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).Continue reading “Review and Reflection: Skin in the Game”
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.
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.
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.Continue reading “Review of Avengers: Endgame”
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.Continue reading “Review: Symphony for the City of the Dead”
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.Continue reading “Reflections on Montaigne: Part 1”
The Examined Life (affiliate link), by Peter Grosz, is a book based on his practice as a psychoanalyst. I was led to it by an article that I had read on The Guardian about the use of cognitive behavioral therapy as opposed to psychoanalysis to treat mental illness. The article itself is more in-detail in its findings than I care to be here: you can read it for yourself if you so desire.
When I was in college, I had to read one of Freud’s case studies for a course. It was a survey of the humanities, and while I greatly enjoyed the class in general I remember being somewhat put off of the whole notion of psychoanalysis by Freud.
It is only through the work of Joseph Campbell that I wound up making a connection to Jung, and from Jung I discovered that psychoanalysis of the sort practiced by Freud was not the extent of the field.
Grosz provides case studies of psychoanalysis that are both analytical (as they should be), but also personal. While there is a limit on how much can be said for the sake of the patients’ privacy, there is also a lot of depth, which makes reading the case studies an interesting and intimate process.
There is something about the way that Grosz recounts things that makes the whole affair into something like a biography of the ordinary man. While it is true that many of the clients that Grosz works with would not technically be considered wholly ordinary, the humility that he expresses and the earnest, down-to-earth practice (including admissions of his own errors or misjudgments) goes a far way toward making the read worthwhile.
All-in-all, I finished The Examined Life in two days. The book is structured into sections and chapters based on topics, though the majority of chapters focus on just one or two cases.
There’s something transcendental in reading such things. Our human minds are capable of weaving mysteries hidden from ourselves, but seeing that same process go on in others shows us something of our essence, to borrow a notion from ancient philosophy.
The structure of the book, as it is, is probably one of its best achievements. I’ve also been reading the essays of Montaigne and listening to a sort of biography-cum-analysis centered on his life and works, and I am immediately struck by the similarity in the broad-topic specific-analysis correlation between the two works, written centuries and languages apart.
I think that it’s possible to see something of ourselves when we read a work like this, both in Grosz and his clients. While some of the examples are extreme (for instance, a child who engages in increasingly oppositional defiant behavior), there are also more common examples.
Upon reflection, I can easily draw connections between Grosz’s patients and the work of Ibsen, or of Miller. There is something that is literary and timeless in the individual mortal experience; an archetypal connection between the being of an individual and the Being of reality as a whole.
There is another side here, a side that Tolstoy illustrates in his magnificent Death of Ivan Ilych, the notion that we are incapable of believing that which we do not wish to believe, as Grosz’s patient who has every possible piece of evidence that her husband is having an affair, but only draws the connection after discovering a neatly loaded dishwasher in his apartment away from home.
However, the art of the psychoanalyst goes deeper; the mind is deep and multilayered, and there are things within it that remain unconscious to the individual, shown in dreams and complexes but not in conscious thought. These things cannot be believed not because they are necessarily abhorrent or because a person is in conscious denial, but rather because they are entirely unknown to us: Jung’s conception of this took the form of the Shadow.
The Shadow is the part of the mind that we are unaware of, the subconscious. Confronting the Shadow is important, because it bears strengths and weaknesses that otherwise are occluded from our awareness. Having these known to us provides us with a great tool to improve ourselves, both by extending our potential and by allowing us to shield ourselves from our greatest weaknesses.
Grosz’ work involves voyaging into that realm, that unknown part of the mind, and retrieving from it treasures. To do so, he must often help his patients vanquish the dragons that guard their inner keeps.
I think that this is why The Examined Life is such a compelling read. It is not merely the fact that it presents a deep picture of each of us as individuals, something which we want dearly to believe for the sake of avoiding the oblivion of meaninglessness. This is an expansion upon the explanation given for its popularity in The Guardian’s article, which I mentioned earlier. However, I think that this is just part of the appeal: it is a compelling read not only for its picture of the human individual as a being capable of worth, but also because it is a reflection of the heroic process.
After all, the individual is meaningless if their actions are also meaningless, but when an action becomes meaningful it provides the actor with meaning. Carry that further, to the greatest possible good, and you have a sort of deity in the form of Meaning: values strong enough to justify the pain and suffering of existence.
Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning is a challenging read. Peterson is perhaps best known for his 12 Rules for Life (affiliate link), a mixture of self-help, pop psychology (but from a real expert), and classic wisdom.
Maps of Meaning (affiliate link) eschews some of the self-help elements of 12 Rules for Life, but is deeply embedded in psychology, myth, and storytelling.Continue reading “Review and Reflection: Maps of Meaning”
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.Continue reading “Review and Reflection: Harry Potter (6-7)”
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.Continue reading “Review: Tiamat’s Wrath (The Expanse Book 8)”