Review of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Went and saw the third John Wick film yesterday.

I was happy with it, but it wasn’t quite as good as I was expecting. Solid, still, and I’m actually more confident about the next film (because of course they set up another film in the series).

If you just want spectacle, Parabellum delivers. The storytelling is decent, and matched by tremendous visuals and acting, but there’s too little focus.

I’m going to be avoiding any spoilers in the review.

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Review and Reflection: Skin in the Game

I listened to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: Things that Grow from Disorder a while back (you can find my write-up about it here) and found it to be tremendous, so I got Skin in the Game on Audible (it seemed to be the next-closest thing to my interests).

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Review: Age of Ambition

I’ve recently listened to Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, & Faith in the New China. I found it an interesting read, but I don’t know that I would necessarily place it on my best books that I have listened to in 2019. Of course, that list has grown rather long of late, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Incerto series has claimed more than one spot on that list (I finished Skin in the Game yesterday), which seems unfair to other authors.

What I find interesting about Age of Ambition (affiliate link) is that it is a very personal narrative, but it is one which backs up that personal narrative with other events that are meaningful, so that one gets a feel for the people who are presented throughout the book.

However, while this approach is engaging as a writing style, the author’s experiences often dominate the text.

This is not necessarily a flaw, since it does give a certain amount of character to what is presented, but it does come with the drawback that not everything is particularly interesting from an academic perspective. As someone who is not really a scholar on China, I was a little disappointed by how little I learned from the book. Of course, I am a student of Cold War history, and I was already familiar with many of the major figures named in the book, like Han Han and Ai Weiwei, so perhaps I simply have a slightly higher level of familiarity with China than the target audience of the book has.

The book does excel in providing interesting information. It just doesn’t present quite as much of the big picture as I would have liked. Again, I think to someone who knew less about China than I did it would have been a very interesting and educational read, and there were some parts that were very interesting, like talking about how visiting lecturers were able to achieve great success discussing philosophical and moral questions in China. There were also places where the author was able to work his own experience in to talk about the parts of China that an outsider would never see, the day-to-day experiences of people who would not normally make the news.

Lest I sound overly harsh, I did actually enjoy Age of Ambition. The big issue I had with it is merely that as much as I enjoyed it, I don’t feel like it’s going to be a book I will remember. If you want a very Broad survey of China it could be wonderful. However, I’m just not convinced that it’s anything more than a survey.

It does give a unique Western perspective on China, which I suppose has some merit in and of itself. However, it feels like Osnos wants to avoid jumping to judgment. This is a shame, because the times when he is most willing to engage with subject and give his personal reactions are also the times that have the most character shown. For instance, he discovers that ferrets have taken residence in his lodgings, not directly in the living space, but in such a way that the smell became a nuisance. He recounts how in China, ferrets are considered lucky, add many people urged him to keep the ferrets almost as an ersatz pet (albeit at a distance). Despite initial flirtations with having them exterminated, he decides to live and let live, and while he doesn’t embrace the Chinese superstition surrounding the animals, he bids farewell to them fondly as he leaves, mentioning that they have recently welcomed new members into the family.

The personal moments like this make age of ambition worth listening to or reading. Again, Osnos definitely knows more about China than I do, and his experiences with important Chinese personalities are of great value. However, he has an odd approach of at times analyzing, and at times leaving as inscrutable, his subjects. This inures him against falsehood, which I appreciate on an academic level, but also means that the reader is going to do much drawing of conclusions as they go through the book, not fully gaining from Osnos’ expertise.

The book is definitely a success in the notion that I feel much more confident explaining some of the phenomena of China, but as someone who’s read prolifically about current events and reporting following China at the same time as Osnos seems to have been in China, and as someone who is familiar with the psychology and philosophies surrounding the major forces of the Cold War (that is to say, conflict between eastern and western thought), I found it to be moderate interest as far as learning new things goes. Where I can see offering a much less reserved recommendation would be to someone who simply wants an immediate overview a China with both historical and relatively up-to-date information.

Unfortunately, being up-to-date is a minor weakness of the book. For those unfamiliar with China’s current events, Xi Jinping has taken over much of the Chinese government at least in terms of influence. This happened primarily after Age of Ambition was written, so those seeking a read on what would be called very current events might find themselves disappointed. Nonetheless, understanding anything is a product of understanding its context.

Nonetheless, Osnos offers what would be called a nonpartisan view of the situation. He talks to people influential and minor, and from those he provides some individuals we would consider Western aligned and some whom we would consider hardliners. As far as I can tell, he is fair to all his subjects, which does make for an interesting read for those who may not have had access to on the ground reporting or biographies of some of the more esoteric figures whose lives are detailed in the book. The count of one of these, college student made the viral hit aligned with Chinese nationalist ideals, was a particularly interesting perspective to look at from a Western viewer, considering that the Chinese nationalist that Osnos interviews is well-versed in Western philosophy and has quite sophisticated reasoning. If one evaluates books from the perspective of using them as a mirror to see the human condition, Age of Ambition is great for that.

Ultimately, the real question of whether I would recommend Age of Ambition has to come down to availability and time. If you are interested in it, if you have the time to read or listen to it, and if it is not a major financial burden, and I would recommend it. This is not a particularly stellar recommendation, and you can’t hear the somewhat humorous tone with which I would express it in speech, but I don’t want to disrespect Osnos. His work is really good from an objective standpoint. My question would be whether it is the best. If you have my interests, it is a great book. If you deviate from my interests, say, if you’re not at all interested in China but you enjoy something like a contemporary history, it may also be an enjoyable read.

Is it, however, a “drop everything and read this right now book”, or a “book to add on your list of books to read” book?

Definitely more of the latter. I enjoyed it in the same sort of way that I enjoy most movies. If you’re looking for a similar interest piece which is more historically removed but still has a richly personal connection, I might recommend Symphony for the City of the Dead (affiliate link), a sort of historical biography of Shostakovich. Of the two, Symphony for the City of the Dead is my favorite. But both are similar, both are well-written, both audiobooks are quite good, and I am not complaining about spending time listening to either.

I don’t typically like giving a numerical review score. I feel like it fails to encapsulate all the potential difference between one work and another to put it on a rating scale. However, I feel comfortable saying Age of Ambition is a four out of five. It’s interesting, it didn’t bore me, but it didn’t challenge me either. I wouldn’t be assigning it as course-work, for instance, and requiring other people to read it. However, I feel it was worth the money I put into getting it, and I’m not wishing that I had listened to something else instead.

Perhaps it would be possible to distill my whole review into a very short statement: good read, not fantastic.

Review and Reflection: Antifragile

I listened to the book Antifragile (affiliate link) last week, and it has some really interesting lessons. Although the author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, might be classified in some ways as an economist (though not in the traditional sense–he writes about the economy but he rejects the notion of it as a field to be studied–classifying him as simply a scholar is probably the best definition), he applies his theory of antifragility to more than just one discipline.

One of the big takeaways I got from the book is a very different way of viewing risk.

The antifragile approach is to identify things that thrive under change. Obviously, change may still cause problems for these if it is a large negative change, but such things tend to change for the better under the sorts of changes that are common and not generally catastrophic.

When combined with robust things, which can persevere through change, the antifragile becomes highly valuable.

I am afraid, however, that much of the greater wisdom of the book is lost on me. This is not to say that I learned nothing, but rather that there are depths that I have not been able to explore.

Part of the reason for this is simple: the book is complex and broad, and while it uses anecdotes and common sense to great effect it also is willing to move very quickly. It is challenging, and for this reason I intend to return to it again at a later date.

However, even with the partial knowledge that I have gained of Taleb’s ideas, there are still many great lessons to be drawn from the book. One of them is to consider carefully actions. Many of Taleb’s assertions are nothing particularly controversial, but when viewed in total, Antifragile becomes a sort of philosophical treatise against thinking that you are more clever than you are.

To use an example, Talib cites traders on the stock market who have no formal economic training, but who make incredibly good decisions. Of course, for every success there are failures, but Taleb notes that there are common trends in these successful traders that would cause economists to tear their hair out.

They overwhelmingly use heuristics, rather than more complicated methods of coming to decisions. This means that rather than using abstract theories, they make decisions based on gut instinct.

This is perhaps more important outside the field of stock trading.

Heuristics, going with available information but not seeking to over rationalize it. Taleb shows through various examples that heuristics can be as useful as complicated theories. For starters, they are much more easy to adjust.

When a theory is wrong, it is easy to rationalize the reason for its failure, to blame problems on unconsidered external factors. This allows the shifting of blame away from the people who make the decisions and toward abstract theories. A person can avoid responsibility, and the theory need not necessarily be abandoned, because it can still be dressed up in new clothes and given a new name. If they made a decision that will cause consequences for others, they only pay the price if they had put their money where their mouth is.

On the other hand, by going and blaming theories, someone who makes foolish decisions can they restore their credibility by attaching themselves to a different school of thought, often not even so much a different school of thought as a rebranded version of the same foolishness.

Taleb is brutally honest. He is also brave enough to make enemies, since he openly names people who he believes to be guilty of infractions against good ethics. Where his skepticism may initially be perceived to cloud his judgment, it quickly becomes clear that his skepticism is based off of experience.

I find it difficult to call Taleb’s work full of wisdom. This is not because of absence of good ideas, but rather because it seems to contain something almost different than wisdom itself. It would definitely warrant the title of philosophical. Rather than simply call the notion that Taleb’s work pursues wisdom, I would call it meta-wisdom. It looks at patterns to determine how wisdom can be found and applied in many different ways.

An example of this is Taleb’s distaste for intervention in fundamental affairs (for instance, using gym machines when more natural workouts are available). While some intervention is praised (vaccines, for instance, are great in Taleb’s eyes), others are derided (an unnecessary surgery carries risks beyond just financial cost).

The fundamental notion of antifragility is this: find things in which loss is limited, but potential gain is not.

Another key notion of determining fragility is to look for places where people gain antifragility at the expense of others: bureaucrats who keep their jobs even if the systems they control fail, and indeed go back to ask for more money to overcome the difficulties their idiocy caused are a major target of Taleb’s ire.

Of all the books I’ve gotten into so far this year, none has inspired me quite so much as Taleb in a sense that I think I can apply his teachings to daily life. He cites Montaigne, who is probably my other top writer I’ve read this year (go figure), and has a sort of similar wisdom and methodology.

I don’t have the time and experience to make a categorical statement about whether all of Taleb’s ideas work, but his work was recommended to me by someone whose intellect and savvy I respect, and the read or listen is itself enjoyable. The Audible audiobook I have is read by Joe Ochmann, and I’d say that it’s pretty well-done.

I’ve picked up his book Skin in the Game (affiliate link) on Audible as well, so expect to see a review and reflection on it once I’ve finished it in a few weeks.

My current listening material is Age of Ambition (affiliate link) by Evan Osnos, which I’m enjoying, and Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections (affiliate link). I’m reading through Montaigne’s essays, as well, though I’ve had less time to just read of late.

Review of Avengers: Endgame

I went and saw Avengers: Endgame today, and I was not disappointed. I will keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, so feel free to enjoy.

I was somewhat on the fence about Endgame. I enjoyed Captain Marvel, but I was worried about some of the choreography (I felt Captain Marvel suffered from over-long fights) and the impact of a new character introduced so recently in the MCU on a story which is predominantly about the characters we’ve been following for years now.

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Review: Symphony for the City of the Dead

I recently listened to M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead (affiliate link), which is a biographical history of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. It is one of my favorite audiobooks I’ve listened to so far on Audible. In addition to just being a generally enjoyable listen (it is read by the author), it presents an interesting look into Soviet culture. Shostakovich lived through some of the most terrifying parts of Stalin’s purges, and as a high-profile artist he found himself frequently in the crosshairs of the regime.

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Reflections on Montaigne: Part 1

I have been loosely interested in the works of Montaigne for a while (i.e. I knew of his name), but I was not yet ready to read them for myself; I just hadn’t worked up the interest and have a lot of other stuff on my reading list.

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Review and Reflection: Harry Potter (6-7)

I finished reading the Harry Potter series on Kindle, finishing The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows in pretty rapid succession. It’s been almost a week since I finished reading the latter, so I’ve had some time to gather my thoughts.

I know that I’ve already talked about how I considered the Harry Potter series quite good (for more see my previous posts on the first three books and fourth and fifth books) when I went to read it. I was part of the target audience back when it first came out, but just never got around to reading it for a variety of reasons.

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Review: Tiamat’s Wrath (The Expanse Book 8)

It’s not a huge secret that I’m a superfan of the Expanse and all the books (and the comics, and the TV show). Leviathan Wakes, the first book of the series, is probably the only book that I’ve ever bought a (signed) physical copy of for myself after getting it on Kindle, because I just wanted to have it on my shelf.

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Review and Reflection: Captain Marvel

I put off seeing Captain Marvel for a while because it seems to be my norm over the past week to procrastinate, but I’ve also been a little less excited to see it because I saw a good mix of positive and negative reviews from critics I liked: I wanted to see it, but I wasn’t willing to put up with a crowded theater to see it.

So I finally went today (actually a couple days before the publication, but at the time of writing it’s only been a couple hours since I actually saw the movie), and I was actually really pleasantly surprised.

Review

I’d say that Captain Marvel is a 9/10 movie buried in a 7/10 movie. I normally don’t use numbers, but I think it’s a good illustrative point here.

I actually thought all the acting was really good; I’d heard complaints about stiffness, and there were a couple points in dialogue where things wore thin, but also a lot of moments that were really poignant, humorous, or exciting, so I can’t critique the writing too much overall.

Pacing is definitely an issue. I feel like there’s some sort of Marvel convention that says “Thou shalt have movies be more than two hours long” that drove some of the writing decisions. Upon looking it up, this is not true, but for some reason perfectly correlates with the MCU movies I’ve seen in theaters, as opposed to the ones I’ve seen at home (e.g. Thor).

With that said, there’s a lot of somewhat drawn out exposition and even fight scenes, which is odd because for most of the film the pacing feels really solid. Some early scenes feel over-long, namely the first fight between Captain Marvel (or, as she is known at that point, Vers) and the Skrull.

The movie starts with an amnesia plot; Vers doesn’t remember her prior life as Carol Danvers, and eventually figures out who she is over the course of the film (by about the two-thirds mark she remembers who she really is, courtesy of help from old friends; I’m guesstimating because I wasn’t timing the movie).

The big problem here is that we figure out who she is before she is, and the trailers make it clear too. For some reason, either we’re given a larger glimpse into the character’s mind than they themselves have (which, admittedly, is not impossible), or she’s remarkably stubborn about figuring out who she is despite knowing that she can’t remember anything and then suddenly getting memories or flashbacks.

There is a very small attempt to squelch this when another character mentions that she could have had memories implanted (when she has flashbacks that override the amnesia), but the counterpart to this is that the people who would have implanted the memories seem very keen to find out what they are and also act on information they acquired from those memories.

Or, to put it more simply: It’s the one “idiot ball” moment in the film where a character doesn’t realize everything the audience knows and doesn’t have a good reason to do so, and it’s the main character doing it right in the middle of the main plot. Just a tad frustrating, and one of the reasons why I describe Captain Marvel as a 9/10 movie buried in a 7/10 movie: if the audience were kept in the dark, or Carol Danvers had been quicker to re-emerge, it would’ve been great (or at least good). As it stood, it was just a little bit underwhelming in execution, and amnesia plots are overused as a secondary device, much less a primary one.

Ironically, I think it’s probably the final fight scenes that go on too long despite the clear intent to make them epic and flashy. The triumphant battles go beyond what they need to do to show us the power levels of the characters and make a good narrative point, and as much as the eye-candy is up to Marvel’s traditional quality (albeit, a little flashy even by their standards, something I’ll permit because Captain Marvel typically uses powers that manifest as pure light and energy).

A lot of people have argued that it doesn’t feel like Carol Danvers has a personal stake, but I didn’t get that at all. Except in the fight scenes. They drag on and nobody ever seems to really be impacted unless they’re a faceless extra, and even the lesser henchmen take a giant beating and just keep going. It feels like they had a giant CGI budget to use and insisted on using it all, but it just comes across as spectacle. I think if I watch Captain Marvel again, I might actually skip parts of these scenes; they’re well choreographed, but do nothing to actually move the story forward.

I’m not a huge MCU superfan (though I would describe myself as a lesser fan; I’ve liked them all), but I’d rate Captain Marvel in with the others. I don’t think it’s up to the same level as Infinity Wars was, but it’s definitely at the same level of quality as most of the other character origin films.

One thing that did surprise me a little was the fact that the movie was definitely a little crasser than it had to be. I get that they wanted to play up Carol Danvers (both pre-Kree and post-Kree) as someone who would overcome any obstacle, but there were some unnecessary, somewhat crude remarks by male characters that felt forced (particularly a line about “You know why they call it a cockpit?”) and weren’t even as effective at conveying the sexism she faced as some other events that cropped up (scenes where she is told that she’ll never fly as a pilot and where her father is giving her guff do the same without resorting to crudity). I know that Marvel’s moving toward embracing a PG-13 rating, but combining this with some of the other cussing in the film would have put me off of seeing it with young children in tow. I think it could have been as poignant with a little less explicit language and a little more illustration (and, given some of the things that we see fragments of later in the film, I think they may have actually cut out some of those scenes in favor of the more crude ones, which seems a tragedy).

Generally, despite this, I liked it. Other than feeling that it was a little over-long, I thought it was definitely worth watching. If I were the director, I would’ve trimmed it down a little (or added more context to justify the length of certain scenes), but there were a lot of really good moments and I was into it. Samuel L. Jackson was fantastic, Brie Larson did a tremendous job (there were a couple rough spots, but I put them down to the writers), and it was certainly worthy of the Marvel brand.

Reflection

Heads-up: I’ve avoided spoiling as much as possible in my review, but my reflections don’t do that so much.

The strongest points in the film come when we see a heroic struggle; this isn’t surprising, since it’s a point that I seize on all the time, but it’s still one that is quite interesting.

Carol Danvers has a two-fold struggle: the internal struggle of mastering herself and coming to grips with her identity, and the external struggle of figuring out what to do with her life and taking the fight to the Kree, who turn out to be the villains.

That’s quite an interesting side to the story, even if it’s not fully executed.

There’s a moment in the ending of the film where Danvers is being interrogated (for lack of a better term) by the Supreme Intelligence, the Kree AI overlord, and she is thrown into her own stream of memories, watching herself fail over and over again.

Her victory comes when she returns to those memories, watching the next bit: the part when she gets back up after failing.

It’s quite a powerful moment, and perhaps the best in the film, because it sums up what makes Danvers different from the Kree: being willing to get up and keep going, always improving herself, rather than sticking with the situation she’s in. By contrast, the Kree are more involved in their own lives, not wanting to change or grow and suppressing anything that might challenge their assumptions of superiority.


Wrapping Up

Captain Marvel was a good movie, and I’m glad I went to see it. It’s not the best movie I’ve ever seen, nor the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it certainly is worth seeing if you’re at all interested.