2014年3月27日 星期四

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Saw this movie a couple of hours ago.  Been looking forward to it for some time, and I wasn't disappointed.  If you haven't seen it yet, you might want to avoid reading what follows.

For more context on this film, you are welcome to read my Review of Every Marvel and DC Superhero Movie from 1951 to the Present

1. The Story

Steve Rogers continues to adjust to modern life.  At the beginning of the film he is still employed by S.H.I.E.L.D.  After he and the Black Widow rescue several hostages from mercenaries, a power struggle develops between Nick Fury and Alexander Pierce, his supervisor.  Unknown to Fury, Pierce is secretly an agent of Hydra, an organization that has been infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D. since its inception.  Hydra, acting through S.H.I.E.L.D., intends to eliminate several million "threats" to its goal of world domination, and Rogers must enlist the aid of the Black Widow, Maria Hill, Nick Fury, and his new friend the Falcon to foil the plot.  He also has to contend with his former friend Bucky Barnes, now dubbed the Winter Soldier.

2. How It Compares to the First Captain America

This movie is a lot faster paced.  Whereas the first one kind of plodded along (albeit intentionally), the action in this film flows seamlessly from beginning to end.  The fight scenes are miles ahead of the first movie, and the plot is a lot more intricate.  While the first film had an earnestness that I liked, the sequel broods over the fine line between right and wrong.  Chris Evans, all American forthrightness in the first film, has a lot more to do in this movie, and there's a sadness about his portrayal of Captain America that's very compelling.

3. How It Compares to Other Marvel Films

My least favorite Marvel Studios film is Thor, and this movie is A LOT better than that one.  My second least favorite Marvel Studios film is Iron Man 3, and this movie is still better than that.  Taking all of the Marvel Studios films into account, I'd tentatively rank this one fifth, behind The Avengers, Iron Man, Thor 2, and the Incredible Hulk.  It's a good movie, but it didn't blow me away.

4. Trivia

There are two post-credits scenes.  The first features Baron Von Strucker in his lair, discussing the fate of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, whom he has imprisoned.  The second involves Bucky going to the Smithsonian, and learning about his past before becoming the Winter Soldier.

I won't discuss in full any connections to previous Marvel films, though there are many references to such films.  Iron Man/Tony Stark is probably mentioned the most often.

As for other trivia, some of it might have gotten by me.  I did notice that during one scene, when they're interrogating a Hydra agent, the agent mentions that Hydra was targeting a "Stephen Strange," whom comic book fans will know as the alter ego of Doctor Strange.  Maria Hill also goes to work for Stark Industries after the collapse of S.H.I.E.L.D.

5. What's Coming Next

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the ninth film in Marvel's Cinematic Universe, and the third film in Marvel's "Phase 2" set of films.  Guardians of the Galaxy will arrive in August 2014, followed by The Avengers: Age of Ultron in May 2015.  After Avengers 2, Marvel will release Ant-Man in July 2015.  And after that, probably going head-to-head with Warner Bros. "Batman Vs. Superman," Marvel will release Captain America 3. 

6. Related News

Captain America: The Winter Soldier seems to be getting more favorable reviews than both Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World.  It had a big international release, though the American release is still a few days away.

2014年3月26日 星期三

"The Best American Science Writing: 2012," edited by Michio Kaku

"To those who find the Many Worlds Interpretation needlessly baroque, Deutsch writes, 'the quantum theory of parallel universes is not the problem - it is the solution... It is the explanation - the only one that is tenable - of a remarkable and counterintuitive reality.'  The theory also explains how quantum computers might work.  Deutsch told me that a quantum computer would be 'the first technology that allows useful tasks to be performed in collaboration between parallel universes.'  The quantum computer's processing power would come from a kind of outsourcing of work, in which calculations literally take place in other universes.  Entangled particles would function as paths of communication among different universes, sharing information and gathering the results.  So, for example, with the case of Shor's algorithm, Deutsch said, 'When we run such an algorithm, countless instances of us are also running it in other universes (by creating a superposition) and as a result they perform part of the computation on a huge variety of different inputs.  Later, those values affect each other, and thereby all contribute to the final answer, in just such a way that the same answer appears in all the universes.'"

Great, you say in your particular universe, but why is he reviewing the 2012 edition of "The Best American Science Writing"?  Why not the 2013 edition?  The answer, my universal friend, is that the 2013 edition was not available in this universe.  In an adjacent universe, they had the 2013 edition, and I reviewed that one.  Perhaps one day I can view that review on my own quantum computer, and thereby discover whether or not the 2013 edition was superior to the 2012 edition.  Yes, that makes sense.  I think.

This book covers a wide range of science topics, but my favorite articles, save one, fell within the domain of physics.  The two "psychological" articles ("Beautiful Brains" and "Criminal Minds") are pure crap, but the rest of this book is fairly interesting.  As you might have guessed from the above quote, my favorite article was the one about quantum computers.  The article at the very end of the book, "God Knows Where I Am," dealing with mental illness and public policy, is also very good.

I'll be reviewing the 2013 version when I come across it.  Unless another version of myself, writing in another universe, posts it here first!

2014年3月21日 星期五

"Beloved" by Toni Morrison (1987)

"The girl Beloved, homeless and without people, beat all, though he couldn't say exactly why, considering the coloredpeople he had run into during the last twenty years.  During, before, and after the War he had seen Negroes so stunned, or hungry, or tired or bereft it was a wonder they recalled or said anything.  Who, like him, had hidden in caves and fought owls for food; who, like him, stole from pigs; who, like him, slept in trees in the day and walked by night; who, like him, had buried themselves in slop and jumped in wells to avoid regulators, raiders, paterollers, veterans, hill men, posses and merry-makers.  Once he met a negro about fourteen years old who lived by himself in the woods and said he couldn't remember living anywhere else.  He saw a witless coloredwoman jailed and hanged for stealing ducks she believed were her own babies."

"Beloved" is, on the surface, the story of a haunting.  Sethe, a runaway slave, escapes to the north with her children, only to be discovered in Ohio a short time after.  Rather than see her children carried back to the south in chains, she attempts to murder her children, though she only succeeds in killing her youngest, an infant too young to walk.  Several years pass, and Sethe meets the enchanting Beloved, who she comes to believe is the child that she murdered so many years before.

This, on the surface, is the story presented in "Beloved," though there is a lot more going on in this book.  "Beloved" is also a book about the damage the slave trade has inflicted on the United States, on the search for lost loves, on the terrible weight of anger, and of wrongs that can never be righted.  It is a book about finding a balance between the crimes committed in the past and the hopes inherent in the future.  It is a book about letting go, and about finding the good in the present moment.  It tries to be a lot of things, though I'm not sure if it always succeeds in what it's trying to do.

I liked "Beloved," though not as much as "Jazz," another book by Toni Morrison.  There were times in this novel when I felt that she was trying too hard to make a point, and too hard to make particular themes more universal.  Making this a book about the African-American experience of slavery was a stretch, and to do justice to such a thing would mean making it much longer, having the narrative extend over a much greater period of time, and adding more characters, with greater depth.  In the end, you'd end up with something that more closely resembles Alex Haley's "Roots," and such a novel would have been far from what Morrison was trying to achieve here.  Instead of reaching for this grand, historical theme, "Beloved" might have set its sights a bit lower.

I would recommend this book, but I don't know that it's as impressive as the reputation which precedes it.  It might be Morrison's most famous novel, but I think she wrote better books.  "Jazz" was one of these better books, and there may well be others.

2014年3月13日 星期四

"The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins (1976/1989)

"An uneasy tension disturbs the heart of the selfish gene theory.  It is the tension between gene and individual body as fundamental agent of life.  On the one hand we have the beguiling image of independent DNA replicators, skipping like chamois, free and untrammeled down the generations, temporarily brought together in throwaway survival machines, immortal coils shuffling off an endless succession of mortal ones as they forge towards their separate eternities.  On the other hand we look at the individual bodies themselves and each one is obviously a coherent, integrated, immensely complicated machine, with a conspicuous unity of purpose."

Richard Dawkins is a well-known popular science writer, and also one of the most noted atheists of modern times.  His life as a public personality almost overshadows his work as a writer and scholar.  One of his other books, "The Blind Watchmaker," has guided many discussions on the role of religion in modern life.

"The Selfish Gene," for the most part, steers clear of religious debate.  Instead it concerns itself with the role of the gene in evolutionary development, and the way in which many leading scientists have focused on the evolution of the individual organism (or group of organisms) at the expense of the true change agent - the gene.  Group selection, argues Dawkins, is most often a case of failing to see the trees for the forest, and to even talk of individual selection can be grossly misleading.  In Dawkins' account, one does not speak of the survival of a group or even of the survival of an individual organism, but rather of the survival of individual genes that are temporarily bound together within that organism.

I liked this book, even if Dawkins can be condescending at times.  I felt that he also takes some unnecessary jabs at religion, where using less controversial examples would have better served his arguments.  I didn't feel that the "faith vs. reason" argument had any place in this book, and it only alienates readers who would have otherwise learned a lot from this overview of evolutionary theory.  In the end I think the "faith vs. reason" argument is pointless, because the faithful invariably have reasons behind their faith, just as the reasonable have faith in their ability to reason.

But perhaps I digress - just as Dawkins digresses, on innumerable occasions in "The Selfish Gene."  In the course of the book he discusses genes as "replicators" and individual organisms as "vehicles" for these "replicators, the structure of genes and their arrangement within chromosomes and DNA, kin relationships as a reflection of gene survival strategies, tension between generations of individual organisms and how this contributes to gene survival, sexual relationships, group dynamics and altruism, a genetic theory of ideas (this part is fascinating), and the long reach of the phenotype (also fascinating).

Of all the topics listed above, I found the sections on sexual relationships to be the most interesting, followed by his theory of "memes" (ideas), and how the phenotype of a particular gene might extend well beyond the organism in which it inhabits.  Dawkins dwells on game theory a bit too much during one of the later chapters, and his chapter on "the gene machine" is slow going.

I could attempt to recapitulate some of his arguments here, but if you are interested you should probably just go out and buy the book.  The first few chapters are less than captivating, but the chapters near the end had my complete attention.  I'll probably read Dawkins' "The Extended Phenotype" when I get the chance.