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  • Russia Against Napoleon

    Tue, 13 Apr 2010 09:09

    Nice review in the New York Times of Dominic Lieven Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace:

    "War," Thomas Hardy once wrote, "makes rattling good history." If you would like an example of exactly what Hardy meant, I commend Russia Against Napoleon by Dominic Lieven.

    Never in history, perhaps, did a man of such extraordinary military genius suffer so extraordinary a military disaster. On June 24, 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte, the master of continental Europe, led nearly half a million men into the depths of Russia to enforce his will upon Czar Alexander I. With greatly inferior forces, Russia could not afford to confront Napoleon head on. Instead, the Russian commander, Mikhail Kutuzov, of necessity adopted Fabian tactics, harassing the invaders but avoiding pitched battle when possible.

    The one really big battle, Borodino, was more or less a draw, after Napoleon gave up personal command for reasons never satisfactorily explained. On Sept. 14 Moscow fell to Napoleon, and he sent peace overtures to Alexander, thinking the czar had no option but to negotiate.

    The Russians stalled and hinted but never gave a firm answer, seeking to keep Napoleon in Moscow as long as possible. On Oct. 19, with the czar still dawdling, French food supplies dwindling rapidly, and the Russian winter closing in, Napoleon had no choice but to begin withdrawal. The weather, disease and constant Russian harassment then destroyed his Grande Armee. He started the invasion with 450,000 men; 6,000 returned home.

  • The Financial Times has a beguiling extract from Eric Hazan's The Invention of Paris: A History in Footsteps which shows it is a must read for anyone who loves France's Capital city:

    The first picture of a human being taken in Paris dates from 1838, the year Honore de Balzac began the novel Scenes from a Courtesan's Life. To capture this image, Louis Daguerre (1787-1851) climbed to the top of his diorama on Boulevard du Temple. The American Samuel Morse, writing in a letter to his brother dated 1839, described the picture: "The boulevard, generally filled with a chaos of walkers and vehicles, was perfectly empty, except for one man having his boots shined. His feet, of course, could not move, one being on the polisher's box and the other on the ground. This is why his boots and legs are so clear, while he lacks a head and body, which moved."

    For the daguerreotypistes, taking a picture from the top of a building was one of the most common practices: portraits and interior views were difficult for reasons of lighting, and the cameras, heavy and fragile, were awkward to take out into the street. Hence the images of streets seen from above, which painting would take up 30 years later (among them Monet's Boulevard des Capucines series, Pissarro's Place du Theatre-Francais, Caillebotte's perspectives towards Boulevard Malesherbes from his apartment on Rue de Miromesnil).

    Then, in the years 1845-1850, the photographic image underwent a complete change of nature, with the negative-positive system. A photograph was now "taken" on a paper negative, followed by "printing", likewise on paper, which delivered the positive image. Parallel with this, the exposure time was shorter and the moving human figure now made an appearance (more...)

  • Ian McEwan's 'Solar'

    Thu, 11 Mar 2010 05:27

    Just a week to wait and Solar, the latest Ian McEwan novel, will land (you can pre-order right now, of course!).

    The Financial Times already have a review:

    On settling down to read a Solar, two striking features of the novel are immediately apparent. First, that it is a stunningly accomplished work, possibly his best yet; and second, that the book does contain a truly shocking surprise -- not that it deals with climate change, but that it is a comedy. This amounts to a revolutionary shift in tone, in his 11th novel, for a writer famed for his seriousness.

    The protagonist is Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist of Falstaffian appetites, whose fifth marriage is floundering, as his career appears to be drifting towards comfortable, well-paid irrelevance. But a confrontation with a cuckolding colleague radically alters the course of his life, both for better and worse. The humour ranges from characteristic darkly humorous insights about the gulf between our good intentions and our compromised actions, to comic territory that is new to McEwan: out-and-out farce, complete with penis-stuck-in-zip jokes and moments that come close to slapstick (more...)

  • Chess and its metaphors

    Thu, 25 Feb 2010 04:07

    I like the title of this book, Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind, almost as much as any of the ones chosen for the British Diagram Prize! And great to see it getting reviewed -- by none other than Russian chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov, don't you know! -- in the New York Review of Books:

    In 1985, in Hamburg, I played against thirty-two different chess computers at the same time in what is known as a simultaneous exhibition. I walked from one machine to the next, making my moves over a period of more than five hours. The four leading chess computer manufacturers had sent their top models, including eight named after me from the electronics firm Saitek.

    It illustrates the state of computer chess at the time that it didn't come as much of a surprise when I achieved a perfect 32-0 score, winning every game, although there was an uncomfortable moment. At one point I realized that I was drifting into trouble in a game against one of the "Kasparov" brand models. If this machine scored a win or even a draw, people would be quick to say that I had thrown the game to get PR for the company, so I had to intensify my efforts. Eventually I found a way to trick the machine with a sacrifice it should have refused. From the human perspective, or at least from my perspective, those were the good old days of man vs. machine chess.

    Eleven years later I narrowly defeated the supercomputer Deep Blue in a match. Then, in 1997, IBM redoubled its efforts -- and doubled Deep Blue's processing power -- and I lost the rematch in an event that made headlines around the world. The result was met with astonishment and grief by those who took it as a symbol of mankind's submission before the almighty computer. ("The Brain's Last Stand" read the Newsweek headline.) Others shrugged their shoulders, surprised that humans could still compete at all against the enormous calculating power that, by 1997, sat on just about every desk in the first world (more...)

  • I like the title of this book, Chess Metaphors: Artificial Intelligence and the Human Mind, almost as much as any of the ones chosen for The Diagram Prize! And great to see it getting reviewed, by none other than Gary Kasparov don't you know, in the New York Review of Books:

    In 1985, in Hamburg, I played against thirty-two different chess computers at the same time in what is known as a simultaneous exhibition. I walked from one machine to the next, making my moves over a period of more than five hours. The four leading chess computer manufacturers had sent their top models, including eight named after me from the electronics firm Saitek.

    It illustrates the state of computer chess at the time that it didn't come as much of a surprise when I achieved a perfect 32-0 score, winning every game, although there was an uncomfortable moment. At one point I realized that I was drifting into trouble in a game against one of the "Kasparov" brand models. If this machine scored a win or even a draw, people would be quick to say that I had thrown the game to get PR for the company, so I had to intensify my efforts. Eventually I found a way to trick the machine with a sacrifice it should have refused. From the human perspective, or at least from my perspective, those were the good old days of man vs. machine chess.

    Eleven years later I narrowly defeated the supercomputer Deep Blue in a match. Then, in 1997, IBM redoubled its efforts -- and doubled Deep Blue's processing power -- and I lost the rematch in an event that made headlines around the world. The result was met with astonishment and grief by those who took it as a symbol of mankind's submission before the almighty computer. ("The Brain's Last Stand" read the Newsweek headline.) Others shrugged their shoulders, surprised that humans could still compete at all against the enormous calculating power that, by 1997, sat on just about every desk in the first world (more...)

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