What Did I Learn From Napoleon This Wood?

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The non-fiction book I finished this week was Wildwood by Roger Deakin. I remember purchasing this book through Audible back in May when I was desperately trying to use up credits so I could cancel my subscription. This was actually the same story behind me downloading Napoleon's biographic in the first place.

I'm a big fan of trees, whether it's the mulberry in my backyard or the towering redwoods of the Pacific Northwest, so the blurb of Wildwood grabbed my attention, indicating it would be full of interesting scientific and botanic non-fiction. I still remember reading Guns, Germs and Steel which taught me that broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and drumhead cabbage were all descendants of the original wild cabbage plant that grew only on the cliffs of the English coast and I thought that a whole audiobook of that kind of content would be captivating.

This was not the book I expected. It was the poetry quotes that were the first warning sign. Lyrical descriptions about wood, the feeling of wood, the jazz of driftwood, the fifth element. I like trees. Not as much as Roger Deakin likes trees. He really likes trees. There was a paragraph describing how being inside a fully wood building was so augmented by it's elemental nature that it made the taste of a single baked bean orgasmic. And a whole chapter about how satisfying it was to observe different types of moths in an English wood. I'm not judging this lifestyle. In fact, I was envious of how much time and resources Roger Deakin seemed to have available to travel and coppice and write and whittle.

The baked bean was just one example of the anecdotal rather than scientific nature of Wildwood and while it did contain a lot of interesting facts - such as the value of walnut tree burrs and the black market for the biggest of them, and how trees from cold climates make better flooring timber due to tighter grains - they were drowned out by the prep school reminiscing and the chapters about various wood-centric artists. Audiobooks are not the best medium for discussing that type of art.

And yet, perhaps it was Deakin (and the narrator's) passion for wood and woods that kept me listening, but over time the pattern of the book becomes clearer. Each chapter is an essay that starts from a seed - some aspect of wood and trees and how they shape someone's life - and often bloom into touching and interesting stories. The travels through the eastern bloc and visiting the walnut forests and the people living around them, and even tales of the Australian outback complete with handy tips on how to use crows to find your way to water (you just need to kill and salt a wallaby, then watch which direction they go after they eat the salty meat) were lovely, and sometimes fascinating although sometimes they did go on a bit. It really felt like Deakin was a man existing on a different plane; someone who understood trees and plants both scientifically as well as spiritually.

After I finished reading it I learned that he died of a brain tumour shortly after he finished writing Wildwood which was very sad because I'd just spent fourteen hours listening to his thoughts on wood, which ended on a short summary of the pollarding of an outdoor "room" of trees he'd been cultivating for twenty years, and clearly had hopes for maintaining and observing into the future. I don't know if it was done intentionally, but that last chapter was titled "Ash".

What did I learn from Roger Deakin this week? Trees are amazing, and they can bring people who are different together.

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The woman with the fake tan stepped into my office, sat across from my desk and lit a cigarette.
At least, she would, sometime in the next 20 minutes. Smelling the future has advantages, but precision isn’t one of them.

Professional Pedestrian

Breakfast may have declined since the 19th Century.

Breakfast may have declined since the 19th Century.


This month I read more non-fiction: This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race by Nicole Perlroth. Throughout the entire tale, from the first critical vulnerability all the way to the offensive cyber strikes by nation states and their impact on my life all I could think about is how would Napoleon have dealt with the Austrian army exploiting a chain of 0-day exploits in order to silently offset the navigation of his calvary in order to prevent a French victory on the battlefield.

Actually, I didn’t think about Napoleon during this book and not just because I think that Napoleon’s password would probably have been motdepasse on every online account he had. Reading about the history of cyber surveillance and their evolution into attacks has grounded me solidly in the present.

Of course, the impact on my life has mainly been having to patch systems over the past fifteen years due to vulnerabilities like Heartbleed, notpetya and all the others that have emerged in the wake of cyber attacks in that time. And yes, even Bradism.com was hacked in the early days and all my witticisms were replaced with anti-American messages of support for Palestine.

I also realised that, as the American intelligence agencies’ lust for data ramped up post September 11, at the same time as system and internet security was terrible, and I was completing my final year of University, that this was the perfect storm that probably lead to Data Mining being an encouraged elective topic in case someone had any bright ideas on how to handle the firehose of scraped and stolen data from hacked servers and jailbroken Nokias.

The main thing I learned from this book is how prevalent is has been over the years for exploits to be kept hidden from vendors and traded on black markets to government organisations where they use them for surveillance or more, sometimes for years, before they get revealed and patched. (Ironically, a lot of the exploits are revealed when the government agency or state themselves gets hacked and their tools exposed.)

Is it really worth worrying about being tracked by QR codes or even social media when multiple governments are probably already in your kernel?

With such sophisticated cyberweapons out there now, can you really trust your firewall or network traffic monitor or “In use in 0 other locations” message?

Along with my recent reading about climate change, and my daily exposure to pandemic coverage, the future is not feeling particularly chipper.

I think we might need to teach children in school how to write their own kernel and build their own smartphones. And also how to grow tomatoes in acidic soil with no electricity, and manufacture their own hand sanitizer.

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Napoleon Clymamite

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I'm still forcing myself to write and think critically about all the non-fiction books I read.

I considered expanding this to all the media I consume, but I don't think a series of essays about my feelings during the NBA playoffs would have revealed anything insightful.

At some point in the past I read an overview of The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells and the description motivated me to add it to my "Want to Read" list. Another while later I was browsing the library site in preparation for lockdown and checked it out. A short while after that I started reading it without much recollection of what had led me to this point.

As a non-reproducing, perpetual tourist of a human my initial thoughts were that I didn't want to write about reading The Uninhabitable Earth.

The onslaught of catastrophe, doom and predictions of death and destruction which immediately begin this book hit me with none of my defences up. Wallace-Wells is measured yet relentless in his summarising of the linear and potentially exponential systematic failures and disasters that the near future holds for the planet due to climate change and potential feedback loops impacting our ecological systems. He lists numbers of potential deaths like he's rattling off victim counts at the battle of Borodino.

The first half was scary, but the second is more terrifying. After his overview of the effects we transition into the causes and the ways in which humanity could take steps to counteract the problems we have collectively set upon ourselves. Unfortunately the answers are not black and white simplifications like reducing plastic straws and increasing renewable energy and eating less beef. The nature and structure of humanity itself needs to be overhauled. He makes a strong argument that the economic philosophies, nation states, neoliberalism, and cognitive biases that affect us all will never allow us as a species to overcome what we have created by converting fossil fuels into economic growth.

After what we have seen with COVID19 so far I'm inclined to agree with him.

I've always subscribed to the hope that technology will be the way humanity will overcome the challenges of climate change. Given the above, combined with the warning in this book from studies on the impact to intelligence - from air pollution, to higher temperatures, and what we know about the impact of diseases on our brains - predicts a future where we may further lose the ability to think our way to safety. How will we invent new technology when heat and carbon in the air makes us dumber?

Ironically, the root cause of the problem - the climate - will be easier to manage than humans.

David Wallace-Wells is definitely smarter than I am. Whether he is also more pessimistic than I am will be the real test.

While he may be an expert in most things climate and sociopolitical, I'm not sure if is as well read on history as I am.

When Napoleon was crowned Emperor of France in 1804 there were only a billion people living on Earth. Now there's eight times that many. In 1813 when Napoleon's Grande Armée was freezing in retreat from Russia there were 150 glaciers in Montana's Glacier National Park. Today there are just 25.

Having listened to a 36 hour audiobook about the life of Napoleon, I believe that Bonaparte seems like the right person for the job of solving climate change. His experience of introducing rational reforms in direct challenge to existing institutes (such as universal civil laws, the central banking system, and the metric systems) as the unchallenged head of state for a widely encompassing empire has to be seen as admirable. Although he would probably put one of his less intelligent brothers in charge of pandemics, or get distracted by an opera singer, which may reduce his effectiveness.

Instead of focusing on technology for carbon capture and green energy we should be finding a solution for cloning Napoleon. He was a mathematician, and pragmatist, and he brought scientists with him to the battlefields of Egypt. I believe he would instantly recognise climate change for the threat it is, and do his thing working long hours, writing many letters, and going to war with those who opposed his carbon tax. It wouldn't be a utopia. I'm sure he would make mistakes. Yes this means living under a global dictator. But there are many worse politicians and autocrats in power at the moment.

I'd like to live to see that.

Many Worlds

I'm a third of the way through The City We Became and while I'm enjoying the story so far, the exposition has reminded me that I'm a little weary of the many worlds theory. It seems to be the go-to pseudo science behind a whole lot of the science fiction I've read or watched recently, and I'm finding it hard to believe that there could be a new universe for every decision that every living creature that ever lived or could have lived. It just doesn't seem plausible. I believe there is only one universe, other than the current one, and that universe is identical to this one except I have a goatee.

I'm pretty sure that even if there was an infinite number of universes, every decision by every living being would get made the exact same way. After all, free will is an illusion. The only way you could change the past is with a time machine that fills up with gummy juices and encapsulates so none of your gut microbiome get left behind.

What Did I Learn From Napoleon This Week? La Fin

Last Wednesday I reached the conclusion of Napoleon the Great and I couldn't help feeling a little sadness as Napoleon (spoilers) died on in exile St. Helena.

Napoleon was certainly one of history's most interesting individuals. Not one I'd idolise, but certainly one to be inspired by. Simply the energy and focus he seemed to invest into the minutia of everything across an empire was admirable, and the propaganda of the past 200 years has given him a reputation of a warmonger that he doesn't completely deserve.

The final portion of the book is about Napoleon's hubris, ruination, surprise encore, and ultimate defeat.

Ego became a burden for Napoleon, evident in behaviours such as the carrying unnecessary supplies such as dress uniforms and Parisian chefs into a war with Russia, so far from home. Even his arrival at key battles was delayed half a day by him ordering a military parades of his troops before marching.

But it was the size of his army and the issues that came from managing so many people that I think truly caused most of his problems.

As someone who has managed seven people plus several contractors at one time, I can empathise with the difficulties of leading an army of 200,000 soldiers along with camp followers and the rest. They did not have email or Slack in 1814. A large army is less agile, and had the further downside of causing enemy armies not to engage. Larger armies are also harder to micromanage, and have to be coordinated across multiple fronts.
His delegation of authority to his choice of marshals, commanders and family members did not help. I certainly would have to think long and hard before making my own brother the King of Spain. Nor did his stubbornness when it came to forgiving those who were clearly conspiring against him, such as Talleyrand.

But who am I to judge the decisions of someone who lived in an era where haemorrhoids were treated with leeches?

And ultimately - despite all his aptitude, infinite energy for micromanagement, and "habits of successful people" - it was indecision (lingering too long in Moscow), impatience (trying to force decisive battles in Belgium) and hypocrisy to his own military maxims (underestimating his enemy, leaving his flanks exposed) that led to Napoleon's final downfall.

Perhaps it was the over-achieving, perhaps it was illness and stomach cancer, perhaps he was just not clutch in the playoffs - what it has shown me is that while there was a lot to admire about Napoleon's focus and gusto, it probably wasn't sustainable for any human being.

The rise and fall of Napoleon, at least Andrew Roberts' version, was a narrative befitting Caesar, and perhaps that was deliberate either by Roberts or Napoleon himself.
It had all the drama of political and familial betrayals, marriage choices, the dramatic irony of it being the soldiers who suffered the most who chose to remain loyal when the prospect of civil war became necessary for Napoleon to regain the throne. The irony of a Jacobin general becoming a monarch. At least Napoleon had the benefit of those years in exile in which to complete his own memoirs.

The irony of a young author and his failed, unpublished history of Corsica, to go on and live a life and write an autobiography that would become the highest selling book of the 19th century.

Vive L'Empereur...

What Did I Learn From Napoleon This Week? Part 3

My mind was a tad weary of hearing about Napoleonic France after two weeks of Napoleon The Great, so I started last week by switching to journalist Jon Ronson's 2015 book So You've Been Publicly Shamed.

This non-fiction book had caught my eye because it delved into a topic I've been fascinated and horrified by in the time I used to use Twitter - the mob-like pile-ons of real people in the court of social media. Ronson's book looks at a number of infamous Twitter shamings, linking the phenomena back to the practice of stocks in the town square, multiplied exponentially by the psychological maelstrom that is social media.

I enjoyed Ronson's writing style. He was feeding me fragments of stories, forcing me to piece together the opinions myself. In the six years since 2015 I feel like witch hunts on social media have only intensified. And occasionally this is justified, like when no other avenue exists for politicians or police to be called out for abusing their power. But mostly it's disconcerting. The one conclusion that stuck with me from the book was that, even when they are getting people fired or driving them to suicide, those doing the shaming believe they are doing something good. That just made me feel worse.

The book was definitely thought provoking and insightful, and worth a read.

Speaking of those who believe they are doing good, Napoleon spent the rest of the week trying to reform Europe. Britain was his primary antagonist, and his solution to that was war against Russia, Austria and Portugal. He was also excommunicated by the Pope.
I did like that whenever another country signed a peace treaty with France, Napoleon would force the country's leader to promise eternal friendship with him as part of the deal.

Napoleon was very successful during this phase of his life, which has made me think about success as well.

One attribute regarding success he demonstrated was in recognising success, both his own and others. This was more than just (over-exaggerated) letters about battles. He commissioned a lot of paintings to capture significant moments and achievements. He was also dutiful in awarding medals on the battlefield - along with generous pensions - for all soldiers who demonstrated service, courage, or perhaps just had a cool last name...

Much of Napoleon's military and tactical success came from being a man of the men. This was unlike the generals and leaders in the opposing coalition armies. He wasn't afraid to have a ten minute power nap among the conscripts.
I learnt a lot about Napoleonic era battle mechanics this week - infantry, calvary and artillery. It is a bit more complicated than rolling 3 or 2 dice and draws going to the defender. The logic behind the big groups of dudes lining up and shooting at each other makes sense when you understand that communications across a hundred thousand men has to be done by word of mouth, or perhaps drumbeat and bugle. Also if you're in a long, wide line it means less people get hit by the same cannonball than if you were in a long column.

Armies did employ skirmisher divisions, and these men would run ahead of the big line of dudes to generally duke it out with the enemies' skirmishers coming the other way.

These battles tended to happen in whatever open farmland there was between cities, with small, quaint towns and villages becoming fighting hot spots and places to rest.
Rivers and hills dictated a lot of strategy, and given this was Europe there was a lot of those.

Napoleon was also a victim of success. Particularly after Austerlitz where, despite the victory, the Russian and Austrian empires learnt far more from the battle than Napoleon. Lessons which would lead to French overconfidence, and improved coalition tactics, in future battles. Also, Napoleon was so pumped after this victory that he tried to invent a saint in the Roman Catholic canon named after himself. This wasn't popular, and may have been part of why he was eventually excommunicated.

Napoleon also tried to solve real life murder mysteries that happened in Paris while he was on campaign. The book did not confirm if he did solve any of these.

Napoleon was not successful in the first decade of the 19th Century in finding a strategy to weaken England. The blockade and trade shenanigans that occurred during this time led to Napoleon's scientists successfully cultivating and developing a process to refine sugar from beets. His attempts to make cotton from thistles, and convert people from coffee to hickory, were less fruitful.

What Did I Learn From Napoleon This Week? Part 2

The last time we (the non-royal we) were reading about Napoleon he was a sexually-awkward, brilliant military strategist who was perfecting his French and avoiding the guillotine in the aftershocks of the French Revolution. Another 12 hours of Napoleon The Great later and he's being coronated as the Emperor of France, trying to wedge a replica crown of King Charlemagne over the top of a replica crown of laurels modelled after Julius Caesar's. In the same amount of time I've managed to rotate my forearm about 95° from my body and picked up half a dozen buckets of leaves.

I think this is the right part to point out that, while I'm interested in Napoleon and I related to him in some ways last week, I don't like Napoleon nor do I necessarily dislike him. He is, from an anthropologist’s perspective, extremely interesting and I judge his actions the same way I do for all historical and contemporary people: Like they’re characters in a prequel, and that morality can’t influence their destinies.

Napoleon spent his mid-twenties and early thirties across all parts of the world - from the Italian alps and Lombardy, to Malta and Alexandria and across the deserts of the Middle East, before eventually returning to France, pulling off coup-ception, rewriting an entire country’s legal system, introducing metric (primarily for commercial reasons), selling a massive chunk of the USA and hanging out with the pope.

Honestly, it makes me question how I have achieved so little in my life in comparison. But perhaps this is simply because I am so isolated, tucked away in between deserts and oceans in Australia, and humans just tend to get more things done when you live near the Mediterranean.

Napoleon’s Rules for success in conflict

Read the map
Bring along some scientists
Keep your pieces close together
Always follow the religion of the country you’re in (if a massive revolution has left your nation without religion, introduce whichever one will benefit you the most politically).
Remember the central position

Ivory Bellrope handles, and how to Negotiate Effectively

Concerned that the interior decorators working to renovate the dead King’s palace were ripping him off, Napoleon asked one for the cost of the ivory handle on a bell rope. He then cut it off and asked an aide to take it into Paris and buy a few more from the shops and to report back the cost. When the aide returned and confirmed the average price was 33% lower, Napoleon simply reduced the amount he paid to the renovators bill by 33%.
Note, you may need to become an emperor and execute a Duke for this to work.

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