Archive for Berezina

Berezina [book review]

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , , on May 14, 2016 by xi'an

On a whim, I bought this “travel book” in a nice bookstore at the end of Rue Mouffetard, Paris, when looking for a weekend travel guide! I was fairly intrigued about this road-trip on an antique Soviet side-car, following the route of Napoleon’s army when retreating from a burning Moscow. In fact, I have always been fascinated by the way Napoleon got mired into the Campaign of Russia, and not only because of Charles Joseph Minard‘s amazing graphical summary of the Campaign! Despite advices from scientists and diplomats, Napoleon did not want to pay any heed to the climate constraints. And he did not account either for the sacrificial tendencies of the Russian troops and irregulars. A predictable disaster of sorts… The book thus commemorates this retreat from Moscow by driving three side-cars to Paris in the heart of winter, in order to coincide with the arrival of the few survivors of the Grande Armée in Paris. The book however gets very quickly boring as the painfully slow and uncertain drive cannot equate the horror of the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Napoleon’s army fleeing back to Paris. Driving by sub-zero temperatures sharing roads with indifferent Ukrainian truck-drivers and repairing every now and then the side-cars that fell apart does not appeal for long, especially when  It only takes the side-cars 13 days to reach Paris and there is no tension in the road trip as they could really stop any time. On top of that, the discourse about the charisma of Napoleon and the complaints about the reduction of our life scope from heroic time to pampered materialists is pretty annoying, and so is the permanent glorification of the Russian soul. This type of chat does not really rise above the level of a blog series, trust an expert!

how far can we go with Minard’s map?!

Posted in Books, Linux, pictures, Statistics, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2014 by xi'an

Like many others, I discovered Minard’s map of the catastrophic 1812 Russian campaign of Napoleon in Tufte’s book. And I consider it a masterpiece for its elegant way of summarising some many levels of information about this doomed invasion of Russia. So when I spotted Menno-Jan Kraak’s Mapping Time, analysing the challenges of multidimensional cartography through this map and this Naepoleonic campaign, I decided to get a look at it.

Apart from the trivia about Kraak‘s familial connection with the Russian campaign and the Berezina crossing which killed one of his direct ancestors, his great-great-grandfather, along with a few dozen thousand others (even though this was not the most lethal part of the campaign), he brings different perspectives on the meaning of a map and the quantity of information one could or should display. This is not unlike other attempts at competiting with Minard, including those listed on Michael Friendly’s page. Incl. the cleaner printing above. And the dumb pie-chart… A lot more can be done in 2013 than in 1869, indeed, including the use of animated videos, but I remain somewhat sceptical as to the whole purpose of the book. It is a beautiful object, with wide margins and nice colour reproductions, for sure, alas… I just do not see the added value in Kraak‘s work. I would even go as far as thinking this is an a-statistical approach, namely that by trying to produce as much data as possible into the picture, he forgets the whole point of the drawing which is I think to show the awful death rate of the Grande Armée along this absurd trip to and from Moscow and the impact of temperature (although the rise that led to the thaw of the Berezina and the ensuing disaster does not seem correlated with the big gap at the crossing of the river). If more covariates were available, two further dimensions could be added: the proportions of deaths due to battle, guerilla, exhaustion, desertion, and the counterpart map of the Russian losses. In the end, when reading Mapping Time, I learned more about the history surrounding this ill-planned military campaign than about the proper display of data towards informative and unbiased graphs.