(Interviewed by Louis James, Editor, International Speculator)
L: Doug, you used to throw a big party every year, and called it the Eris Society. Sounds a bit more erudite than a frat party – what was that all about?
Doug: Well, there was always some alcohol, and almost always tobacco, and usually some firearms, of course, so it made for a nicely mellow party. But it actually stemmed from the publication of my Crisis Investing book, which hit the NYT best-seller list in 1980. Being on the talk-show circuit, I found myself meeting all sorts of interesting people I would not have been able to meet before. So, I thought I'd throw a party and invite some of these people, and get to know them better. I especially wanted to use my late-found notoriety to get to know interesting folks I hadn't met yet.
I decided to throw the party in Aspen, which was then a small town at the end of the road in the middle of the mountains of Colorado. There's always a risk when you throw a party that no one may come, but that first Eris was pretty successful. It was informal. There were about 20 – 25 people, and we pretty much just sat around and talked about ideas for a weekend.
Among the guests I invited were Stewart Brand, who was the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, among other things. He was great company. I also invited John Brockman, who runs The Edge, one of the leading book agents in the U.S. and a well-known itinerant intellectual. Larry Abraham, co-author of None Dare Call It Conspiracy attended, as did Harry Browne, author of How you can Profit from the coming devaluation and How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World. And Gary North, who writes books faster than a normal person can read them.
L: You didn't have to pay anyone speaking fees?
Doug: No, they came simply because I sent them invitations. I was tempted to pay Buckminster Fuller his reasonable $5,000 fee – a bargain to hang around a genius for a weekend – but it would have run counter to the spirit of Eris. The next year, it grew a bit, and the year after that, it grew a bit more. People enjoyed it and told others, who told others. Over the years, we had some really fantastic people show up, most of them more than once.
L: So, in spite of what some people might think of a radical anarchist like you, the primary ingredient for a really great party, in your view, is really interesting people. It's like when we evaluate companies; we start with the People first.
Doug: Just so. Eris was a forum for people who should know each other, but possibly didn't, to get to know each other. The fact is that most people are starved for stimulating conversation and first-hand exposure to new thoughts. Most people's friends are happenstance. Eris opened the possibility that anyone you met would cause you to say "Oh, you're the guy who…"
L: So, what makes someone interesting? How did someone rate an invite to what sounds like a pretty exclusive shindig?
Doug: The attendees were generally people who had actually done something of significance in their respective fields. They were inventors, authors, innovators and so forth, with the occasional firebrand thrown in to see if the mixture would light up.
L: I know the story, but can you tell our readers why you called it the Eris Society? Every time I tell someone that name, they seem to think I'm talking about some sort of sex club.
Doug: As the song goes, any love is good love, and I'm not going to talk about what went on in people's private intercourse, intellectual or otherwise – but that's Eros. We're talking about Eris, who was a somewhat obscure goddess in Greek mythology, the goddess of discord. The myth tells us that Zeus was planning to throw a party for all the gods and goddesses, but there was one goddess he could not invite: Eris.
L: [Chuckles] She'd ruin the party.
Doug: Nothing personal; it was just her nature. And she hears about this, of course, so she commissions Hephaestus, the smith of the gods, to forge a golden apple, on which is written the word, kalliste, which means, "to the fairest." She throws it into the ballroom, and, needless to say, all the goddesses claim it.
L: Heh. She did ruin the party.
Doug: In the end, it boils down to the three major goddesses: Hera, the goddess of wealth and power, Athena, goddess of wisdom, and Aphrodite, goddess of love. These three ask the gods to decide who should get the apple. But the gods weren't idiots; they didn't want to make one fickle friend and two steadfast enemies by making the decision. So they decide that the fairest man should decide who the fairest goddess is.
It turns out that the fairest man is a Trojan shepherd-prince by the name of Paris. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, visits Paris and tells him what his task is, so of course, immediately thereafter, all three goddesses come down to offer him bribes to get his nod. Hera offers him the richest kingdom in the world, Athena offers to make him the wisest man in the world, and Aphrodite offers to give him the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris chose, as almost any foolish young man would, the most beautiful woman in the world, who turned out to be Helen, the wife of a Spartan king named Menelaus, brother of the Greek king Agamemnon. Aphrodite helps Paris steal Helen from Greece and take her to Troy, resulting in the Trojan War.
L: It always amazes me that the ancient Greeks never realized how human they made their gods.
Doug: [Chuckles] How's that different from today? I far prefer the Greek, and the Norse, gods to more popular competitors coming out of the Near East.
L: So did anyone ever throw an apple into your fun?
Doug: Well, we had some colorful characters, for sure, including fools, charlatans, and rogues, just to shake things up. But I don't think it ever resulted in any wars. I'd say Russell Means, the American Indian movement activist, who subsequently became well known as an actor (Last of the Mohicans, among others), came closest to starting one. I like Russell, but he's definitely got a chip on both shoulders. He's allowed his persona to become too wrapped up in being an Indian; I don't find that any more appealing than when someone sees himself primarily as just an American, or a Frenchman, or a black, or a Jew – these things should be just trivial accidents of birth, not defining measures of the man. But the party lasted for 30 years, and we really did stir up some of the most interesting ideas I've ever heard, and conversations I've ever had.
L: Perhaps you should say, no wars yet. Who knows how many Parises your spreading of ideas has set loose in the world, or what the consequences will be?
Doug: I wouldn't put it past some Erisians to follow in the footsteps of William Walker, who took over Nicaragua for a while in the 19th century. But you know how things go; Eris started as a spontaneous outcropping of order from chaos, but then it evolved into an organization. That of course spelled its doom, as all organizations develop structures that eventually turn bureaucratic. Early on, it was like a free-for-all of intellectual firebombs. Over the years, it became more conventional, more concrete bound, still interesting, but less exciting.
L: For example?
Doug: In one of the early years, Jack Pugsley gave a speech on taboos. Jack was the author of The Alpha Strategy and Common Sense Economics. He told the group that being forward-thinking types from advanced cultures, they didn't think they had any taboos – but then proceeded to show that most were wrong. He went into a discussion of pederasty, homosexuality, and various other topics, and even that highly "liberated" audience got very uncomfortable.
L: I would imagine most were squirming in their seats.
Doug: More than that; they began booing and cat-calling. Their taboos were being violated right in front of them, and they just couldn't stand it.
Another year, Kurt Saxon, author of The Poor Man's James Bond and Granddads Wonderful Book of Chemistry, gave a speech about how he expected Western civilization to collapse around everyone's ears. Fortunately, I think he was about 20 years before his time. Today, many people might nod wisely, but back then, he was outrageous (and very, very funny), and was cat-called mercilessly.
Many of the people were similarly outrageous. For example, Walter Block, author of Defending the Undefendable, an absolutely brilliant book that I recommend highly, talked about prostitution, drugs, people that call out "fire" in crowded theaters, and even advertising…
L: The horror!
Doug: [Chuckles] Yes. But you'll be happy to know that he defends strip miners as assiduously as he defends strippers.
L. I've met Walter – it's funny, the way he comes across as such a mild-mannered professor while making a career of speaking the unspeakable. But the cat-calls surprise me. I don't remember how many Eris meetings I went to in the later years, three or four, but they all seemed so polite… Even when speakers delivered talks that seemed like outright nonsense to me, the audience sat without interrupting and clapped at the end.
Doug: I know, I know – but that didn't always happen, not in the early days. And that's why I discontinued Eris. It wasn't because the speakers were any less interesting – you brought a nanotechnologist and a porn producer the year you ran the show – but that the audience started coming just to be entertained, passively, and to spend a few relaxing days with friends in a ritzy resort in the mountains.
But earlier on, people like Sonny Barger, the international president of the Hell's Angels participated. We became friends and I later visited him at his home in California – and was shocked to find a Honda Goldwing in his garage along with his Harley. Colonel David Hackworth, recognized as the model for several of the outrageous characters in Apocalypse Now, came and we also became friends. Karl Hess, Barry Goldwater's speech-writer and the only white member of the Black Panther Party, came as well.
One of the most outrageous speeches ever delivered at Eris was given by Michael Hart, author of The 100: A Ranking Of The Most Influential Persons In History. He gave a speech I wasn't expecting at all, on why the U.S. was going to break up – and he wasn't even an anarchist-libertarian. But he was a very smart guy, and he had many reasons for his arguments, though he thought it would mostly be on racial grounds. I wouldn't have said the same thing, but he sure set off some fireworks – it was definitely interesting.
There was Paul MacCready, the inventor of the Gossamer Condor and other experimental aircraft, and Burt Rutan, whose Scaled Composites company won the X-Prize for launching the first private rocket into space, and who is now doing a JV with Virgin Air for spaceflight. We had lots of life-extension specialists, because we're all interested in enjoying the party of life as long as we can, including Aubrey de Grey. There were many, many more, from almost every field of human endeavor you can imagine. And a fair number of military guys, other than Hackworth. My old friend Peder Lund, publisher of Paladin Press, was almost always there, and he brought along Col. Rex Applegate, author of the classic Kill Or Get Killed, which I read when I was 16.
L: There's a partial list on the Eris Society web page dedicated to past Erisians.
Doug: Some great people on that list – and it's not nearly complete. If I ever reinstitute the Eris Society, I hope we can get many of them to come back and participate in a more active way, as in the early days.
L: What might actually prompt you to do that? I noticed, for example, that at the Harvest Festival you just held at your Estancia de Cafayate real estate project, there were some really interesting people. People who built their own boats and sailed around the world, anarcho-libertarian lawyers, artists, all sorts of fascinating people we may soon be neighbors with … it was fun.
Doug: That's true. That was a self-selected kind of group that brought together some of the most interesting people I've relaxed and spent social time with for years. There are now fully 25 countries represented there. Restarting Eris at Cafayate might be a good idea; picking a new place well off the beaten track will weed out the tire-kickers and the hangers-on who inevitably insinuate themselves into such groups. And I've also got to say that there are advantages to having Eris outside of the U.S. – the U.S. has become so politically correct, sometimes people are afraid to say things that they might not have been in the past.
I remember that one year, there was no question that some federal agent was snooping around because he'd heard that there were all these radicals and freethinkers gathered in one place…
L: I remember hearing of a libertarian speaker who used to always start his speeches by saying that a government agent was present and had been identified, and that to prevent needless embarrassment, the agent should go ahead and excuse himself. After years of nothing ever happening, a fed actually got up and faced the music.
Doug: Do you remember who that was?
L: No, just the story.
Doug: It was me!
L & Doug: [Both laugh]
Doug: This is really funny. I guess this story has gone viral. I first did that at an outlandish tax conference on the Cayman Islands in the mid-1980s. There were, quite frankly, all kinds of flaky speakers. I was convinced that this was the sort of thing that would attract the feds. So I said exactly what you just said, and not one, but two people stood up!
Doug: I was shocked – flummoxed, temporarily. I guess federal agents had to identify themselves under certain circumstances, back then. So, I kept doing that over the years, from time to time, just to see what would happen.
But that's very funny, that you heard that story and didn't even know it was me.
L: So, are you actively planning to restart Eris in Argentina? Or is that just an idea?
Doug: I'm going to play it by ear, for now. I really did enjoy Eris, but one problem I never solved was that even when people paid their own freight, it always ended up costing me about five grand. Even with the help of friends in Aspen, like Greg Abbott, the "pantyhose king" who invented the "L'eggs" stockings for women, or Wink Jaffee, who was the lead character in "Adam Smith's" great book The Money Game, I could never get the thing to cover its own cost. The money isn't a big deal, but it's more the principle of the matter; if others value Eris parties as much as I do, it ought not end up as my expense every time.
But I did enjoy it, and there are many people I'd love to see again. We'll see. My friend Vic Niederhoffer, the famous commodity trader, started his Junto in New York because he wanted a local Eris. Actually, Mark Skousen, who attended about 20 of them, started his FreedomFest in Las Vegas, as an Eris look-alike. It's excellent, and I'm going this year, just as I did last year. But he's running it as a commercial venture… whereas Eris was by invitation only. FreedomFest will survive, though, because most anything that's worth doing should be done for a profit – not a loss. Profit is the only way you can be sure that people actually value the product. And it's the only way something can be made self-sustaining.
L: That's certainly one financial implication to reveling in discord.
Doug: Well, you never know when mixing the brightest and most unconventional minds together might result in a great idea that can make money. One year, Phil Zimmerman, the creator of the PGP encryption software, came and gave a talk. If I'd invested then, which I'm sorry to say I didn't, it would have turned out to be a phenomenal speculation. I feel worse about deals I failed to do than ones I've done that later went bust.
Another roughly similar group is Porter Stansberry's Atlas 400 Club, of which I'm a member. It's expensive, costing $25,000 to join, and they only accept about half of the applications. But they do some incredible things. Click here for more on the Atlas 400 Club.
L: I imagine that Eris Society meetings can be treasure troves of new ideas for forward-thinking market observers like you. Grist for the intellectual mill, as well as help spotting emerging trends you may not have seen.
Doug: Yes, that's true. One of the things that most influenced my intellectual development was that Eric Drexler showed up several times. Eric started popularizing nanotechnology in his book Engines of Creation when not one in a thousand people had even heard of it.
He's the one who got me started in that direction, and I'm sure there will be more and more investment opportunities in that field. It's the sort of thing we keep an eye on in our Casey's Extraordinary Technology newsletter.
L: Well, then, don't organize anything. Don't pay for anything – make it BYOB. Just invite people that interest you to parties at your favorite place in the world. Enjoy great conversations with whoever shows up, and don't worry about all those who don't. All you do is set a date, and see what happens. You'll be there anyway, enjoying your own A, T & F, so you can't lose.
Doug: That sounds pretty good, actually. I'm sure Eris will rise again. It could be that more than a few folks reading this belong there… if we only knew who they are.
L: Great – I look forward to it. Thanks for the stories.
Doug: You're welcome. Until next time.
As Doug mentioned, Casey's Extraordinary Technology focuses on many of the cutting-edge topics you might hear about at a typical Eris Society gathering… and shows you how to profit from them. The current issue, for example, talks about the latest biotech innovations -- ground-breaking drugs and devices ringing in a new era of medicine -- and select companies that are at the frontlines for becoming the next big stock winner. Learn more here.
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