consciousness. Each module of the brain produces conceptual bubbles that rise to the surface. The “I” is what lies at the surface, and whatever bubble happens to have surfaced constitutes the “I.”

The History of Ideas

For those of you interested in the history of ideas, there’s a story on thermodynamics that Gazzaniga relates that reminds me of a question the astrophysicists are tackling today:

Still, even though Newton’s view of things took some getting used to, his laws seemed to describe most observations of the physical world well, and they became entrenched over the next two hundred years. But soon there was a new challenge to Newtonian physics that had to do with a new invention: the steam engine. The first commercial one was patented by Thomas Savery, a military engineer, in 1698 to pump water out of flooded coal mines. Even as the engines’ design improved, one problem continued to plague them: the amount of work they produced was minuscule compared to the amount of wood that had to be burned to produce it.

The early engines were all super inefficient because way too much energy was dissipated or lost. In the wholly determined world that Newton envisioned, this didn’t make much sense, so the theoretical physicists were forced to confront the puzzle of the seemingly lost energy. Soon a new field of study emerged, thermodynamics, and with it a change in theory about the nature of the world.

Does the story of the missing energy remind anyone of the astrophysicists’ search for dark matter? For galaxies to spin and move through galactic superclusters, they would have to contain much, much more matter than that which we can see. It’s been argued that up to 85% of the mass of the universe has not been discovered. Just as the physicists created thermodynamics to explore and find where all the missing energy in engines was going, perhaps we’re on the verge of a new branch of physics that will discover new laws and properties of matter heretofore unknown. What I’m saying is that the history of ideas seems to recur.

The Chicago School

I had known about the Chicago School of economics. I didn’t know there was a Chicago school of biology as well. Gazzaniga relates how the Chicago School of biology is, at bottom, anti-reductionist:

As Rosen, his [Rashevsky, one of the founders of the Chicago School] student describes, “He had asked himself the basic question: “What is life?” and approached it from a viewpoint tacitly as reductionistic as any of today’s molecular biologists. The trouble was that, by dealing with individual functions of organisms, and capturing these aspects in separate models and formalisms, he had somehow lost the organisms themselves and could not get them back.” He came to the realization that “no collection of separate descriptions (i.e. models) of organisms, however comprehensive, could be pasted together to capture the organism itself…Some new principle was needed if this purpose was to be accomplished.” Rashevsky dubbed that pursuit of the new principle relational biology.

Closing Thoughts

Gazzaniga talks about how patients who have undergone split-brain surgery develop two separate consciousnesses. Presumably, if you tied back the nerves between the two hemispheres of split-brain patients, consciousness would merge back into one. Now, what if you were to wire together separate brains. On the split-brain analogy, if you wired together multiple brains, they should form into one consciousness (you could do experiments wiring left and right hemispheres in series or parallel as well). Would brains wired in series or parallel access to more computing horsepower or a higher consciousness? And, if yes, would this brain cluster still be human? Or, what if you hooked up an Intel processor to the brain. You’d think from reading the news they’re getting close to being able to do this. Yes, this would also be an interesting thought experiment for the ethical philosophers.

Gazzaniga also talks about how evolution added more and advanced modules to the brain. It would have been interesting to read his speculations on where evolution is going to take us next. In another two or three hundred thousand years, will we have acquired additional “modules?” And what will these modules give us? Easier access to abstract mathematics? Higher IQ? Nirvana? Or?

And finally, if, as Gazzaniga postulates, the act of RNA and other bondmaker molecules “gazing on” or “interpreting” DNA constitutes the first act of life and consciousness, then another question arises. Was life accidental, or will Nature bring life into being whenever it can? Is consciousness part of the natural order of things? Does consciousness arise as a natural phenomenon like how gravity will coalesce matter together into stars, clusters, and the spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy?

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

Review of “The Greatness and Limits of Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy” – Roche

pages 51-67 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Author Blurb

Mark W. Roche is the Joyce Professor of German Language and Literature and Concurrent Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, where he also served as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters from 1997 to 2008. He is the author of six books, including Tragedy and Comedy: A Systemic Study and a Critique of Hegel (1998) and Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century (2004).

“The Greatness and Limits of Hegel’s Theory of Tragedy”

Roche’s essay is chapter 4 in A Companion to Tragedy, edited by Rebecca Bushnell.

According to Roche, Hegel’s theory of tragedy is, after Aristotle’s, the most studied and quoted. Unlike Nietzsche, Hegel never formulated his theory in one book. Hegel’s thoughts are scattered through his writings. For English readers, Anne and Henry Paolucci have collected all Hegel’s thoughts on tragedy (mainly from Phenomenology of Mind and Lectures on the Philosophy of History) in their useful book: Hegel on TragedyWhat did Hegel have to say on tragedy?

Tragedy arises, according to Hegel, when a hero courageously asserts a substantial and just position, but in doing so simultaneously violates a contrary and likewise just position and so falls prey to one-sidedness that is defined at one and the same time by greatness and by guilt.

Hegel’s position on tragedy, is, unsurprisingly, based on the famous Hegelian dialectic of thesis and antithesis leading to synthesis. His thoughts on tragedy are really an extension of this theory of knowledge:

Each category or thesis reveals its one-sidedness and passes over into its antithesis, which is likewise recognized as one-sided, eventually giving way to synthesis, which both negates and preserves the earlier terms; the synthesis itself becomes absorbed in a larger process in which it, too, is recognized as partial, though at a higher and more complex level. This continual progression, whereby partial categories give way to their own internal contradictions, leads to an ever greater realization of reason, self-consciousness, and freedom.

Why, according to Roche, is Hegel’s Theory Great?

  1. Most theories of tragedy focus on tragedy’s effect on the emotions. Only a handful focus on the structure of tragedy. Hegel, along with Hölderlin, Schelling, and Peter Szondi, examine the structure of tragedy, and explore how the hero’s flaw is intertwined with the hero’s greatness. Of course, Hegel’s theory also considers the emotional effect of tragedy, but as a secondary element of the exploration. According to Hegel, we feel not pity, but sympathy with the hero since, despite the fall, the hero is justified.
  2. Hegel’s emphasis on collision emphasizes how “it is the honour of these great characters to be culpable.” harmartia denotes a character flaw in Aristotle’s theory. Hegel’s “error mechanism” is more complex, as now the hero’s greatness and flaw are one and the same thing: “in fulfilling the good, the hero violates the good.”
  3. The focus on collision is inherently dramatic. Hegel’s theory invites critics to focus on the most dramatic moments in tragedy. This is what we want, since tragedy is naturally a dramatic art. Drama is to tragedy what sound is to music. Hegel’s theory is especially applicable to Goethe’s Faust (the collision between Faust and Mephistopheles) and other works which contain collisions such as Euripides’ Bacchae, Schiller’s Wallenstein, Ibsen’s Ghosts, and Brecht’s The Good Person of Sezuan.
  4. There are external collisions (e.g. Antigone versus Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone). But there can also be internal collisions where the same individual is aware of irreconcilable and just conditions within himself. Hamlet is such an example. Roche writes: “To elevate to tragic status Hamlet’s lack of will as a simple inability to act, the common view among Hegel’s contemporaries, is to transform tragedy into mere suffering. For Hegel the apparent weakness of Hamlet derives, rather, from the energy of his thought, which recognizes a conflict between the emotional need to act in the face of corruption and indecency and insight into the immoral nature of the contemplated action.”
  5. The collision of opposite forces–both justified–inspires philosophical reflection on the good. By presenting two alternatives, Hegel invites the spectator to weight the totality of the duties and obligations contained in either claim.
  6. Hegel’s theory draws attention to tragedy’s treatment of paradigm shifts in history. Collisions frequently dramatize tradition conflicting with innovation: case in point is Aeschylus’ Oresteia, where Athena represents the democratic process of trial by jury while the Furies represent the archaic system of “an eye for an eye” retributive justice. Hegel’s theory gave rise to the historical drama of Friedrich Hebbel which dramatizes one norm being pushed aside to make way for the new norm.

While Hegel doesn’t offer a theory of comedy, he “recognizes a shift from tragedy to comedy when what is substantial gives way to what is subjective, and the particular becomes more important than the universal.

Why, according to Roche, is Hegel’s Theory Limited?

  1. While Hegel considers that the opposing forces in the tragic collision are equally justified, that is seldom the case. For example, even in Antigone, Hegel sympathizes more with Antigone’s “right.” That’s an interesting point, as there’ve been a few articles by classicists (who specialize in the ancient world) arguing that Sophocles and his audience would have gravitated more towards Creon. In their reading, Antigone goes too far in her obdurate persistence. The takeaway from this limitation is that there are very few pure Hegelian tragedies where both sides counterbalance equally in their claims.
  2. Hegel does not distinguish between external (e.g. Antigone versus Creon) and internal collisions (e.g. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”). Roche points out, however, that this is less a criticism than an expansion of Hegel’s theory. Roche breaks down internal collisions into a two major types: the tragedy of self-sacrifice where the hero does good knowing that suffering will be involved (Miller’s Crucible or Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral) and the tragedy of stubbornness where the hero will not yield (Sophocles’ Ajax). The tragedy of stubbornness is similar to what has been understood as a tragedy of character where the hero has too much of one virtue and not enough of another (e.g. in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People Dr. Stockmann has too much honesty and fearlessness but a lack of prudence).
  3. Hegel’s critics dislike his insistence on an element of harmony in the resolution of tragedy. To moderns such as Marcuse, “The absolute tragic essence of the tragic tragedy is suffering without meaning.” If this is modernity, I am allergic to modernity. For me, the purpose of art is to instil meaning onto “unmeaning” reality; reality, as a concatenation of random events, lacks intrinsic meaning. Art puts reality into human terms. A good third to one-half of ancient tragedies end in reconciliation. Would Marcuse and moderns consider Aeschylus’ masterpiece The Oresteia (where the Furies are reconciled with the new order of Olympian gods) to be something other than a tragedy? Pierre Corneille’s Cinna, where Augustus is reconciled with the conspirators is another excellent example of a successful “resolution” play. Hegel is certainly right to insist on an element of resolution in tragedy. If I want suffering without meaning, I don’t need the theatre, I’d just watch the news.
  4. Roche finds a fourth criticism in Hegel’s failure to articulate clearly between tragedy and dramas of reconciliation. This is made more complicated in that the line between tragedy and dramas of reconciliation are blurred: Goethe’s Iphigenia and Sophocles’ Philoctetes, for example, can be considered to be tragedies, dramas of reconciliation, or both. At times Hegel seems to prefer a tragedy where the reconciliation comes organically (e.g. through the plot) and at other times Hegel disparages dramas of reconciliation.
  5. Critics such as Otto Pöggeler find fault with Hegel’s long run optimistic worldview: it is incompatible with the gravity of tragedy.
  6. Critics such as Johannes Volkelt finds fault with tragedy for portraying individuals rather than metaphysical ideals. Not sure why Roche would list this as a fault or limit of Hegel’s theory of tragedy.
  7. Last criticism is that Hegel’s theory applies only to a handful of plays: “Hegel’s typology of tragedy, brilliant though it is, appears to exclude all but a dozen or so world tragedies.” There you have it: Hegel’s theory is the one-trick pony of literary theory.

Hegel’s Theory versus the Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

Let’s take Roche’s comments on Hegel’s theory and apply them to my theory of tragedy, called “risk theatre.” Risk theatre argues that risk (rather than a collision) is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. My book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected came out February 2019, so risk theatre is, compared to Hegel, an upstart contender.

The first thing Roche likes about Hegel’s theory is that it prioritizes investigating the structure of tragedy before it looks at tragedy’s emotional affect. So too risk theatre examines the structure of tragedy. In risk theatre, the central element of the structure is not a collision, but risk. Heroes, by taking on inordinate risk, trigger cataclysmic low-probability, high-consequence events. Tragedy dramatizes risk gone awry. In risk theatre, each dramatic act is also a gambling act.

Roche appreciates how Hegel weaves together the hero’s greatness and the hero’s flaw together. It is an advance on Aristotle’s concept of hamartia, or the tragic flaw. Risk theatre does away with the flaw altogether. In risk theatre, the hero’s bet is good. The odds are with the hero. Heroes are clever, after all. They play to win. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the hero will prevail. Tragedy, however, dramatizes the one time out of a hundred where the best-laid plan fails. Risk makes tragedy exciting. In risk theatre, instead of a flaw, an unexpected low-probability, high-consequence event brings the hero down. In risk theatre Birnam Wood is always coming to high Dunsinane Hill. The “flaw” in risk theatre is chance: more things have happened than what the hero thought would happen.

Roche has high praise for Hegel’s theory of tragedy because collisions are inherently dramatic. Risk theatre would argue that risk is as inherently as dramatic as collisions. Richard Jessup’s The Cincinnati Kid and Walter Tevis’ The Hustler, two novels which use the gambling analogy as a visual analogy of risk illustrate the dramatic qualities inherent in risk (both were also made into memorable movies with high powered casts including Steve McQueen and Paul Newman). Risk theatre and Hegel’s theory enjoy a similar advantage in that their focal points are both inherently dramatic.

Risk theatre, like Hegel’s theory of tragedy, delineates a theory of comedy. For Hegel, tragedy shifts to comedy when the substantial gives way to what is subjective, and the particular becomes more important than the universal. Risk theatre, predictably, looks at the relation between tragedy and comedy in terms of risk. Tragedy and comedy both dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. The difference? Tragedy dramatizes downside risk and comedy dramatizes upside risk.

In one way, risk theatre and Hegel’s theory have quite different limitations. While Roche identifies the limited applicability of Hegel’s theory as a drawback, risk theatre casts almost too wide a net by saying “risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action in tragedy.” The saving grace is that risk theatre is interested in a specific type of risk: the all-in wager. To trigger the low-probability, high-consequence event, the hero has to go all-in.

With regard to an element or resolution or harmony in tragedy versus unmitigated suffering, risk theatre is agnostic. Risk theatre is built on the idea of opportunity cost. By pursuing one option, the next best option is foregone. Risk theatre is happy so long as the price is paid. If, after the price is paid, there is a resolution, that neither adds nor detracts from the tragedy. In Pierre Corneille’s Cinna, for example, Augustus sacrifices his authority to maintain law and order. Do they try to assassinate you?—reward the conspirators with consulships and join them together in powerful marriages. Augustus has paid the cost of preserving the Empire by showing clemency to the conspirators. The play ends in a group hug. Risk theatre, however, finds it a perfectly acceptable tragedy, as the resolution came at a high price. What risk theatre cannot stomach is a resolution that comes without paying the price: that is the stuff of comedy.

As to Hegel’s optimism, risk theatre is likewise optimistic. While Hegel sees progress through the dialectical process, risk theatre sees progress because the audience, having seen how unexpected low-probability events can have the highest consequences, leaves the theatre with a higher sensibility of risk. Theatre dramatizes risk acts gone awry on the stage so that off the stage we learn to become more robust. After seeing tragedy, the audience learns off stage to have a plan B, learns to keep some powder dry, learns of the dangers of too concentrated a position.

Roche finds that a drawback of Hegel’s theory is its limited applicability to the great tragedies. Hegel’s theory works on a dozen or so plays. Risk theatre does not share this drawback. As long as you can construct the hero’s actions as a wager and something happens out of left field to upset this wager, risk theatre works. In some plays, it’s obvious. Macbeth is risk theatre’s paradigm play: Macbeth wagers the milk of human kindness for the crown but all is lost when Birnam Wood unexpectedly comes to high Dunsinane Hill. Some plays, such as Miller’s Death of a Salesman, require a little more imagination, but, in hindsight, work quite well through a risk theatre read. According to risk theatre, Loman wagers his dignity on the American Dream. The low-probability, high-consequence event happens when, contrary to expectation, Loman realizes his insurance policy makes him worth more dead than alive. And some plays, such as King Lear, require a great deal of imagination, but reward you with a new take on an old play. According to risk theatre, Lear bets the well-being of the kingdom on his capacity to rule. It is a good bet: he has ruled wisely and made good decisions for many years. The unexpected event which derails his bet happens when senility overtakes him; he had not been counting on that. Risk theatre, unlike Hegel, is an infinitely plastic theory of drama, bounded only by the reader’s imagination.

There you have it: round one of a ten round battle royal: risk theatre versus the mighty Hegel!

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


Wong’s hardy debut book of literary criticism succeeds in presenting a challenge to the famous playwrights of yesteryear while providing a compelling framework for today’s storytellers. Inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets and drawing on examples from Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ovid, and several other venerated writers, Wong depicts risk—not sorrow or regret—as the peak point of all tragic stories, arguing that setting up one’s own downfall through a misjudged gamble is, in fact, the greatest tragedy of all. Much of the book is devoted to retellings of classic stories, leading to the redefinition of the tragic theater art form. Wong goes beyond considering characters’ risk-taking to examine factors such as meddling from outside forces, external authorities, passion, and the supernatural.

The book’s appeal lies in its novel premise and attention to detail. Readers opening it in hopes of a quick explanation of tragedy in drama may find it initially slow going, but they will be satisfied by Wong’s complete and thorough explanation of a new perspective from which one can view the masterworks of tragic theater. Wong concludes by challenging modern playwriting, viewing it both as a form of art and as a way that playwrights themselves take risks.

Tragedy has long been seen as essential to literature and drama, and much ink has been spilled about what makes it work; the idea of conscious risk-taking being the real source of tragic emotion feels genuinely new and exciting. Though the language is dry, dense, and highly technical—leavened only by the occasional humorous quotation—this is nonetheless an excellent compilation of arguments that will stimulate creative minds.

Takeaway: Playwrights and philosophers will completely devour this deep dive into the idea that tragedy stems from the misjudged gamble.

Great for fans of Eric Bentley, Simon Shepherd, Neil Verma.

Production grades

Cover: B

Design and typography: A

Illustrations: –

Editing: A

Marketing copy: A+

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Cover

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy Cover

REVIEW – The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values – Harris

2011, Free Press, 320 pages

“Sam Harris, do not crucify freedom upon the cross of Science!”–Edwin Wong

Book Blurb

Sam Harris’ first book, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people–from religious fundamentalists to non-believing scientists–agree on one point: science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the primary justification for religious faith.

In this highly controversial book, Sam Harris seeks to link morality to the rest of human knowledge. Defining morality in terms of human and animal well-being, Harris argues that science can do more than tell how we are; it can, in principle, tell us how we ought to be. In his view, moral relativism is simply false–and comes at an increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality. Using his expertise in philosophy and neuroscience, along with his experience on the front lines of our “culture wars,” Harris delivers a game-changing book about the future of science and about the real basis of human cooperation.

Author Blurb

Sam Harris is the author of the bestselling books, The End of FaithLetter to a Christian NationThe Moral LandscapeFree Will, and LyingThe End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing has been published in over fifteen languages. Dr. Harris is cofounder and CEO of Project Reason, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values in society. He received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA. Please visit his website at samharris.org.

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

The book catalogs so many fails in religion that it might have been called, The Immoral Landscape: How Religion Fails to Determine Human Values. Agreed, religion has failed on many counts. But, perhaps it has worked some good as well? Did faith not inspire artists–Bach, Michelangelo, the poet of the Song of Songs–to create awesome works of art? Was Christianity not instrumental in improving conditions for slaves in the Roman world? Does religion not give something for the people to believe in? Many other examples are possible.

Harris’ presentation lacks balance. This lack of balance is deliberate. He cites one after another in an endless litany the fails of religion and neglects to mention any good that it has done. People who applaud Harris will love it. The lack of balance, however, may be off-putting for moderates. And religious folk may find the presentation distasteful. Even Nietzsche, who wrote works such as The Antichrist, attacked the church in a way that religious people could, if not agree with, see the point of view. Nietzsche’s pronouncement, for example, that “the very word Christianity is a misunderstanding–at bottom there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross,” for example rings true to many Christians who see a wide gulf between the teachings of Jesus, the original Christian, and Saint Paul, who founded organized Christianity a generation later. This seems to be a valid point: Christianity is misguided from the bottom, as the God of Paul and the God of Jesus are fundamentally different in the same way as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the Jesus. To attack religion as Harris does by saying it causes war, incites hatred, and gives rise to abhorrent practises is beside the point. If, as Harris argues, there are no gods, then is religion responsible or would it be more accurate to say human nature is responsible?

Harris’ argument that science and reason inform human values rests on a debatable premise. The premise is that the greatest good for the greatest number should be the greatest good. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but that’s what I gathered. He comes from a utilitarian school of thought. He could have just as easily have said that science and reason support eugenics or something like that, and then come up with supporting arguments. Of course, he doesn’t say that but instead says that we should use science to advance the happiness of the human race. If this is the case, I would have a few questions for him. Say I agree, for the moment, that there are no gods. What if, however, science could demonstrate (through some brain scan or through looking at actuary tables) that the belief in religion or the gods makes people healthier, more fulfilled, and longer lived? It would be a sort of placebo effect. And what if science could scientifically demonstrate that, if you took this placebo away from these people that their lives would be made less rewarding. Would you still, in the name of reason, strip these people of their god?

Because religion is a barbaric relic, Harris elevates science and reason over us as the new arbiter of human value. Science and reason will teach us ethics and morals. My spider-sense tingles here. At least under the old gods, one could say: I respect your practise, but seeing that I am not Catholic (or a Buddhist or a Protestant or a Muslim, etc.,), I do not subscribe to your practise. I am free to choose. But if science and reason can, as Harris argues, tell us how to comport ourselves, where is there to hide? Can one, in the same way, say, “I respect your practise, but seeing that I don’t believe in reason, I do not subscribe to your practise.” Whoever controls science and reason becomes a new god. And woe to the heretics who doubt the new gospel! My spider-sense tells me that if Project Reason gets its way, there will be a new Inquisition, one in which the freedom to dissent will be crucified on the cross of Science.

If you’re going to base human well-being on something, it might as well be science, right? Religion has made so many mistakes, after all. So many mistakes it can’t be trusted. But I remember they used to have this thing called margarine. “Natural animal fats are bad for the heart,” the scientists said, “have this science butter instead.” But today I think most people would say butter is healthier than margarine. It may prove true in the future for the current rage for this “healthy” meat substitutes such as “Beyond Meat.” The point is that science makes mistakes too. And when science makes mistakes, the repercussions are big, since you had put your trust in science. Here’s a secret: it’s when you’re most confident that, paradoxically, you’re in the gravest danger. Science tends towards innovations with short term track records. But since it has the backing of science, we tend to trust it. And this brings us to an interesting point: is tradition, which has been honed through history and time superior, or is science, the product of continual innovation and experimentation better?

One thing tradition has going for it is that it stands the test of time. It is robust. It grows stronger through time. If a custom has been around for a hundred years, chances are it will last for another hundred years. If a custom has been around for two hundred years, chances are it will last another two hundred years. And so on. One advantage of religion is that it embraces tradition. In embracing tradition, its precepts are tested through the persistence of time. Science is the opposite. It destroys tradition. And it shoots forward into the future at a breakneck pace. As Harris himself writes, “The totality of scientific knowledge doubles every few years.” Take diet, for instance. There’s a lot of things we would consider odd with a diet prescribed by religion, whether kosher, halal, or a Buddhism. But, if your goal is health and longevity, would you try that, or one of the latest fad diets prescribed by science?–the Atkins diet, the Paleo diet, the Ketogenic diet, margarine, beyond meat, etc.,? In my mind, the answer is simple: if you’re not sure, go with tradition. Tradition doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Harris argues that you shouldn’t trust religion because it’s done a lot of bad things. And then he brings up the notable examples. Let’s take a look at our judicial system of trial by jury. I’d say it works pretty well, most of the time. And I would suggest most people agree. But sometimes the trial by jury system makes big blunders. If I were to cite these blunders, would it be a good argument to get rid of it. I would say no. But maybe you say, “If it makes many blunders, let’s get rid of it on the condition that there’s something better to replace it with.” Okay. Harris has something better to replace religion with: he has this thing called science. But then, on a closer examination, is science completely pure, only working good? Science has never done evil, never come up with nuclear bombs, chemical warfare, and designer drugs?

Sam Harris, do not crucify freedom upon the cross of science.

Science, through the mediator of art, will arbitrate human values. Case in point: Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities)

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

Foreword Clarion Review – The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy

A big thank you to reviewer Ho Lin and the team at Foreword Clarion for a happy four-star review of The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. While many reviews have written about my book’s focus on gambling acts and risk, this is the first review to mention that tragedy is–in the risk theatre interpretation–a thermodynamic process that plays out the Second Law of thermodynamics on the stage. The stage of tragedy starts off in a state of high potential and ends up (as the heroes perish) in a state of lower potential. Fuel is converted into heat. After the death of a Faustus, Macbeth, or Oedipus, the world seems an emptier place, a place with less potential. In addition, I like how Lin touches on the book’s many detours into topics such as the Maginot Line, the heliocentric theory of the cosmos, and so on. If I may be allowed to ‘review the reviewer’, I find this an extremely well-rounded review. If I didn’t know the book, this is the review I’d like to have read to help make up my mind whether this was the right book for me.

Here’s a link to the Foreword Clarion review, which is also reprinted below. The Foreword Clarion review is almost good enough to make me forget about the much more lukewarm review from Blue Ink which found that my scholarly analysis is “sometimes wildly off the mark.” But hey, you can’t win them all. The best you can do is to go all-in and hope for the best. Like Faust, we strive,  we err, and we continue.

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

Edwin Wong

Friesen Press (Feb 4, 2019) (332pp)

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a piquant, far-reaching study of tragedy as an art form.

Defining the nature of theatrical tragedy is a formidable task; everyone from Aristotle to Nietzsche has taken a crack at it. In his stimulating The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy, Edwin Wong posits a fresh approach based upon the modern ups and downs of the stock market.

Tragedy, the book argues, can be seen as the ultimate in risk theory. Overconfident or desperate heroes make calculated gambles, resulting in unexpected, high-consequence results. In this wide-ranging treatise, Wong analyzes dozens of examples, from Oedipus Rex to Death of a Salesman, to find compelling evidence that explains why certain tragedies have more lasting power than others.

The study focuses on the structure, philosophy, and poetics of tragedy. This risk theory is at its most convincing when it comes to structure, noting that the genre is characterized by three movements: the protagonist encountering temptation; a wager on a favorable outcome (most often involving life and limb); and a metaphorical cast of the dice, in which the protagonist makes his gamble and endures the subsequent results. In modeling this, supporting references and plot points are pinpointed from classic tragedies. The book further delineates different approaches, from “frontloaded” variants (which begin with a bang and end with introspection) to “backloaded” versions (in which cataclysmic outcomes are saved for the climax).

Tragedies are further segmented by their scope (involving a single hero and “risk event,” or a series of unfortunate events ensnaring numerous characters). Fascinating side topics, including the invention of the concept of money and how it led to tragedies being boiled down to the price of life itself, are covered, and the book invites consideration of the commonplaces of tragedy, from the supporting characters who influence protagonists’ decisions to the influence of the supernatural. This work moves toward a final comparison of tragedy with other major genres and disciplines that demonstrates how they also reflect the human condition.

Such analyses run the risk of being dry, but this is engaging work. It pulls passages from classic plays in a generous way and serves as a fun primer on tragedies in general, as well as a bracing presentation of its theories. Ranging musings tap into heliocentric theories of the universe, historic disasters such as the French Maginot Line in World War II, and how the action in a tragedy mirrors the second law of thermodynamics. These heady detours don’t always cohere with the book’s grand theories, but their multidimensional approaches are lively and thought-provoking.

Making the case for risk theory as a new definition for tragic theater, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is a piquant, far-reaching study of tragedy as an art form.

HO LIN (May 28, 2019)

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

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy – Wong

378 pages, Friesen Press, 2019

Attempt at a Self-Criticism (or, an autoreview)


Everyone knows the word ‘autobiography’, from the Greek prefix autos ‘self’ and biography, also  a combination of Greek terms: bios ‘life’ and graphia ‘writing’. Less well known is the term ‘autoreview’ or a review of one’s own book. Some would deny it is even a term. But the idea of an autoreview would be most interesting. Should authors review and rate their own works? Could this be the rise of a new genre, or would the autoreview lack critical distance?

On Goodreads, a site for book reviews, there’s an author discussion group devoted to the autoreview idea. It’s called ‘Should You Rate Your Own Book‘. The consensus overwhelmingly discourages the autoreview. For example, here’s what Chris had to say on the thread:

The other day I downloaded an indie author’s book with intent to read and review, because it sounded really interesting. When I visited their page here on goodreads and saw that they’d rated & reviewed it themselves, I deleted it on the spot. It just seemed tacky to me. I could no longer take the author seriously.

And here’s what Christine had to say:

It really speaks to the unprofessional attitude of the author and is usually associated with ego-driven, self-published authors. It may be permitted here on GR, but readers do not appreciate it.

But, on the other hand, there is at least one great autoreview that I know of. Nietzsche published his youthful masterpiece The Birth of Tragedy in 1872 when he was twenty-seven. In the 1886 edition, he added a new preface, called ‘Attempt at a Self-Criticism’. This new preface was an autoreview of his own work. He gave his book no quarter, writing:

To say it once more: today I find it an impossible book: I consider it badly written, ponderous, embarrassing, image-mad and image-confused, sentimental, in places saccharine to the point of effeminacy, uneven in tempo, without the will to logical cleanliness, very convinced and therefore disdainful of proof, mistrustful even of the propriety of proof, a book for initiates, ‘music’ for those dedicated to music, those who are closely related to begin with on the basis of common and rare aesthetic experiences, ‘music’ meant as a sign of recognition for close relatives in artibus–an arrogant and rhapsodic book that sought to exclude the right from the beginning the profanum vulgus of ‘the educated’ even more than ‘the mass’ or ‘folk’. (trans. Kaufmann)

Today, his autoreview or ‘Attempt at a Self-Criticism’ is considered one of his finest and most perceptive pieces of writing, not only in The Birth of Tragedy, but of his entire corpus. Not bad for an autoreview.

While not technically an autoreview, there is also Stephen King’s On Writing, that I reviewed here. Using many examples from his own works, King gives examples of how to write well. Since  he is using examples from his own books to teach others how to write well, his book can be seen as a ‘pat on the back’. King’s book, like Nietzsche’s ‘Attempt at a Self-Criticism’ is also regarded highly and considered to be quite perceptive. I find that it is one of the best books on writing available. That King uses examples from his own work is a plus, a fascinating insight he gives fans into the mechanics of his art. A look into the master’s workshop, if you will.

So, if writers can resist the urge to give themselves five stars and full accolades and write perceptively of their writing, the genre of autoreview could be viable, even something very interesting and useful for writers and readers (as an aside, King recommends to cut out every ‘very’ from the text). After all, the task of writers is to write. As professionals who write, we should be able to write on our own work. Composers, after all, are able to review their own works (Beethoven considered the Missa Solemnis to be his finest statement). Artists are also able to do the same (see for example, the fascinating book Rodin on Art and Artists, where Rodin compares himself to the old masters). Interesting writers ought to be able to write interesting comments on their own work, and from a perspective unavailable to other commentators. I find the scarcity of the autoreview surprising. Let me do my part to address this by commenting on my own book, The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected.


A primary argument in the book is that life has become too monetized. We express ourselves in terms of ‘net worth’. Life insurance policies quantify life in dollar terms. Power is measured in terms of capital or stock holdings. To rehabilitate the monetization of life, an art had to rise up in revolt to show how the things that mean the most cannot be purchased. That art was tragedy. Tragedy taught us that wagers are involved in obtaining our most dear desires. But not money wagers. Existential wagers such as dignity for the American dream. Or compassion for a crown. These sort of wagers, according to risk theatre, take place in the shadow market, an alternate exchange to the stock markets and bourses of the world. To rehabilitate life, tragedy countermonetizes the mechanics of exchange. The fault of this argument: in revolting against money, it talks too much about money. It is as though money had already poisoned my mind, and the book represented my last ditch attempt to rehabilitate myself.

The countermonetary argument is suspicious in the same way as Marxism is suspicious. Marx, for someone who is against capital, sure spends a long time talking about capital. Too much time, in fact. To him, capital is magic. With enough capital, you can enslave the working classes and rule the earth. I think that Marx is, in some way, a closet capitalist.

The countermonetary argument is suspicious in the same way as 80s heavy metal bands are suspicious. Many of these bands proclaimed that they were liberated from the Christian shackles. Bands like Venom, Black Sabbath, and Bathory. But in their lyrics, they sang of scaling the golden wall of heaven, serving the dark lord, or fighting the angels. In fact, they talked more about religion than someone would, if they were truly liberated from religion. I always thought that, in some way, they were closet Christians: they were way too opposed to Christianity to be liberated from it.

The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy is suspicious in the same way as Marx is suspicious and 80s heavy metal bands are suspicious. Just as Marx talks too much about capital and 80s metal bands spent too much energy claiming they had gone beyond Christianity, my questionable book spends too much energy countermonetizing human exchange. The book betrays a key foible within my own schema. We all monetize existence (for example, if we work for $10 and hour, we are exchanging existence for greenback dollars). But, what the book reveals is that this monetization in my own schema was more so than the average individual. It had reached such a pitch that I had to spend thirteen years writing a book to overcome it. The writer, says the book, has monetized his existence through and through. “He tries,” says the book, “to go against himself, but all is lost.”


The book has a dogmatic and argumentative style. Very formulaic. Repetitive. For example, when it introduces new terms describing the structure of risk theatre, it does so with curt and matter-of-fact efficiency. It brings up the term. Then it provides a number of examples. Many examples.  But the description of these examples is at a bare minimum. There is hardly any comments on the significance of these examples to the author. The author is distant, far from the text. But for many readers, the most interesting part of the text will be the author’s personality. It is a dry book. It is as though the author distances himself from the text to give the text more authority. But, in doing so, it betrays a certain lack of self-confidence in the author. The book carries the marks of an author who wants to be believed, believes himself, but has a problem believing that others can believe him.


Now, I hope that I can be forgiven if I don’t spend this whole autoreview panning myself. Or, oops, I meant my book. I confuse the two sometimes. Whether the idea of risk theatre catches on, nobody can say. I’ve gone all-in that it will. The initial reviews have been good. Better than good. Great. But many others have gone all-in and have lost all. You see it at the casinos every day. But there is one advantage of the book that sticks, no matter if the book is successful or not. Only by writing a book can you experience the feeling of reading your own book. Reading your own book is that feeling, the feelings amongst. Out of a thousand people, maybe five or six have have experienced its highs and lows.

The lows come when I spot a line that doesn’t flow. Here’s one: “Ferdinand wants to become a great figure of state like his father, the peerless Duke of Alba.” The word “great” should have been omitted. “Figure of state” already conveys that the Duke of Alba is great. And, if anyone missed that the Duke of Alba was great, he is also described in the same sentence as being “peerless.” Too many descriptive words mar the sentence. Reading it pains me. But it is a most exquisite pain, as it arose out of my own weakness as a writer.

The joys of reading your own book are many. The book contains an archaeological trove of memories that are unearthed by the act of reading. Here’s a line from the book “Fools go for a home run when they can get by with a hit.” That was written one night I was listening to Springsteen’s song “My best was never good enough.” His lyric fell straight into the book. Athaliah’s “secret heart” came from Feist’s song “Secret Heart.” Rich’s “obsequious and arrogant” soul came from Motorhead’s song “Orgasmatron.” There are many more, and not only music. Reading the book brings back a flood of memories, bits of life that have happened during the thirteen years of writing, bits of life that would have been forgotten forever. An author reads his book like no other reader. To have experienced reading your own book is a bucket list item.


Truly fascinating is a comparison of what the author believes readers should take away from the work, and what readers actually take away from the work. The most celebrated example is Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street. Although written as a diatribe against capitalism, it propelled greed to new heights. Wall Street traders adopted the principal character, Gordon Gekko, as their new saint, and created a new code of conduct around his words, ‘Greed is good’. Before the movie, traders did not wear contrast collars (e.g. white collar on a blue shirt) or suspenders. But, the villain so impressed Wall Street that it gave Wall Street a new dress code: contrast collars and suspenders. The movie became a cultural phenomenon. Everyone wanted to emulate Gordon Gekko, patron saint of capitalism. Somewhere Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas hung their heads in their hands.

While not on a level even approaching Wall Street, there is a slight divergence between my hopes (as an author) and what readers have reported. To me, the most devastating realization the book offers is that the art of tragedy is actually a thermodynamic process governed by the Second Law of thermodynamics. To quote one of my favourite passages:

Tragedy may be viewed of as a fiery engine that consumes ambition, purpose, and desire. Into the maw of its furnace, heroes are cast like lumps of flashing coal. They set afire tragedy’s engine for a moment and then are no more. Tragedy, as if it were a closed thermodynamic system, ends up in a lower state of potential, whether by the death of a Tamburlaine or a Caesar, the exile of Oedipus, or the loss of a Joan of Arc or a master builder. Fuel, once spent, loses its potential; likewise, the energy of human will, purpose, endeavour, and the fire of the human imagination go cold. Time, in tragedy, measures the rising entropy, or disorder, of the dramatic world. By an immutable law, as it were, as the minutes give way to hours, and the hours give way to days, kingdoms collapse, heroes perish, and order gives way to disorder.

Thus far, reviewers have focussed on the main theme: risk. No reviewer has yet commented on the final chapters of the book–the strongest chapters, in my opinion. Why was that? To me, this is a great mystery. If a reviewer would be able to comment on these last chapters, I would be most grateful. Here’s what reviewers have written up to today:

“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

*****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 am doing Melpomene’s work by writing this autoreview.

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.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man – Perkins

How did I come across this most controversial book by Perkins? It all started when world travelling MT got back from a well deserved vacation at Dubai. At Dubai are the seven wonders of the new world: skyscrapers that literally scrape the sky, artificial islands shaped like palm trees, Ferrari dealerships on every corner just like 7-11s in Waikiki. I said, ‘Of course, it must be the oil revenue’. The reply was surprising: ‘Well, no, they don.t actually have oil there’. It turns out some of the Emirates are oil rich, but not all of them. Dubai is not. But for some reason, their infrastructure–that is to say roads, schools, hospitals–is in tip-top shape. They are also a tax free zone. So the question became: if they have no oil and are tax free, how do they get all this money to do all these things? I mean, over here, we have tons of natural resources and there.s all sorts of taxes but the average person on the street complains about the infrastructure and there.s certainly no Burj Khalifa punctuating the Victoria (or Vancouver) skyline. How did Dubai do so well? We couldn.t figure it out. But it was a most interesting question.

Flash forward a few weeks. I.d been asking people. No one seemed to know. One evening, I was on the rooftop talking to Z and her friend A. I recounted to them the words you read in the last paragraph. ‘Ah’, said A, ‘the reason they can do it is because of how supranational agencies controlled by the US such as the World Bank and the IMF funnel money into their economy. What the US gets in return is that US corporations are allowed unlimited access to the local economies’. He was quite sure of this and followed up with, ‘You.ve got to read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins’. Now, it seemed rather odd that the World Bank and the IMF would be lending Dubai money since their mandate is to provide last ditch support to failing economies (i.e. Eastern Europe when communism fell in the 1990s, Western Europe after WWII, and so on). Dubai seems to be doing too well to be getting a ‘rebuilding’ loan. But hey, there are stranger things! And here.s what else: TW also had a copy sitting on his bookshelf (it.s funny how things pop up all over the place after someone mentions it). His verdict: he read it a long time ago but was a good read.

They had a copy in the library. Here.s how it looks:

Perkins, Confession of an Economic Hit Man

Perkins, Confession of an Economic Hit Man

I should start by saying my own confession: I didn.t finish it. There is something very wrong with the frame of reference from which the book is written. First, let me provide an example of what I mean by ‘frame of reference’ and then I will give some examples from Perkins’ book.

Frame of Reference

In the 2004 comedy Team America: World Police, the good guys are infiltrating the terrorist organization. You know, to gather intelligence. So they go undercover and in disguise to the restaurant the terrorists frequent. They say, ‘Who can I talk with to join the terrorists?’. The bar goes silent: that was not the right thing to say. While we call them terrorists, the terrorists do not call one another terrorists: they consider themselves freedom fighters; they are doing some kind of service for their communities. The joke is that the team America secret agents are too stupid to figure that out: they can only see things from their frame of reference. If they were more clever, they would have asked something along the lines of, ‘How can I join the movement?’, or something along those lines. That frames of reference can be turned into a joke in a comedy suggests that most people understand what they are: otherwise it wouldn.t be funny.

Perkins’ Frame of Reference

So when young Perkins gets out of university and starts hunting for a job, he gets hired on by an international consulting firm to falsify economic projections. That.s how the evil corporations sell infrastructure projects to unwitting third-world countries: they inflate growth projections to create a perceived need for infrastructure (but don.t countries employ their own statistics bureaus to estimate growth?). Since Perkins doesn.t know a lot about how to do economic projections, the corporation sends him to the Boston public library for three months to do research (really, a company would do this with a new hire?). They also assign their new hire an attractive study partner to accompany him at the library every day and seduce him (wow, you don.t say?). So his marriage gets wrecked in the process. But here.s where it gets strange: his study partner/mistress tells him her job is to transform Perkins into ‘an economic hit man’ or EMH.

This is the part that I just couldn.t believe. There.s lots wrong with the book, but this is what caused me to put it down. It.s a problem with the frame of reference. Let.s say companies do a lot of bad things, I give you that. But they don.t look at it as bad things from their point of view. Take everyone.s favourite example today: oil companies. The word on the street is that they.re poisoning the environment. But if you.re looking to work for an oil company or you.re an oil company executive, you don.t look at it that way: you.re ‘powering the future’ or something like that. They don.t hire new interns and tell them their job is to be ‘environmental hit men’ whose job it is to poison the world! But this is the corporate structure according to Perkins: evil for evil.s sake. To do pure evil is actually quite hard. Just think of all the novels you.ve read in the last ten years: how many have characters that just delight in doing evil, who are motivelessly malign?

It.s the same thing with bribes in Perkins corporatocracy. People give him bribes all the time to falsify economic projections. Now, I.m not saying that bribes don.t happen–they happen all the time. But I.ve never seen it happen quite so transparently. In Confessions of an Economic Hit Man they go down something like this:

Evil Director/Boss/CEO: Perkins I will give you a bribe to falsify the report so we can suck the money out of this unsuspecting Latin American third world country. I am asking because I am an evil capitalist CEO and that.s how evil corporations function.

Perkins: I.m new to this but since this is how you say evil corporations function, sure, I.ll take your money.

Even when Microsoft was taking over the world in the 1990s, they didn.t frame their growth in terms of a maniacal drive to enslave the world: they framed it in terms of coming up with a better spreadsheet, coming up with productivity tools to help businesses thrive, and so on. In Perkins corporatocracy, he and his associates’ frame of reference is pure evil. It.s like a cartoon where Cobra commander or the Decepticons’ one and only goal is to destroy the good guys. While that may be convincing in a cartoon for kids, this is the real world! Sure there are bribes and other nefarious going-ons, but they are never that transparent! Wollstonecraft hits the nail on the head with this quote:

No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, which is the good he seeks.

What comes to mind is Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcasts in the 1930s. When it aired, some people actually thought the aliens were attacking. We now laugh at how gullible people were back then. It couldn.t happen to us moderns, who are so much more sophisticated. But to me, Perkins’ Confession of an Economic Hit Man is just as unbelievable. And people take that book to be an accurate representation of how the IMF, World Bank, and international consulting firms work. I am beginning to understand people.s distaste for capitalism: from the point of view of Confession it is very bad. But does Confession speak the truth?

IMF Interest Rates

So I decided to do some research. There.s a lot of backlash on the exorbitant interest rates supranational agencies such as the IMF inflict on distressed countries. But I.ve never heard anyone divulge the actual figures. Greece is an example of a country getting bailed out by the IMF today. How much interest are they paying on IMF loans?

According to this September 2013 article from the German magazine Der Spiegel, Greece is paying 0.7% on the first 80 billion bailout package and 2% on the second 145 billion bailout package. Presumably, Greece is using the proceeds from the bailout packages to pay pensions and public servants and to generally keep their economy afloat. Going to the Bloomberg site tracking ten year Greek bonds, if Greece had secured the money by issuing its own bonds in September 2013, they would have paid 10% at market rates.

What would you have done if you were Greece? Accept loans at 0.7% and 2% from the IMF with conditions (i.e. austerity) or raise the funds by going to the market at 10% (but no strings attached)? It.s not an easy choice, is it?

But Doing Melpomene’s Work is always an easy choice and until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and that.s what I.ll be up to.

Equivocation Review (Belfry Theatre May 24, 2014)

Sir Robert Cecil, a sometime spymaster for King James I commissions a recalcitrant Shagspeare (Shakespeare) to write a play on the Gunpowder Plot. So it begins. Shagspeare is caught between a rock and a hard place: either reveal his sympathies to the conspirators and lose his head or write a patriotic propaganda piece and sell out his Muse. Like so many things in life, he confronts an either/or situation when he would rather see a both/and proposition. To get around the either/or catch-22, the players equivocate. Hence the title. In the main, Equivocation really isn.t a play but is rather a play about a playwright struggling to write a play. Metatheatrical. A reflection of a reflection of reality. A perfect play for clever audiences. That it had a successful run in Victoria is something Victorians can be proud of.

Now, the play within a play structure of Equivocation allows dramatist Bill Cain to do a few things which would be more difficult in a more conventional straight shooting drama. Since dramatists are frequently busy with life as they compose (and not, as the Romantics would have it, withdrawn in some cave or out in the wilderness communing with nature), Cain adorns the primary story with secondary plots from Shag.s life. If the main theme is the ‘write me the play’ and ‘I can.t write the damn play’ banter between Cecil and Shags, there are also all the other things going on in Shags life that are brought into the fold: his estranged relationship with daughter Judith, workplace drama within his acting company, and his interviews with the gunpowder conspirators.

The effect of layering plot on subplot overtop demiplot diffuses the flow of the action. Because Cain borrows scenes from Shakespeare, it.s easy to spot changes in the dramatic tempo (especially since he borrows mainly from Macbeth, the most taut of Shakespeare.s plays). There is more dramatic punch when the players play out on the blasted heath the encounter between Macbeth and the witches. More dramatic urgency. The actors move quicker. They speak quicker. They make louder sounds stomping around the stage. Same goes with the storm on the heath scenes borrowed from King Lear. Side by side one can see the dramatic power Shakespeare wields next to Cain. But what Cain gives up in raw power he gains in contemplation and reflection. Reflection on the nature of equivocation (in the conspirator interviews). Reflection on artistic and worldly responsibilities (in the dialogue with members of the acting company). Reflection on the place of the playwright in society (in the dialogue with Cecil). Reflection on the power of drama to sway popular opinion (Cecil.s thoughts on Othello and Merchant of Venice). But note so much of the power of the play comes from the dialogue; the ‘dramatic’ action scenes are largely borrowed from Shakespeare. In a way Equivocation reminds me of Tarantino.s works. Tarantino also layers his works so that the action proceeds herky-jerky. And in between the herky-jerky outbursts is this strange and wonderful dialogue. Like when, right before the concluding scene of Kill Bill, Bill goes on a philosophical rant comparing the place of Superman with Spiderman in the world with Uma Thurman looking on in disbelief. But coming back to Equivocation, this brings us to the character of Judith, who, like Bill in Kill Bill, functions like a mouthpiece of the writer more than a character within the closed confines of a play or a movie.

There is something about Judith. She doesn.t quite fit. She talks about things outside the play which have little bearing on the action at hand (e.g. her distaste for soliloquies). Her manner of speech isn.t affected like that of the other characters–it.s a very natural discourse as though she were talking in her own voice and not an actress upon the Belfry stage. She is aware of the audience and has the capacity to address the audience directly. And she does so with the playwright.s own voice (e.g. at Shagspeare.s wake as the closing of the play). This got me thinking: I wonder if she functions as a chorus?

Before there was drama, there was the chorus. This is going back to sixth or seventh century BC-perhaps even earlier. The chorus would hymn praises to the gods. At some point, one member of the chorus stepped outside of the chorus to address it. That was how the first actor came to be. As things developed, two and three actors would emerge from the chorus to engage it in an antiphonal game of alternating call and response: that moment marks the birth of ancient Greek theatre. In time, the actors took more of a central role and the chorus’ importance diminished to the point where it was reduced into an atavistic tailbone tacked onto the tailpiece of drama. Finally, the chorus altogether disappears. But what the chorus was good at was speaking in the voice of the playwright (to convey, say, some moral the playwright thought appropriate). It could also act as a living wall between the on stage illusion and the off stage reality (the chorus is is aware of both realities and can address the actors from within the play or the theatre-goers outside the play). What I wonder is whether Cain had intended Judith to function as a sort of one woman chorus. That would explain how her character seemed to me to be part of the action yet also curiously aloof and distant to the action. As chorus, she wouldn.t really be a full-fledged individual but could somehow represent the playwright or even the community. If Cain had intended Judith to be a chorus type figure, kudos to him. It.s been awhile since dramatists have put choruses or chorus type figures on the stage (they still do it in operas, so perhaps operas are the true heirs of the ancient stage). The last that comes to mind is TS Eliot when he tried it in Murder in the Cathedral. Because the chorus represents community, there is much to be said about putting the chorus back into drama. Chorus is the all-too-human voice of drama. But it is true, no modern playwright has managed to integrate the chorus into the play successfully. I have a large reward waiting for the one who is able to manage this feat and to make drama whole once again…

Did Equivocation remind you of another historical play by a twentieth century playwright? Some hints. Here.s what I.m thinking of. A play set in England (two generations before the Gunpower Plot). Catholics and Protestants are going head to head. Either allegiance to the king at the cost of selling God out or allegiance to God at the cost of the true king. Plenty of equivocation. Yes, you guessed it: Robert Bolt.s 1960 A Man For All Seasons. Instead of a conscience ridden Shagspeare there is Lord Chancellor Thomas More. Instead of Cecil as the agent of King James, there is Thomas Cromwell as the agent of Henry VIII. Catholic More attempts to maintain his allegiance to Henry VIII who divorces his wife against the wishes of the Pope. This is not unlike Shagspeare.s catch-22 of either writing a propaganda piece or putting his neck on the line. Like Equivocation, there is much psychological storm and stress in A Man For All Seasons but little action. The bulk of the play consists of speeches where More justifies his position by equivocating while Cromwell attempts to get More to turn the wrong phrase in a chess match of words. The one difference between the two-and it is a large difference-is that while the action is diffuse in EquivocationA Man For All Seasons starts off with one question and puts that question through every variation until the play.s end. It.s power is highly focussed.. The question is, ‘What would you sacrifice for what you believe is right?’. Every character, from More to Rich and from Norfolk to Alice, exists for one purpose: to examine the singular question from different perspectives. I leave you with this question. Which do you prefer? The diffusive Equivocation which manages to combine comedy, satire, history, and tragedy or the laser like intensity of A Man For All Seasons? Are the differences between them a reflection of how audience tastes have changed from 1960 to 2010? Or?

My own feeling is that it is a bit of both. Art reflects contemporary mores. Today we multitask and so too our dramatists multitask the action into many parallel segments. And because we multitask, we don.t like things that are overly complex (since it would be too difficult to do many complex things all at once). So too perhaps the distaste of the soliloquy is something thoroughly modern. I wonder if the soliloquy occupies the same position as the rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo in the 1980s. They are both blazing set pieces, full of fire and weeping. Complex creations. It used to be in the 1980s that a song would have two or three solos (think back to Van Halen glory). Now I can.t think of a single song that has come out in the last five years that has any soliloquy-or I mean guitar solo. Funny how the technology and art moves in unison. Times change. And playwrights change with the changing times.