Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Reading List: The Second World Wars

Hanson, Victor Davis. The Second World Wars. New York: Basic Books, 2017. ISBN 978-0-465-06698-8.
This may be the best single-volume history of World War II ever written. While it does not get into the low-level details of the war or its individual battles (don't expect to see maps with boxes, front lines, and arrows), it provides an encyclopedic view of the first truly global conflict with a novel and stunning insight every few pages.

Nothing like World War II had ever happened before and, thankfully, has not happened since. While earlier wars may have seemed to those involved in them as involving all of the powers known to them, they were at most regional conflicts. By contrast, in 1945, there were only eleven countries in the entire world which were neutral—not engaged on one side or the other. (There were, of course, far fewer countries then than now—most of Africa and South Asia were involved as colonies of belligerent powers in Europe.) And while war had traditionally been a matter for kings, generals, and soldiers, in this total war the casualties were overwhelmingly (70–80%) civilian. Far from being confined to battlefields, many of the world's great cities, from Amsterdam to Yokohama, were bombed, shelled, or besieged, often with disastrous consequences for their inhabitants.

“Wars” in the title refers to Hanson's observation that what we call World War II was, in reality, a collection of often unrelated conflicts which happened to occur at the same time. The settling of ethnic and territorial scores across borders in Europe had nothing to do with Japan's imperial ambitions in China, or Italy's in Africa and Greece. It was sometimes difficult even to draw a line dividing the two sides in the war. Japan occupied colonies in Indochina under the administration of Vichy France, notwithstanding Japan and Vichy both being nominal allies of Germany. The Soviet Union, while making a massive effort to defeat Nazi Germany on the land, maintained a non-aggression pact with Axis power Japan until days before its surrender and denied use of air bases in Siberia to Allied air forces for bombing campaigns against the home islands.

Combatants in different theatres might have well have been fighting in entirely different wars, and sometimes in different centuries. Air crews on long-range bombing missions above Germany and Japan had nothing in common with Japanese and British forces slugging it out in the jungles of Burma, nor with attackers and defenders fighting building to building in the streets of Stalingrad, or armoured combat in North Africa, or the duel of submarines and convoys to keep the Atlantic lifeline between the U.S. and Britain open, or naval battles in the Pacific, or the amphibious landings on islands they supported.

World War II did not start as a global war, and did not become one until the German invasion of the Soviet Union and the Japanese attack on U.S., British, and Dutch territories in the Pacific. Prior to those events, it was a collection of border wars, launched by surprise by Axis powers against weaker neighbours which were, for the most part, successful. Once what Churchill called the Grand Alliance (Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States) was forged, the outcome was inevitable, yet the road to victory was long and costly, and its length impossible to foresee at the outset.

The entire war was unnecessary, and its horrific cost can be attributed to a failure of deterrence. From the outset, there was no way the Axis could have won. If, as seemed inevitable, the U.S. were to become involved, none of the Axis powers possessed the naval or air resources to strike the U.S. mainland, no less contemplate invading and occupying it. While all of Germany and Japan's industrial base and population were, as the war progressed, open to bombardment day and night by long-range, four engine, heavy bombers escorted by long-range fighters, the Axis possessed no aircraft which could reach the cities of the U.S. east coast, the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma, or the industrial base of the midwest. While the U.S. and Britain fielded aircraft carriers which allowed them to project power worldwide, Germany and Italy had no effective carrier forces and Japan's were reduced by constant attacks by U.S. aviation.

This correlation of forces was known before the outbreak of the war. Why did Japan and then Germany launch wars which were almost certain to result in forces ranged against them which they could not possibly defeat? Hanson attributes it to a mistaken belief that, to use Hitler's terminology, the will would prevail. The West had shown itself unwilling to effectively respond to aggression by Japan in China, Italy in Ethiopia, and Germany in Czechoslovakia, and Axis leaders concluded from this, catastrophically for their populations, that despite their industrial, demographic, and strategic military weakness, there would be no serious military response to further aggression (the “bore war” which followed the German invasion of Poland and the declarations of war on Germany by France and Britain had to reinforce this conclusion). Hanson observes, writing of Hitler, “Not even Napoleon had declared war in succession on so many great powers without any idea how to destroy their ability to make war, or, worse yet, in delusion that tactical victories would depress stronger enemies into submission.” Of the Japanese, who attacked the U.S. with no credible capability or plan for invading and occupying the U.S. homeland, he writes, “Tojo was apparently unaware or did not care that there was no historical record of any American administration either losing or quitting a war—not the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, or World War I—much less one that Americans had not started.” (Maybe they should have waited a few decades….)

Compounding the problems of the Axis was that it was essentially an alliance in name only. There was little or no co-ordination among its parties. Hitler provided Mussolini no advance notice of the attack on the Soviet Union. Mussolini did not warn Hitler of his attacks on Albania and Greece. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was as much a surprise to Germany as to the United States. Japanese naval and air assets played no part in the conflict in Europe, nor did German technology and manpower contribute to Japan's war in the Pacific. By contrast, the Allies rapidly settled on a division of labour: the Soviet Union would concentrate on infantry and armoured warfare (indeed, four out of five German soldiers who died in the war were killed by the Red Army), while Britain and the U.S. would deploy their naval assets to blockade the Axis, keep the supply lines open, and deliver supplies to the far-flung theatres of the war. U.S. and British bomber fleets attacked strategic targets and cities in Germany day and night. The U.S. became the untouchable armoury of the alliance, delivering weapons, ammunition, vehicles, ships, aircraft, and fuel in quantities which eventually surpassed those all other combatants on both sides combined. Britain and the U.S. shared technology and cooperated in its development in areas such as radar, antisubmarine warfare, aircraft engines (including jet propulsion), and nuclear weapons, and shared intelligence gleaned from British codebreaking efforts.

As a classicist, Hanson examines the war in its incarnations in each of the elements of antiquity: Earth (infantry), Air (strategic and tactical air power), Water (naval and amphibious warfare), and Fire (artillery and armour), and adds People (supreme commanders, generals, workers, and the dead). He concludes by analysing why the Allies won and what they ended up winning—and losing. Britain lost its empire and position as a great power (although due to internal and external trends, that might have happened anyway). The Soviet Union ended up keeping almost everything it had hoped to obtain through its initial partnership with Hitler. The United States emerged as the supreme economic, industrial, technological, and military power in the world and promptly entangled itself in a web of alliances which would cause it to underwrite the defence of countries around the world and involve it in foreign conflicts far from its shores.

Hanson concludes,

The tragedy of World War II—a preventable conflict—was that sixty million people had perished to confirm that the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain were far stronger than the fascist powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy after all—a fact that should have been self-evident and in no need of such a bloody laboratory, if not for prior British appeasement, American isolationism, and Russian collaboration.

At 720 pages, this is not a short book (the main text is 590 pages; the rest are sources and end notes), but there is so much wisdom and startling insights among those pages that you will be amply rewarded for the time you spend reading them.

Posted at 16:23 Permalink

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Reading List: Use of Force

Thor, Brad. Use of Force. New York: Atria Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-4767-8939-2.
This is the seventeenth novel in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). As this book begins, Scot Harvath, operative for the Carlton Group, a private outfit that does “the jobs the CIA won't do” is under cover at the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. He and his team are tracking a terrorist thought to be conducting advance surveillance for attacks within the U.S. Only as the operation unfolds does he realise he's walked into the middle of a mass casualty attack already in progress. He manages to disable his target, but another suicide bomber detonates in a crowded area, with many dead and injured.

Meanwhile, following the capsizing of a boat smuggling “migrants” into Sicily, the body of a much-wanted and long-sought terrorist chemist, known to be researching chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, is fished out of the Mediterranean. Why would he, after flying under the radar for years in the Near East and Maghreb, be heading to Europe? The CIA reports, “Over the last several months, we've been picking up chatter about an impending series of attacks, culminating in something very big, somewhere in Europe” … “We think that whatever he was planning, it's ready to go operational.”

With no leads other than knowledge from a few survivors of the sinking that the boat sailed from Libya and the name of the migrant smuggler who arranged their passage, Harvath sets off under cover to that country to try to find who arranged the chemist's passage and his intended destination in Europe. Accompanied by his pick-up team from Burning Man (given the urgency, there wasn't time to recruit one more familiar with the region), Harvath begins, in his unsubtle way, to locate the smuggler and find out what he knows. Unfortunately, as is so often the case in such operations, there is somebody else with the team who doesn't figure in its official roster—a fellow named Murphy.

Libya is chaotic and dangerous enough under any circumstances, but when you whack the hornets' nest, things can get very exciting in short order, and not in a good way. Harvath and his team find themselves in a mad chase and shoot-out, and having to summon assets which aren't supposed to be there, in order to survive.

Meanwhile, another savage terrorist attack in Europe has confirmed the urgency of the threat and that more are likely to come. And back in the imperial capital, intrigue within the CIA seems aimed at targeting Harvath's boss and the head of the operation. Is it connected somehow? It's time to deploy the diminutive super-hacker Nicholas and one of the CIA's most secret and dangerous computer security exploits in a honeypot operation to track down the source of the compromise.

If it weren't bad enough being chased by Libyan militias while trying to unravel an ISIS terror plot, Harvath soon finds himself in the lair of the Calabrian Mafia, and being thwarted at every turn by civil servants insisting he play by the rules when confronting those who make their own rules. Finally, multiple clues begin to limn the outline of the final attack, and it is dire indeed. Harvath must make an improbable and uneasy alliance to confront it.

The pacing of the book is somewhat odd. There is a tremendous amount of shoot-’em-up action in the middle, but as the conclusion approaches and the ultimate threat must be dealt with, it's as if the author felt himself running out of typewriter ribbon (anybody remember what that was?) and having to wind things up in just a few pages. Were I his editor, I'd have suggested trimming some of the detail in the middle and making the finale more suspenseful. But then, what do I know? Brad Thor has sold nearly fifteen million books, and I haven't. This is a perfectly workable thriller which will keep you turning the pages, but I didn't find it as compelling as some of his earlier novels. The attention to detail and accuracy are, as one has come to expect, superb. You don't need to have read any of the earlier books in the series to enjoy this one; what few details you need to know are artfully mentioned in passing.

The next installment in the Scot Harvath saga, Spymaster, will be published in July, 2018.

Posted at 16:36 Permalink

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Reading List: The Naked Communist

Skousen, W. Cleon. The Naked Communist. Salt Lake City: Izzard Ink, [1958, 1964, 1966, 1979, 1986, 2007, 2014] 2017. ISBN 978-1-5454-0215-3.
In 1935 the author joined the FBI in a clerical position while attending law school at night. In 1940, after receiving his law degree, he was promoted to Special Agent and continued in that capacity for the rest of his 16 year career at the Bureau. During the postwar years, one of the FBI's top priorities was investigating and responding to communist infiltration and subversion of the United States, a high priority of the Soviet Union. During his time at the FBI Skousen made the acquaintance of several of the FBI's experts on communist espionage and subversion, but he perceived a lack of information, especially available to the general public, which explained communism: where did it come from, what are its philosophical underpinnings, what do communists believe, what are their goals, and how do they intend to achieve them?

In 1951, Skousen left the FBI to take a teaching position at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. In 1957, he accepted an offer to become Chief of Police in Salt Lake City, a job he held for the next three and a half years before being fired after raiding an illegal poker game in which newly-elected mayor J. Bracken Lee was a participant. During these years, Skousen continued his research on communism, mostly consulting original sources. By 1958, his book was ready for publication. After struggling to find a title, he settled on “The Naked Communist”, suggested by film producer and ardent anti-communist Cecil B. DeMille.

Spurned by the major publishers, Skousen paid for printing the first edition of 5000 copies out of his own pocket. Sales were initially slow, but quickly took off. Within two years of the book's launch, press runs were 10,000 to 20,000 copies with one run of 50,000. In 1962, the book passed the milestone of one million copies in print. As the 1960s progressed and it became increasingly unfashionable to oppose communist tyranny and enslavement, sales tapered off, but picked up again after the publication of a 50th anniversary edition in 2008 (a particularly appropriate year for such a book).

This 60th anniversary edition, edited and with additional material by the author's son, Paul B. Skousen, contains most of the original text with a description of the history of the work and additions bringing events up to date. It is sometimes jarring when you transition from text written in 1958 to that from the standpoint of more than a half century hence, but for the most part it works. One of the most valuable parts of the book is its examination of the intellectual foundations of communism in the work of Marx and Engels. Like the dogma of many other cults, these ideas don't stand up well to critical scrutiny, especially in light of what we've learned about the universe since they were proclaimed. Did you know that Engels proposed a specific theory of the origin of life based upon his concepts of Dialectical Materialism? It was nonsense then and it's nonsense now, but it's still in there. What's more, this poppycock is at the centre of the communist theories of economics, politics, and social movements, where it makes no more sense than in the realm of biology and has been disastrous every time some society was foolish enough to try it.

All of this would be a historical curiosity were it not for the fact that communists, notwithstanding their running up a body count of around a hundred million in the countries where they managed to come to power, and having impoverished people around the world, have managed to burrow deep into the institutions of the West: academia, media, politics, judiciary, and the administrative state. They may not call themselves communists (it's “social democrats”, “progressives”, “liberals”, and other terms, moving on after each one becomes discredited due to the results of its policies and the borderline insanity of those who so identify), but they have been patiently putting the communist agenda into practice year after year, decade after decade. What is that agenda? Let's see.

In the 8th edition of this book, published in 1961, the following “forty-five goals of Communism” were included. Derived by the author from the writings of current and former communists and testimony before Congress, many seemed absurd or fantastically overblown to readers at the time. The complete list, as follows, was read into the Congressional Record in 1963, placing it in the public domain. Here is the list.

Goals of Communism

  1. U.S. acceptance of coexistence as the only alternative to atomic war.
  2. U.S. willingness to capitulate in preference to engaging in atomic war.
  3. Develop the illusion that total disarmament by the United States would be a demonstration of moral strength.
  4. Permit free trade between all nations regardless of Communist affiliation and regardless of whether or not items could be used for war.
  5. Extension of long-term loans to Russia and Soviet satellites.
  6. Provide American aid to all nations regardless of Communist domination.
  7. Grant recognition of Red China. Admission of Red China to the U.N.
  8. Set up East and West Germany as separate states in spite of Khrushchev's promise in 1955 to settle the German question by free elections under supervision of the U.N.
  9. Prolong the conferences to ban atomic tests because the United States has agreed to suspend tests as long as negotiations are in progress.
  10. Allow all Soviet satellites individual representation in the U.N.
  11. Promote the U.N. as the only hope for mankind. If its charter is rewritten, demand that it be set up as a one-world government with its own independent armed forces. (Some Communist leaders believe the world can be taken over as easily by the U.N. as by Moscow. Sometimes these two centers compete with each other as they are now doing in the Congo.)
  12. Resist any attempt to outlaw the Communist Party.
  13. Do away with all loyalty oaths.
  14. Continue giving Russia access to the U.S. Patent Office.
  15. Capture one or both of the political parties in the United States.
  16. Use technical decisions of the courts to weaken basic American institutions by claiming their activities violate civil rights.
  17. Get control of the schools. Use them as transmission belts for socialism and current Communist propaganda. Soften the curriculum. Get control of teachers' associations. Put the party line in textbooks.
  18. Gain control of all student newspapers.
  19. Use student riots to foment public protests against programs or organizations which are under Communist attack.
  20. Infiltrate the press. Get control of book-review assignments, editorial writing, policymaking positions.
  21. Gain control of key positions in radio, TV, and motion pictures.
  22. Continue discrediting American culture by degrading all forms of artistic expression. An American Communist cell was told to “eliminate all good sculpture from parks and buildings, substitute shapeless, awkward and meaningless forms.”
  23. Control art critics and directors of art museums. “Our plan is to promote ugliness, repulsive, meaningless art.”
  24. Eliminate all laws governing obscenity by calling them “censorship” and a violation of free speech and free press.
  25. Break down cultural standards of morality by promoting pornography and obscenity in books, magazines, motion pictures, radio, and TV.
  26. Present homosexuality, degeneracy and promiscuity as “normal, natural, healthy.”
  27. Infiltrate the churches and replace revealed religion with “social” religion. Discredit the Bible and emphasize the need for intellectual maturity which does not need a “religious crutch.”
  28. Eliminate prayer or any phase of religious expression in the schools on the ground that it violates the principle of “separation of church and state.”
  29. Discredit the American Constitution by calling it inadequate, old-fashioned, out of step with modern needs, a hindrance to cooperation between nations on a worldwide basis.
  30. Discredit the American Founding Fathers. Present them as selfish aristocrats who had no concern for the “common man.”
  31. Belittle all forms of American culture and discourage the teaching of American history on the ground that it was only a minor part of the “big picture.” Give more emphasis to Russian history since the Communists took over.
  32. Support any socialist movement to give centralized control over any part of the culture—education, social agencies, welfare programs, mental health clinics, etc.
  33. Eliminate all laws or procedures which interfere with the operation of the Communist apparatus.
  34. Eliminate the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
  35. Discredit and eventually dismantle the FBI.
  36. Infiltrate and gain control of more unions.
  37. Infiltrate and gain control of big business.
  38. Transfer some of the powers of arrest from the police to social agencies. Treat all behavioral problems as psychiatric disorders which no one but psychiatrists can understand or treat.
  39. Dominate the psychiatric profession and use mental health laws as a means of gaining coercive control over those who oppose Communist goals.
  40. Discredit the family as an institution. Encourage promiscuity and easy divorce.
  41. Emphasize the need to raise children away from the negative influence of parents. Attribute prejudices, mental blocks and retarding of children to suppressive influence of parents.
  42. Create the impression that violence and insurrection are legitimate aspects of the American tradition; that students and special-interest groups should rise up and use “united force” to solve economic, political or social problems.
  43. Overthrow all colonial governments before native populations are ready for self-government.
  44. Internationalize the Panama Canal.
  45. Repeal the Connally Reservation so the US can not prevent the World Court from seizing jurisdiction over domestic problems. Give the World Court jurisdiction over domestic problems. Give the World Court jurisdiction over nations and individuals alike.

In chapter 13 of the present edition, a copy of this list is reproduced with commentary on the extent to which these goals have been accomplished as of 2017. What's your scorecard? How many of these seem extreme or unachievable from today's perspective?

When Skousen was writing his book, the world seemed divided into two camps: one communist and the other committed (more or less) to personal and economic liberty. In the free world, there were those advancing the cause of the collectivist slavers, but mostly covertly. What is astonishing today is that, despite more than a century of failure and tragedy resulting from communism, there are more and more who openly advocate for it or its equivalents (or an even more benighted medieval ideology masquerading as a religion which shares communism's disregard for human life and liberty, and willingness to lie, cheat, discard treaties, and murder to achieve domination).

When advocates of this deadly cult of slavery and death are treated with respect while those who defend the Enlightenment values of life, liberty, and property are silenced, this book is needed more than ever.

Posted at 20:19 Permalink

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Reading List: Schrödinger's Gat

Kroese, Robert. Schrödinger's Gat. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4903-1821-9.
It was pure coincidence (or was it?) that caused me to pick up this book immediately after finishing Dean Radin's Real Magic (May 2018), but it is a perfect fictional companion to that work. Robert Kroese, whose Starship Grifters (February 2018) is the funniest science fiction novel I've read in the last several years, here delivers a tour de force grounded in quantum theory, multiple worlds, free will, the nature of consciousness, determinism versus uncertainty, the nature of genius, and the madness which can result from thinking too long and deeply about these enigmatic matters. This is a novel, not a work of philosophy or physics, and the story moves along smartly with interesting characters including a full-on villain and an off-stage…well, we're not really sure. In a postscript, the author explicitly lists the “cheats” he used to make the plot work but notes, “The remarkable thing about writing this book was how few liberties I actually had to take.”

The story is narrated by Paul Bayes (whose name should be a clue we're about to ponder what we can know in an uncertain world), who we meet as he is ready to take his life by jumping under a BART train at a Bay Area station. Paul considers himself a failure: failed crime writer, failed father whose wife divorced him and took the kids, and undistinguished high school English teacher with little hope of advancement. Perhaps contributing to his career problems, Paul is indecisive. Kill himself or just walk away—why not flip a coin? Paul's life is spared through the intervention of a mysterious woman who he impulsively follows on a madcap adventure which ends up averting a potential mass murder on San Francisco's Embarcadero. Only after, does he learn her name, Tali. She agrees to meet him for dinner the next day and explain everything.

Paul shows up at the restaurant, but Tali doesn't. Has he been stood up? He knows next to nothing about Tali—not even her last name, but after some time on the Internet following leads from their brief conversation the day before he discovers a curious book by a recently-retired Stanford physics professor titled Fate and Consciousness—hardly the topics you'd expect one with his background to expound upon. After reading some of the odd text, he decides to go to the source.

This launches Paul into an series of adventures which cause him to question the foundations of reality: to what extent do we really have free will, and how much is the mindless gears of determinism turning toward the inevitable? Why does the universe seem to “fight back” when we try to impose our will upon it? Is there a “force”, and can we detect disturbances in it and act upon them? (The technology described in the story is remarkably similar to the one to which I have contributed to developing and deploying off and on for the last twenty years.) If such a thing could be done, who might be willing to kill to obtain the power it would confer? Is the universe a passive player in the unfolding of the future, or an active and potentially ruthless agent?

All of these questions are explored in a compelling story with plenty of action as Paul grapples with the mysteries confronting him, incorporating prior discoveries into the emerging picture. This is an entertaining, rewarding, and thought-provoking read which, although entirely fiction, may not be any more weird than the universe we inhabit.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 16:26 Permalink

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Reading List: Real Magic

Radin, Dean. Real Magic. New York: Harmony Books, 2018. ISBN 978-1-5247-5882-0.
From its beginnings in the 19th century as “psychical research”, there has always been something dodgy and disreputable about parapsychology: the scientific study of phenomena, frequently reported across all human cultures and history, such as clairvoyance, precognition, telepathy, communication with the dead or non-material beings, and psychokinesis (mental influence on physical processes). All of these disparate phenomena have in common that there is no known physical theory which can explain how they might work. In the 19th century, science was much more willing to proceed from observations and evidence, then try to study them under controlled conditions, and finally propose and test theories about how they might work. Today, many scientists are inclined to put theory first, rejecting any evidence of phenomena for which no theory exists to explain it.

In such an intellectual environment, those who study such things, now called parapsychologists, have been, for the most part, very modest in their claims, careful to distinguish their laboratory investigations, mostly involving ordinary subjects, from extravagant reports of shamans and psychics, whether contemporary or historical, and scrupulous in the design and statistical analysis of their experiments. One leader in the field is Dean Radin, author of the present book, and four times president of the Parapsychological Association, a professional society which is an affiliate of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dr. Radin is chief scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, California, where he pursues laboratory research in parapsychology. In his previous books, including Entangled Minds (August 2007), he presents the evidence for various forms of human perception which seem to defy conventional explanation. He refrains from suggesting mechanisms or concluding whether what is measured is causation or correlation. Rather, he argues that the body of accumulated evidence from his work and that of others, in recent experiments conducted under the strictest protocols to eliminate possible fraud, post-selection of data, and with blinding and statistical rigour which often exceed those of clinical trials of pharmaceuticals, provides evidence that “something is going on” which we don't understand that would be considered discovery of a new phenomenon if it originated in a “hard science” field such as particle physics.

Here, Radin argues that the accumulated evidence for the phenomena parapsychologists have been studying in the laboratory for decades is so persuasive to all except sceptics who no amount of evidence would suffice to persuade, that it is time for parapsychologists and those interested in their work to admit that what they're really studying is magic. “Not the fictional magic of Harry Potter, the feigned magic of Harry Houdini, or the fraudulent magic of con artists. Not blue lightning bolts springing from the fingertips, aerial combat on broomsticks, sleight-of-hand tricks, or any of the other elaborations of artistic license and special effects.” Instead, real magic, as understood for millennia, which he divides into three main categories:

  • Force of will: mental influence on the physical world, traditionally associated with spell-casting and other forms of “mind over matter”.
  • Divination: perceiving objects or events distant in time and space, traditionally involving such practices as reading the Tarot or projecting consciousness to other places.
  • Theurgy: communicating with non-material consciousness: mediums channelling spirits or communicating with the dead, summoning demons.

As Radin describes, it was only after years of work in parapsychology that he finally figured out why it is that, while according to a 2005 Gallup pool, 75% of people in the United States believe in one or more phenomena considered “paranormal”, only around 0.001% of scientists are engaged in studying these experiences. What's so frightening, distasteful, or disreputable about them? It's because they all involve some kind of direct interaction between human consciousness and the objective, material world or, in other words magic. Scientists are uncomfortable enough with consciousness as it is: they don't have any idea how it emerges from what, in their reductionist models, is a computer made of meat, to the extent that some scientists deny the existence of consciousness entirely and dismiss it as a delusion. (Indeed, studying the origin of consciousness is almost as disreputable in academia as parapsychology.)

But if we must admit the existence of this mysterious thing called consciousness, along with other messy concepts such as free will, at least we must keep it confined within the skull: not roaming around and directly perceiving things far away or in the future, affecting physical events, or existing independent of brains. That would be just too weird.

And yet most religions, from those of traditional societies to the most widely practiced today, include descriptions of events and incorporate practices which are explicitly magical according to Radin's definition. Paragraphs 2115–2117 of the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church begin by stating that “God can reveal the future to his prophets or to other saints.” and then go on to prohibit “Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums…”. But if these things did not exist, or did not work, then why would there be a need to forbid them? Perhaps it's because, despite religion's incorporating magic into its belief system and practices, it also wishes to enforce a monopoly on the use of magic among its believers—in Radin's words, “no magic for you!

In fact, as stated at the beginning of chapter 4, “Magic is to religion as technology is to science.” Just as science provides an understanding of the material world which technology applies in order to accomplish goals, religion provides a model of the spiritual world which magic provides the means to employ. From antiquity to the present day, religion and magic have been closely associated with one another, and many religions have restricted knowledge of their magical components and practices to insiders and banned others knowing or employing them. Radin surveys this long history and provides a look at contemporary, non-religious, practice of the three categories of real magic.

He then turns to what is, in my estimation, the most interesting and important part of the book: the scientific evidence for the existence of real magic. A variety of laboratory experiments, many very recent and with careful design and controls, illustrate the three categories and explore subtle aspects of their behaviour. For example, when people precognitively sense events in the future, do they sense a certain event which is sure to happen, or the most probable event whose occurrence might be averted through the action of free will? How on Earth would you design an experiment to test that? It's extremely clever, and the results are interesting and have deep implications.

If ordinary people can demonstrate these seemingly magical powers in the laboratory (albeit with small, yet statistically highly significant effect sizes), are there some people whose powers are much greater? That is the case for most human talents, whether athletic, artistic, or intellectual; one suspects it might be so here. Historical and contemporary evidence for “Merlin-class magicians” is reviewed, not as proof for the existence of real magic, but as what might be expected if it did exist.

What is science to make of all of this? Mainstream science, if it mentions consciousness at all, usually considers it an emergent phenomenon at the tip of a pyramid of more fundamental sciences such as biology, chemistry, and physics. But what if we've got it wrong, and consciousness is not at the top but the bottom: ultimately everything emerges from a universal consciousness of which our individual consciousness is but a part, and of which all parts are interconnected? These are precisely the tenets of a multitude of esoteric traditions developed independently by cultures all around the world and over millennia, all of whom incorporated some form of magic into their belief systems. Maybe, as evidence for real magic emerges from the laboratory, we'll conclude they were on to something.

This is an excellent look at the deep connections between traditional beliefs in magic and modern experiments which suggest those beliefs, however much they appear to contradict dogma, may be grounded in reality. Readers who are unacquainted with modern parapsychological research and the evidence it has produced probably shouldn't start here, but rather with the author's earlier Entangled Minds, as it provides detailed information about the experiments, results, and responses to criticism of them which are largely assumed as the foundation for the arguments here.

Posted at 16:11 Permalink

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Earth and Moon Viewer: Named Features on Solar System Bodies

With release 3.0 on April 17, 2018, Earth and Moon Viewer was extended to become Solar System Explorer, adding imagery of Mercury, Venus, Mars and its moons, Pluto and its moon Charon, and the asteroids Ceres and Vesta. I have now added a database of Named Features on Solar System Bodies, using official nomenclature adopted by the International Astronomical Union's Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature. Features are listed by category (craters, ridges, plains, valleys, etc.) with their latitude, longitude, and diameter (where applicable). Each is a clickable link which displays the feature at the centre of a view 1000 km above the body on which it appears. For example, here is the large Occator crater on asteroid 1 Ceres containing the puzzling bright feature Cerealia Facula. From this initial view, you can pan or zoom using the usual features of Earth and Moon Viewer and, where available, select alternative imagery.

Posted at 13:55 Permalink

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Earth and Moon Viewer: Solar System Explorer

With the release of version 3.0, now in production, Earth and Moon Viewer, originally launched on the Web in 1994 as Earth Viewer, now becomes “Earth and Moon Viewer and Solar System Explorer”. In addition to viewing the Earth and its Moon using a variety of image databases, you can now also explore high-resolution imagery of Mercury, Venus, Mars and its moons Phobos and Deimos, the asteroids Ceres and Vesta, and Pluto and its moon Charon. For some bodies multiple image databases are available including spacecraft imagery and topography based upon elevation measurements. You can choose any of the available worlds and image databases from the custom request form.

All of the viewing options available for the Earth and Moon can be used when viewing the other bodies with the exception of viewing from an Earth satellite. Imagery is based upon the latest spacecraft data published by the United States Geological Survey Astrogeology Science Center.

For example, here is an image of the west part of Valles Marineris with Noctis Labyrinthus at the centre of the image and the three Tharsis volcanoes toward the left. The image is rendered from an altitude of 1000 km using the Viking orbiter global mosaic with 232 metres per pixel resolution.


Posted at 20:06 Permalink

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Reading List: Antifragile

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile. New York: Random House, 2012. ISBN 978-0-8129-7968-8.
This book is volume three in the author's Incerto series, following Fooled by Randomness (February 2011) and The Black Swan (January 2009). It continues to explore the themes of randomness, risk, and the design of systems: physical, economic, financial, and social, which perform well in the face of uncertainty and infrequent events with large consequences. He begins by posing the deceptively simple question, “What is the antonym of ‘fragile’?”

After thinking for a few moments, most people will answer with “robust” or one of its synonyms such as “sturdy”, “tough”, or “rugged”. But think about it a bit more: does a robust object or system actually behave in the opposite way to a fragile one? Consider a teacup made of fine china. It is fragile—if subjected to more than a very limited amount of force or acceleration, it will smash into bits. It is fragile because application of such an external stimulus, for example by dropping it on the floor, will dramatically degrade its value for the purposes for which it was created (you can't drink tea from a handful of sherds, and they don't look good sitting on the shelf). Now consider a teacup made of stainless steel. It is far more robust: you can drop it from ten kilometres onto a concrete slab and, while it may be slightly dented, it will still work fine and look OK, maybe even acquiring a little character from the adventure. But is this really the opposite of fragility? The china teacup was degraded by the impact, while the stainless steel one was not. But are there objects and systems which improve as a result of random events: uncertainty, risk, stressors, volatility, adventure, and the slings and arrows of existence in the real world? Such a system would not be robust, but would be genuinely “anti-fragile” (which I will subsequently write without the hyphen, as does the author): it welcomes these perturbations, and may even require them in order to function well or at all.

Antifragility seems an odd concept at first. Our experience is that unexpected events usually make things worse, and that the inexorable increase in entropy causes things to degrade with time: plants and animals age and eventually die; machines wear out and break; cultures and societies become decadent, corrupt, and eventually collapse. And yet if you look at nature, antifragility is everywhere—it is the mechanism which drives biological evolution, technological progress, the unreasonable effectiveness of free market systems in efficiently meeting the needs of their participants, and just about everything else that changes over time, from trends in art, literature, and music, to political systems, and human cultures. In fact, antifragility is a property of most natural, organic systems, while fragility (or at best, some degree of robustness) tends to characterise those which were designed from the top down by humans. And one of the paradoxical characteristics of antifragile systems is that they tend to be made up of fragile components.

How does this work? We'll get to physical systems and finance in a while, but let's start out with restaurants. Any reasonably large city in the developed world will have a wide variety of restaurants serving food from numerous cultures, at different price points, and with ambience catering to the preferences of their individual clientèles. The restaurant business is notoriously fragile: the culinary preferences of people are fickle and unpredictable, and restaurants who are behind the times frequently go under. And yet, among the population of restaurants in a given area at a given time, customers can usually find what they're looking for. The restaurant population or industry is antifragile, even though it is composed of fragile individual restaurants which come and go with the whims of diners, which will be catered to by one or more among the current, but ever-changing population of restaurants.

Now, suppose instead that some Food Commissar in the All-Union Ministry of Nutrition carefully studied the preferences of people and established a highly-optimised and uniform menu for the monopoly State Feeding Centres, then set up a central purchasing, processing, and distribution infrastructure to optimise the efficient delivery of these items to patrons. This system would be highly fragile, since while it would deliver food, there would no feedback based upon customer preferences, and no competition to respond to shifts in taste. The result would be a mediocre product which, over time, was less and less aligned with what people wanted, and hence would have a declining number of customers. The messy and chaotic market of independent restaurants, constantly popping into existence and disappearing like virtual particles, exploring the culinary state space almost at random, does, at any given moment, satisfy the needs of its customers, and it responds to unexpected changes by adapting to them: it is antifragile.

Now let's consider an example from metallurgy. If you pour molten metal from a furnace into a cold mould, its molecules, which were originally jostling around at random at the high temperature of the liquid metal, will rapidly freeze into a structure with small crystals randomly oriented. The solidified metal will contain dislocations wherever two crystals meet, with each forming a weak spot where the metal can potentially fracture under stress. The metal is hard, but brittle: if you try to bend it, it's likely to snap. It is fragile.

To render it more flexible, it can be subjected to the process of annealing, where it is heated to a high temperature (but below melting), which allows the molecules to migrate within the bulk of the material. Existing grains will tend to grow, align, and merge, resulting in a ductile, workable metal. But critically, once heated, the metal must be cooled on a schedule which provides sufficient randomness (molecular motion from heat) to allow the process of alignment to continue, but not to disrupt already-aligned crystals. Here is a video from Cellular Automata Laboratory which demonstrates annealing. Note how sustained randomness is necessary to keep the process from quickly “freezing up” into a disordered state.

In another document at this site, I discuss solving the travelling salesman problem through the technique of simulated annealing, which is analogous to annealing metal, and like it, is a manifestation of antifragility—it doesn't work without randomness.

When you observe a system which adapts and prospers in the face of unpredictable changes, it will almost always do so because it is antifragile. This is a large part of how nature works: evolution isn't able to predict the future and it doesn't even try. Instead, it performs a massively parallel, planetary-scale search, where organisms, species, and entire categories of life appear and disappear continuously, but with the ecosystem as a whole constantly adapting itself to whatever inputs may perturb it, be they a wholesale change in the composition of the atmosphere (the oxygen catastrophe at the beginning of the Proterozoic eon around 2.45 billion years ago), asteroid and comet impacts, and ice ages.

Most human-designed systems, whether machines, buildings, political institutions, or financial instruments, are the antithesis of those found in nature. They tend to be highly-optimised to accomplish their goals with the minimum resources, and to be sufficiently robust to cope with any stresses they may be expected to encounter over their design life. These systems are not antifragile: while they may be designed not to break in the face of unexpected events, they will, at best, survive, but not, like nature, often benefit from them.

The devil's in the details, and if you reread the last paragraph carefully, you may be able to see the horns and pointed tail peeking out from behind the phrase “be expected to”. The problem with the future is that it is full of all kinds of events, some of which are un-expected, and whose consequences cannot be calculated in advance and aren't known until they happen. Further, there's usually no way to estimate their probability. It doesn't even make any sense to talk about the probability of something you haven't imagined could happen. And yet such things happen all the time.

Today, we are plagued, in many parts of society, with “experts” the author dubs fragilistas. Often equipped with impeccable academic credentials and with powerful mathematical methods at their fingertips, afflicted by the “Soviet-Harvard delusion” (overestimating the scope of scientific knowledge and the applicability of their modelling tools to the real world), they are blind to the unknown and unpredictable, and they design and build systems which are highly fragile in the face of such events. A characteristic of fragilista-designed systems is that they produce small, visible, and apparently predictable benefits, while incurring invisible risks which may be catastrophic and occur at any time.

Let's consider an example from finance. Suppose you're a conservative investor interested in generating income from your lifetime's savings, while preserving capital to pass on to your children. You might choose to invest, say, in a diversified portfolio of stocks of long-established companies in stable industries which have paid dividends for 50 years or more, never skipping or reducing a dividend payment. Since you've split your investment across multiple companies, industry sectors, and geographical regions, your risk from an event affecting one of them is reduced. For years, this strategy produces a reliable and slowly growing income stream, while appreciation of the stock portfolio (albeit less than high flyers and growth stocks, which have greater risk and pay small dividends or none at all) keeps you ahead of inflation. You sleep well at night.

Then 2008 rolls around. You didn't do anything wrong. The companies in which you invested didn't do anything wrong. But the fragilistas had been quietly building enormous cross-coupled risk into the foundations of the financial system (while pocketing huge salaries and bonuses, while bearing none of the risk themselves), and when it all blows up, in one sickening swoon, you find the value of your portfolio has been cut by 50%. In a couple of months, you have lost half of what you worked for all of your life. Your “safe, conservative, and boring” stock portfolio happened to be correlated with all of the other assets, and when the foundation of the system started to crumble, suffered along with them. The black swan landed on your placid little pond.

What would an antifragile investment portfolio look like, and how would it behave in such circumstances? First, let's briefly consider a financial option. An option is a financial derivative contract which gives the purchaser the right, but not the obligation, to buy (“call option”) or sell (”put option”) an underlying security (stock, bond, market index, etc.) at a specified price, called the “strike price” (or just “strike”). If the a call option has a strike above, or a put option a strike below, the current price of the security, it is called “out of the money”, otherwise it is “in the money”. The option has an expiration date, after which, if not “exercised” (the buyer asserts his right to buy or sell), the contract expires and the option becomes worthless.

Let's consider a simple case. Suppose Consolidated Engine Sludge (SLUJ) is trading for US$10 per share on June 1, and I buy a call option to buy 100 shares at US$15/share at any time until August 31. For this right, I might pay a premium of, say, US$7. (The premium depends upon sellers' perception of the volatility of the stock, the term of the option, and the difference between the current price and the strike price.) Now, suppose that sometime in August, SLUJ announces a breakthrough that allows them to convert engine sludge into fructose sweetener, and their stock price soars on the news to US$19/share. I might then decide to sell on the news, exercise the option, paying US$1500 for the 100 shares, and then immediately sell them at US$19, realising a profit of US$400 on the shares or, subtracting the cost of the option, US$393 on the trade. Since my original investment was just US$7, this represents a return of 5614% on the original investment, or 22457% annualised. If SLUJ never touches US$15/share, come August 31, the option will expire unexercised, and I'm out the seven bucks. (Since options can be bought and sold at any time and prices are set by the market, it's actually a bit more complicated than that, but this will do for understanding what follows.)

You might ask yourself what would motivate somebody to sell such an option. In many cases, it's an attractive proposition. If I'm a long-term shareholder of SLUJ and have found it to be a solid but non-volatile stock that pays a reasonable dividend of, say, two cents per share every quarter, by selling the call option with a strike of 15, I pocket an immediate premium of seven cents per share, increasing my income from owning the stock by a factor of 4.5. For this, I give up the right to any appreciation should the stock rise above 15, but that seems to be a worthwhile trade-off for a stock as boring as SLUJ (at least prior to the news flash).

A put option is the mirror image: if I bought a put on SLUJ with a strike of 5, I'll only make money if the stock falls below 5 before the option expires.

Now we're ready to construct a genuinely antifragile investment. Suppose I simultaneously buy out of the money put and call options on the same security, a so-called “long straddle”. Now, as long as the price remains within the strike prices of the put and call, both options will expire worthless, but if the price either rises above the call strike or falls below the put strike, that option will be in the money and pay off the further the underlying price veers from the band defined by the two strikes. This is, then, a pure bet on volatility: it loses a small amount of money as long as nothing unexpected happens, but when a shock occurs, it pays off handsomely.

Now, the premiums on deep out of the money options are usually very modest, so an investor with a portfolio like the one I described who was clobbered in 2008 could have, for a small sum every quarter, purchased put and call options on, say, the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index, expecting to usually have them expire worthless, but under the circumstance which halved the value of his portfolio, would pay off enough to compensate for the shock. (If worried only about a plunge he could, of course, have bought just the put option and saved money on premiums, but here I'm describing a pure example of antifragility being used to cancel fragility.)

I have only described a small fraction of the many topics covered in this masterpiece, and described none of the mathematical foundations it presents (which can be skipped by readers intimidated by equations and graphs). Fragility and antifragility is one of those concepts, simple once understood, which profoundly change the way you look at a multitude of things in the world. When a politician, economist, business leader, cultural critic, or any other supposed thinker or expert advocates a policy, you'll learn to ask yourself, “Does this increase fragility?” and have the tools to answer the question. Further, it provides an intellectual framework to support many of the ideas and policies which libertarians and advocates of individual liberty and free markets instinctively endorse, founded in the way natural systems work. It is particularly useful in demolishing “green” schemes which aim at replacing the organic, distributed, adaptive, and antifragile mechanisms of the market with coercive, top-down, and highly fragile central planning which cannot possibly have sufficient information to work even in the absence of unknowns in the future.

There is much to digest here, and the ramifications of some of the clearly-stated principles take some time to work out and fully appreciate. Indeed, I spent more than five years reading this book, a little bit at a time. It's worth taking the time and making the effort to let the message sink in and figure out how what you've learned applies to your own life and act accordingly. As Fat Tony says, “Suckers try to win arguments; nonsuckers try to win.”

Posted at 13:50 Permalink

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Earth and Moon Viewer: New Topographic Maps

Since 1996, Earth and Moon Viewer has offered a topographic map of the Earth as one of the image databases which may be displayed. This map was derived from the NOAA/NCEI ETOPO2 topography database. Although the original data set contained samples with a spatial resolution of two arc seconds (two nautical miles per pixel, or a total image size of 10800×5400 pixels), main memory and disc size constraints of the era required reducing the resolution of the image within Earth and Moon Viewer to 1440×720 pixels. This was sufficient for renderings at the hemisphere or continental scale, but if you zoomed in closer, the results were disappointing. For example, here is a view of Spain, Portugal, France, and North Africa viewed from 207 kilometres above the centre of the Iberian peninsula.


More than twenty years later, in the age of “extravagant computing”, and on the threshold of the Roaring Twenties, we can do much better than this. I have re-processed the raw ETOPO2 data set to preserve its full resolution, and with pixels which can represent 65,536 unique colours instead of the 256 used before. Here is the same image rendered from the new ETOPO2 data.


The colours in this rendering are somewhat garish and nonetheless do not necessarily show fine detail well. Images with this database tend to look their best at either very large scale or zoomed in to near the resolution limits of the database.

In 2009, the ETOPO1 data set was released, replacing ETOPO2 for most applications. The data have twice the spatial resolution: 1 arc minute, corresponding to one nautical mile per pixel or a total image size of 21600×10800 pixels. The permanent ice sheets of Antarctica, Greenland, and some Arctic islands are included in the elevation data. Earth and Moon Viewer now provides access to a rendering of this data set, which may be selected as “NOAA/NCEI ETOPO1 Global Relief” on any page which allows choosing an Earth imagery source. The full resolution of the database is available for close-ups. Here is the same view as that above rendered with the ETOPO1 data set.


The original low-resolution ETOPO2 data set remains available for compatibility with saved URLs which reference it, but is not directly requested by Earth and Moon Viewer's query pages.

Posted at 21:32 Permalink

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Earth and Moon Viewer Updated

The first major update to Earth and Moon Viewer since 2012 is now posted. Changes in this release are as follows.
  • When viewing the Moon, the default image database is the 100 metre per pixel LRO LROC-WAC Global Mosaic produced by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera Team at Arizona State University from imagery returned by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. This data set provides more than 5700 times the resolution (measured by pixels in the image) of the Clementine imagery previously used (which remains available as an option). Since the complete image database, consisting of 8 bit grey scale values, is 5.6 gigabytes in size, three smaller sub-sampled databases are automatically selected when lower resolution images are required, reserving the 100 metre per pixel data for very close zooms (as low as 1 km), where its full detail is required and only a small portion of the entire database need be brought into memory. You may observe a small pause when displaying images at this resolution. For comparison, below are views of the crater Copernicus from an altitude of 10 km. At left is an image generated from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter data, while at right is the same view generated from Clementine imagery.

    copernic_LRO.jpg   copernic_Clem.jpg

  • Enabled zooming in as close as 1 km for all image databases which support such high resolution:
    • NASA Blue Marble Monthlies (Earth)
    • NASA Blue Marble (Earth)
    • NASA Visible Earth
    • Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter 100 m (Moon)
    Note that the generic NASA Blue Marble imagery provides 500 metres per pixel resolution on extreme zoom-ins, while the Blue Marble Monthlies have a maximum resolution of 1 km/pixel. The monthly images are available at 500 m/pixel, but disc space and server memory constraints do not presently permit supporting the 84 gigabytes such images would occupy.
  • Updated all documents to current Web standards for character set specification in XHTML 1.0 files.
  • Updated all documents to use Fourmilab's standard CSS style sheet, justify text, and employ Unicode typography for quotes, dashes, ellipses, and other special characters.
  • Upgraded all of the Named Lunar Formations catalogue pages, which were gnarly mid-1990s HTML 3.2 to XHTML 1.0 Strict, with a consistent and much better looking style sheet. The list of Lunar Landing Sites has been updated to add post-Apollo impact and soft landing missions. All links in the catalogues now select the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter imagery rather than Clementine.
  • The View above Cities page now selects the NASA Blue Marble Monthlies image database.
  • The Earth and Moon Map Explorer now uses the NASA Blue Marble Monthlies for the Earth and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter imagery for the Moon.
  • Converted legacy .gif images to PNG everywhere (except for a few animated GIFs, for which there is no alternative).
  • To support the very large grey scale Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image, a new version of the internal Earth Viewer Image Format, EVIF4, has been added. While previous versions of the format supported colour-mapped images with separate day and night imagery (either in the same file: EVIF1 and 2, or in separate files: EVIF3) with 16 bits per pixel, in EVIF4 pixels are 8 bit grey scale values and the night image is synthesised on the fly by shading the pixel values, either smoothly or sharply depending on whether the body being viewed has an atmosphere. While this format is presently used only for the LRO images, it may prove useful for other grey scale data such as radar maps of Venus and Titan. Users may apply gamma correction to images generated from EVIF4 databases to adjust contrast as they wish.
  • All documents are now XHTML 1.0 Strict or Transitional, and all have been validated for compliance by the W3C Markup Validation Service.
  • A number of stale and broken links have been fixed. All citations of books on Amazon now point to the most recent edition.
  • The HTML generated by requests to Earth and Moon Viewer is now XHTML 1.0 Strict and validated for standards compliance. Embedded CSS improves the formatting of result documents.

Posted at 20:04 Permalink