Saturday, March 30, 2013

Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March book review

I see that this is an old-established and a common practice, each fresh writer being invariably persuaded that he will either attain greater certainty in the materials of his narrative, or surpass the rudeness of antiquity in the excellence of his style. However this may be, it will still be a great satisfaction to me to have taken my part, too, in investing, to the utmost of my abilities, the annals of the foremost nation in the world with a deeper interest; and if in such a crowd of writers my own reputation is thrown into the shade, I would console myself with the renown and greatness of those who eclipse my fame.
Livy, from the Preface to the History of Rome

During my childhood the epitome of a fat book was War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Maybe this notion came from the Saturday cartoons or from the comic books where a character would say: "Oh, you want to read something? Here's War & Peace" and an imposingly fat volume would land on the desk (am I making this all up?) . With such images it comes to no surprise that few people venture to take a crack at it and indeed it is a large tome and the Russian names don't help. For years it has held a fascination on me coupled with the promise of some day. The opportunity finally has come with Adam Zamoyski's Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March.

I figure that Russian readers have it easier when reading War & Peace because they know about the salient points of the 1812 invasion already and can flesh out the details on the go with the novel. The rest of us need some kind of intro to the whole affair and Moscow 1812 plays this role nicely. I figured that I would read this first and then, at last, read and enjoy W&P in all its glory.

Almost certainly the most surprising aspect on digging into this war is that the so-called facts and preconceptions one generally has are wrong. Popular culture is to blame, as well as slanted research, conflicting accounts, access to sources and biased beliefs through the years. With Zamoyski, the story is straightened  with a greater access to source material than ever before.

The narrative is adequately fluid starting in 1807 with the Tilsit reunion and working itself to Borodino, Moscow and back. For casual readers this is a boon as not much previous Napoleon background knowledge is needed to follow the events. Although it is a large volume, 1812 reads like a novel itself letting the reader little opportunity of getting bored.

The events are narrated through the French over the Russian point of view in  about a ratio of 2:1.The writing is fluid and  the events move on swiftly.  There are about a dozen maps illustrating the troops and columns movements at critical junctures and are placed in timely fashion at, or close to, the pages where the action takes place.

It is also full of imagery. One of the distinctive aspects of this campaign are the horrors that the troops suffered through. Mr Zamoyski gives clear accounts of them all, but thankfully he doesn't linger or relish on them. Still, the volume of these is so large, that some readers may be repelled by the hell-on-earth account. There are also several reproductions of drawings of the main figures and of the troop conditions.

For hardcore Napoleon buffs and fans, there may not be enough military nitty-gritty details to keep them sated. Just an opinion, but I figure these that readers will already know much of what happened already and would pretty much go through the same material once again. However, the book contains extensive references that they could've previously missed and Zamoyski is about the most current on the subject.

Overall, a very satisfying book. If you like history books, you won't be disappointed. As for W&P I am finally reading it now.

4 stars

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Paganini violin concertos: how to listen

Where could I have gotten the idea from? I believe that an instrument concerto is nothing more than a medium for the featured instrument to showcase its possibilities with the helping hand of the orchestra on various parts and by itself on the solos. Probably the best examples of this odd notion of mine are Paganini's violin concertos.

If you ever wish to listen them to, I would recommend you to listen them to backwards, starting with the sixth and finishing with the first. In my own opinion, as the numbers decrease the experience gets better and as a listener you build momentum as you near zero. Only a slight modification though: save #4 for the the very last. This one is very special, not only for the music itself, but because it was performed live just once by Paganini and was lost until it was rediscovered in the 50s. So we are lucky to have the chance to listen to it at all.

Many serious listeners would point out that Paganini's concertos are not the best of the genre and that in fact are poorly orchestrated. Even more, they would put forth some  (in their opinion) better alternatives, such as the violin concertos of Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruch & Sibelius. In the interest of objectivity I decided to check all of these out and see if this is the case. As of yet, I've not been able to locate Schumman's concerto though and am unwilling to listen to it from a Youtube video. I'll let you know when I finally get around to listen to all these other concertos.

Before leaving Paganini altogether, I have to say that, besides the concertos you must really check out, the capricci of course , some of the guitar music, the Maestosa Sonata Sentimentale and the variations on God Save the King.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

How to choose a chair: community service

I'm reluctant about returning to health topics. Notwithstanding, I found what follows in my hard drive, so I thought it best to post it as a community service.  I wrote when in pain, so it shows. I'm fine now, but still think what I wrote back then might benefit someone

chair closeup; source:; owner Benjamin MillerChoosing a chair is mired with difficulties. It is hard to believe that such a common piece of furniture could pose any obstacle, but this is the case.  For instance: the fact that there is no "perfect" chair, the huge variety, the high prices of top end models and the impediment to thoroughly test them before purchase.

Perfect chairs

Digging in Herman Miller's (the maker of the Aeron chairs) website I stumbled upon a small PDF named “If the Chair Fits" which states that there is no perfect office chair because there is no perfect body.  If one of the leading chair manufacturers admits this, we must listen and get over it.  There's no sense in investing too much time looking for the perfect chair because there's none.


On the other hand, there are chairs that fit better than others.  Many of the tens of thousands of the models out there are likely to serve well  different persons.  Sifting through all these models is another matter.  From what I've read, there are certain shortcuts to this effect.  First, the chair must support as much of the back as possible;  there are some models that even support the head and neck.  Then, it must have armrests.  These are important because they let you to take off weight from your spine and stop you from having your arms hanging down.  Some of the better chairs permit you to adjust their height.  There are several people that hold that a lumbar support or pad is a must because it gives your vertebrae in that area a space to rest and/or serve you as a way to keep the natural curves of your spine.  I am dubious about this.  I have tried them and I get the impression that far from keeping your natural curves, it accentuates them by pushing too much in, which for some of us, is the problem we exactly want to solve.  Plus, they can been very uncomfortable, even painful.  I heard someone describe the feeling as "like having someone's #*$ing elbow jabbing you there".  If you feel that you really need it, you can always use a rolled up towel as a substitute (try many sizes at different heights). I think that the people at Herman Miller got it right with their 'posture fit' add-on which supports the sacrum rather than the lumbar area; and its adjustable to boot.  Finally,  your chair must also be height adjustable. 

High prices

Some of the better chairs are priced at ridiculous amounts.  As with other items, paying more  for a chair is no guarantee of better performance.  If you like any of these high-priced chairs, there might be no other way out other than to bite the bullet.  Still, you might save a couple of hundred by buying used ones at eBay.

Testing them

There is no way to judge what a chair will feel like by just looking a catalog.  You must actually go to the exhibition rooms and sit on them.  A little research in the Internet is okay to save you time, but it must serve you as backing, not substitute.  Once you have found a chair that strikes your fancy, find a dealer that has money back guarantee.  This way you can test it at your leisure without being stuck with an unsatisfactory model.  If merchandise return is not possible, see if any of your friends or acquaintances has one that is willing to lend you.  As last resort, sneak in (with permission!  I do not condone trespassing) on weekends or evenings to office buildings and do your testing there.

Standing desks

If no chair will adapt to your body, consider a standing desk. You can use one as your main desk or switch back and forth with a regular one and chair. This way you can avoid extended sitting and still be productive.



Easy Way To Test the Chair

Divide a sheet of paper in 8 columns.  For headers, write: date & time; neck; arms; upper back right; upper back left; lower back right; lower back left; bottom.  Before sitting down on test chair, jot down how you feel for each body part (give a number from 1 to 10).  Then, sit down properly for half an hour, reassess, take a 5 to 10 minute break (walk around) and repeat for two to three hours.  Do this for at least four days (these can be nonconsecutive) or less if you quickly decide that the chair is not for you.  Ideally, your numbers should stay stable on the upper end throughout the trial.


Saturday, March 9, 2013

Speech recognition settings tests

Always in the quest for better performance, I decided to fiddle around with the various audio settings available for speech recognition and see if any of them yielded better results.

Base system (unless noted otherwise):

Core i5 760 no overclock, 4 gig ram, Gigabyte GA-P55-USB3 motherboard
Win 7
Dragon NaturallySpeaking 11.0
Andrea PureAudio USB soundpod external soundcard
VXI microphone


A new user with only the initial training
Same text: National Geographic magazine November 2005 page 1: Who Knew?
Change a variable
Compare number of misrecognitions on each variable change
If uncertain, repeat

Raw data:

# of misrecognitions
Nc= noise cancellation
Nonc= no noice cancellation

30 Micro boost

Nc vxi
Nc+ LB

0 boost

NC Vxi

Vxi dif Lmodel

Vxi Nc

Other text

Vxi nc
Vxi dif Lmodel
Vxi dif Lmodel NC


VXI Within a virtual machine


Vxi dif Lmodel 10db boost

Vxi Nc



Dragon trained
Win7 Speech recognition no training

Acoustic adaptation

Pre optimized
Post round#2


  • A sound pod is better than integrated sound
  • Microphone boost, software noise cancellation and surround settings are best left alone
  • The VXI microphone is way better than my old Andrea NC8
  • From the get go, Dragon NaturallySpeaking is better than Windows speech recognition
  • There is no impact on using it within a virtual machine
  • Training the software and correcting misrecognitions works, though I've had mixed results with the acoustic adaptation feature
  • Just from personal experience, there are limits to training: some misrecognitions will always remain

Saturday, March 2, 2013

My first Oolong

Green & blue parakeets. Taken by: Benjamin Miller; Source: Up until a few days ago there had been a glaring gaping hole in my tea experience: I had never tasted oolong tea before. I decided to see what it was like once and for all. I intended to get a yamamotoyama packet at my local Japanese store, but standing before the shelves I found that they only had it in teabags. There was only one other oolong which was an unbranded one in bulk; this one in loose leaf. I bought 100 g of it for $1.5 which makes it the cheapest tea that I have ever purchased. After opening the cellophane bag I found that it not only contained the tea leaves proper but a hodgepodge of sticks and dust in about equal proportions and also, I kid you not, a half an inch piece of cardboard. With just a bit of trepidation I prepared myself a teapot of it and despite of its irregularities and cheap price it turned out to be both tasty and refreshing. I plan to remove the sticks and another foreign material out, enjoy, and get a better one in the future. I also discovered that this tea is very, how should I put it, fluffy in that it takes more space in the container for the same weight than black tea, pretty much the same way as white tea does. Of course, the added materials and debris do not help.

(Had a photo of the tea, but seems I've lost it [the photo, not my marbles] . Here's a parakeets photo instead)