Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Month: January, 2017

Napoleon the Great

Napoleon the Great by Andrew RobertsRoberts_Napoleon

Napoleon. The ‘god of war’ according to Carl von Clausewitz. A military leader in the pantheon of those known just by one name. Bonaparte modelled himself on these men (Alexander, Themistocles, Caesar), and through his achievements became one of them.

While I knew of the reputation, I knew very little of the man himself. Hence reaching for a more popular and engaging tome to begin setting the record straight. At 820 pages —a length I typically shun— I kept waiting for the story to lag, and the author to bore. But it never occurred. Some sections take a little more effort to chew through, but there is plenty of story to sustain a full tome of a biography.

The subject was a migrant who rose to ultimate power and identification with one of the great states of Europe. A believer in the French Revolution who compelled Europe to modernise their governments, while sliding into his own hereditary monarchy. A man of science and literature who was responsible for some of the worst bloodshed and needless waste in Europe’s long history. He led campaigns across Europe and Egypt, fought 60 battles —winning most of them— was Emperor at 34 and exiled twice.
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Rise of the Machines

Rise of the Machines: the lost history of cybernetics by Thomas RidRid_machines

If you want a new idea, read an old book. Thomas Rid has done precisely that to reveal the lost history of ‘cybernetics’. In turn he provides new insight to many of our most pressing contemporary philosophical, technological and social questions.

It’s rare to read a current affairs book that doesn’t deal in some way with the vast new power of machines. Typically, this challenge is presented as both new and future-oriented. AI is just around the corner. Mass unemployment from robotics will soon disrupt society. Robots fighting robots will be tomorrow’s battlespace.

Only, none of this is actually new. Rid traces three recurring themes which have shaped the history of ‘cybernetics’. Originally a scientific discipline it came to serve as a launch pad and language for a wide variety of communities who used the emergence of complex ‘thinking’ machines to rethink and challenge existing forms of life and social organisation.
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Light and Shadow

Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a Spy’s Son by Mark ColvinColvin_light

An ideal beach read. Mark Colvin tells an engaging story with wit and passion. Through the exploits of father and son this book ranges from violence and intrigue in Revolutionary Iran to the jungles of Vietnam and wide open steppes of remote Mongolia. Along the way we get stories of English boarding school life, the birth of Double J radio station (now Triple J) and forays into British and Australian politics.

It’s hard to say what exactly the focus of this book is and in one revealing aside late in the book Colvin acknowledges as much. The book is nominally about his father’s role as a spy, yet Colvin knew about this identity while his father was alive and seems largely reconciled to it and their relationship.

The book is also about his time as a journalist and foreign correspondent, yet most of the recent decades are skipped over in just a few pages. Ultimately, ‘Light and Shadow’ is an enjoyable, insightful memoir of a widely admired figure. And as the book sales show, that’s clearly enough.
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