Fourmilog: None Dare Call It Reason

Reading List: Phenomena

Saturday, May 13, 2017 01:17

Jacobsen, Annie. Phenomena. New York: Little, Brown, 2017. ISBN 978-0-316-34936-9.
At the end of World War II, it was clear that science and technology would be central to competition among nations in the postwar era. The development of nuclear weapons, German deployment of the first operational ballistic missile, and the introduction of jet propelled aircraft pointed the way to a technology-driven arms race, and both the U.S. and the Soviet Union scrambled to lay hands on the secret super-weapon programs of the defeated Nazi regime. On the U.S. side, the Alsos Mission not only sought information on German nuclear and missile programs, but also came across even more bizarre projects, such as those undertaken by Berlin's Ahnenerbe Institute, founded in 1935 by SS leader Heinrich Himmler. Investigating the institute's headquarters in a Berlin suburb, Samuel Goudsmit, chief scientist of Alsos, found what he described as “Remnants of weird Teutonic symbols and rites … a corner with a pit of ashes in which I found the skull of an infant.” What was going on? Had the Nazis attempted to weaponise black magic? And, to the ever-practical military mind, did it work?

In the years after the war, the intelligence community and military services in both the U.S. and Soviet Union would become involved in the realm of the paranormal, funding research and operational programs based upon purported psychic powers for which mainstream science had no explanation. Both superpowers were not only seeking super powers for their spies and soldiers, but also looking over their shoulders afraid the other would steal a jump on them in exploiting these supposed powers of mind. “We can't risk a ‘woo-woo gap’ with the adversary!”

Set aside for a moment (as did most of the agencies funding this research) the question of just how these mental powers were supposed to work. If they did, in fact, exist and if they could be harnessed and reliably employed, they would confer a tremendous strategic advantage on their possessor. Consider: psychic spies could project their consciousness out of body and penetrate the most secure military installations; telepaths could read the minds of diplomats during negotiations or perhaps even plant thoughts and influence their judgement; telekinesis might be able to disrupt the guidance systems of intercontinental missiles or space launchers; and psychic assassins could undetectably kill by stopping the hearts of their victims remotely by projecting malign mental energy in their direction.

All of this may seem absurd on its face, but work on all of these phenomena and more was funded, between 1952 and 1995, by agencies of the U.S. government including the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, the CIA, NSA, DIA, and ARPA/DARPA, expending tens of millions of dollars. Between 1978 and 1995 the Defense Department maintained an operational psychic espionage program under various names, using “remote viewing” to provide information on intelligence targets for clients including the Secret Service, Customs Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Coast Guard.

What is remote viewing? Experiments in parapsychology laboratories usually employ a protocol called “outbounder-beacon”, where a researcher travels to a location selected randomly from a set of targets and observes the locale while a subject in the laboratory, usually isolated from sensory input which might provide clues, attempts to describe, either in words or by a drawing, what the outbounder is observing. At the conclusion of the experiment, the subject's description is compared with pictures of the targets by an independent judge (unaware of which was the outbounder's destination), who selects the one which is the closest match to the subject's description. If each experiment picked the outbounder's destination from a set of five targets, you'd expect from chance alone that in an ensemble of experiments the remote viewer's perception would match the actual target around 20% of the time. Experiments conducted in the 1970s at the Stanford Research Institute (and subsequently the target of intense criticism by skeptics) claimed in excess of 65% accuracy by talented remote viewers.

While outbounder-beacon experiments were used to train and test candidate remote viewers, operational military remote viewing as conducted by the Stargate Project (and under assorted other code names over the years), was quite different. Usually the procedure involved “coordinate remote viewing”. The viewer would simply be handed a slip of paper containing the latitude and longitude of the target and then, relaxing and clearing his or her mind, would attempt to describe what was there. In other sessions, the viewer might be handed a sealed envelope containing a satellite reconnaissance photograph. The results were sometimes stunning. In 1979, a KH-9 spy satellite photographed a huge building which had been constructed at Severodvinsk Naval Base in the Soviet arctic. Analysts thought the Soviets might be building their first aircraft carrier inside the secret facility. Joe McMoneagle, an Army warrant office and Vietnam veteran who was assigned to the Stargate Project as its first remote viewer, was given the target in the form of an envelope with the satellite photo sealed inside. Concentrating on the target, he noted “There's some kind of a ship. Some kind of a vessel. I'm getting a very, very strong impression of props [propellers]”. Then, “I'm seeing fins…. They look like shark fins.” He continued, “I'm seeing what looks like part of a submarine in this building.” The entire transcript was forty-seven pages long.

McMoneagle's report was passed on to the National Security Council, which dismissed it because it didn't make any sense for the Soviets to build a huge submarine in a building located one hundred metres from the water. McMoneagle had described a canal between the building and the shore, but the satellite imagery showed no such structure. Then, four months later, in January 1980, another KH-9 pass showed a large submarine at a dock at Severodvinsk, along with a canal between the mystery building and the sea, which had been constructed in the interim. This was the prototype of the new Typhoon class ballistic missile submarine, which was a complete surprise to Western analysts, but not Joe McMoneagle. This is what was referred to as an “eight martini result”. When McMoneagle retired in 1984, he was awarded the Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious service in the field of human intelligence.

A decade later the U.S. Customs Service approached the remote viewing unit for assistance in tracking down a rogue agent accused of taking bribes from cocaine smugglers in Florida. He had been on the run for two years, and appeared on the FBI's Most Wanted List. He was believed to be in Florida or somewhere in the Caribbean. Self-taught remote viewer Angela Dellafiora concentrated on the case and immediately said, “He's in Lowell, Wyoming.” Wyoming? There was no reason for him to be in such a place. Further, there was no town named Lowell in the state. Agents looked through an atlas and found there was, however, a Lovell, Wyoming. Dellafiora said, “Well, that's probably it.” Several weeks later, she was asked to work the case again. Her notes include, “If you don't get him now you'll lose him. He's moving from Lowell.” She added that he was “at or near a campground that had a large boulder at its entrance”, and that she “sensed an old Indian burial ground is located nearby.”. After being spotted by a park ranger, the fugitive was apprehended at a campground next to an Indian burial ground, about fifty miles from Lovell, Wyoming, where he had been a few weeks before. Martinis all around.

A total of 417 operational sessions were run in 1989 and 1990 for the counter-narcotics mission; 52% were judged as producing results of intelligence value while 47% were of no value. Still, what was produced was considered of sufficient value that the customers kept coming back.

Most of this work and its products were classified, in part to protect the program from ridicule by journalists and politicians. Those running the projects were afraid of being accused of dabbling in the occult, so they endorsed an Army doctrine that remote viewing, like any other military occupational specialty, was a normal human facility which could be taught to anybody with a suitable training process, and a curriculum was developed to introduce new people to the program. This was despite abundant evidence that the ability to remote view, if it exists at all, is a rare trait some people acquire at birth, and cannot be taught to randomly selected individuals any more than they can be trained to become musical composers or chess grand masters.

Under a similar shroud of secrecy, paranormal research for military applications appears to have been pursued in the Soviet Union and China. From time to time information would leak out into the open literature, such as the Soviet experiments with Ninel Kulagina. In China, H. S. Tsien (Qian Xuesen), a co-founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the United States who, after being stripped of his security clearance and moving to mainland China in 1955, led the Chinese nuclear weapons and missile programs, became a vocal and powerful advocate of research into the paranormal which, in accordance with Chinese Communist doctrine, was called “Extraordinary Human Body Functioning” (EHBF), and linked to the concept of qi, an energy field which is one of the foundations of traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. It is likely this work continues today in China.

The U.S. remote viewing program came to an end in June 1995, when the CIA ordered the Defense Intelligence Agency to shut down the Stargate project. Many documents relating to the project have since been declassified but, oddly for a program which many claimed produced no useful results, others remain secret to this day. The paranormal continues to appeal to some in the military. In 2014, the Office of Naval Research launched a four year project funded with US$ 3.85 million to investigate premonitions, intuition, and hunches—what the press release called “Spidey sense”. In the 1950s, during a conversation between physicist Wolfgang Pauli and psychiatrist Carl Jung about psychic phenomena, Jung remarked, “As is only to be expected, every conceivable kind of attempt has been made to explain away these results, which seem to border on the miraculous and frankly impossible. But all such attempts come to grief on the facts, and the facts refuse so far to be argued out of existence.” A quarter century later in 1975, a CIA report concluded “A large body of reliable experimental evidence points to the inescapable conclusion that extrasensory perception does exist as a real phenomenon.”

To those who have had psychic experiences, there is no doubt of the reality of the phenomena. But research into them or, even more shockingly, attempts to apply them to practical ends, runs squarely into a paradigm of modern science which puts theory ahead of observation and experiment. A 1986 report by the U.S. Army said that its research had “succeeded in documenting general anomalies worthy of scientific interest,“ but that “in the absence of a confirmed paranormal theory…paranormality could be rejected a priori.” When the remote viewing program was cancelled in 1995, a review of its work stated that “a statistically significant effect has been observed in the laboratory…[but] the laboratory studies do not provide evidence regarding the sources or origins of the phenomenon.” In other words, experimental results can be discarded if there isn't a theory upon which to hang them, and there is no general theory of paranormal phenomena. Heck, they could have asked me.

One wonders where many currently mature fields of science would be today had this standard been applied during their formative phases: rejecting experimental results due to lack of a theory to explain them. High-temperature superconductivity was discovered in 1986 and won the Nobel Prize in 1987, and still today there is no theory that explains how it works. Perhaps it is only because it is so easily demonstrated with a desktop experiment that it, too, has not been relegated to the realm of “fringe science”.

This book provides a comprehensive history of the postwar involvement of the military and intelligence communities with the paranormal, focusing on the United States. The author takes a neutral stance: both believers and skeptics are given their say. One notes a consistent tension between scientists who reject the phenomena because “it can't possibly work” and intelligence officers who couldn't care less about how it works as long as it is providing them useful results.

The author has conducted interviews with many of the principals still alive, and documented the programs with original sources, many obtained by her under the Freedom of Information Act. Extensive end notes and source citations are included. I wish I could be more confident in the accuracy of the text, however. Chapter 7 relates astronaut Edgar Mitchell's Apollo 14 mission to the Moon, during which he conducted, on his own initiative, some unauthorised ESP experiments. But most of the chapter is about the mission itself, and it is riddled with errors, all of which could be corrected with no more research than consulting Wikipedia pages about the mission and the Apollo program. When you read something you know about and discover much of it is wrong, you have to guard against what Michael Crichton called the Gell-Mann amnesia effect: turning the page and assuming what you read there, about which you have no personal knowledge, is to be trusted. When dealing with spooky topics and programs conducted in secret, one should be doubly cautious. The copy editing is only of fair quality, and the Kindle edition has no index (the print edition does have an index).

Napoléon Bonaparte said, “There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run, the sword is always beaten by the mind.” The decades of secret paranormal research were an attempt to apply this statement literally, and provide a fascinating look inside a secret world where nothing was dismissed as absurd if it might provide an edge over the adversary. Almost nobody knew about this work at the time. One wonders what is going on today.


From the Earth to the Moon: Web Edition Updated

Monday, May 1, 2017 22:27

In December 1996, I posted a Web edition of From the Earth to the Moon, an English translation of Jules Verne's De la Terre à la Lune. This is a rather poor English translation of Verne's novel—it reads like it was prepared by a person for whom English was not their mother tongue. It has the merit of being in the public domain, allowing it to be freely distributed without restrictions.

I have just posted an update to this on-line novel. Documents have been updated to XHTML 1.0 Strict with CSS Level 3 style sheets, and Unicode typography is used for special characters. The resulting document should be easier on the eye than its predecessor, which reflected Web standards of two decades ago. The text isn't any better, however. I have fixed several typographical errors and translation howlers, but turning this into idiomatic English which reflects and nuance and depth of Verne's original French would amount to making a whole new translation, and that's beyond the scope of this project (and my talents).

The French edition, also available on this site, was similarly upgraded to contemporary Web standards in February 2017.


Reading List: Soumission

Thursday, April 6, 2017 23:24

Houellebecq, Michel. Soumission. Paris: J'ai Lu, [2015] 2016. ISBN 978-2-290-11361-5.
If you examine the Pew Research Center's table of Muslim Population by Country, giving the percent Muslim population for countries and territories, one striking thing is apparent. Here are the results, binned into quintiles.

Quintile   % Muslim   Countries
1 100–80 36
2 80–60 5
3 60–40 8
4 40–20 7
5 20–0 132

The distribution in this table is strongly bimodal—instead of the Gaussian (normal, or “bell curve”) distribution one encounters so often in the natural and social sciences, the countries cluster at the extremes: 36 are 80% or more Muslim, 132 are 20% or less Muslim, and only a total of 20 fall in the middle between 20% and 80%. What is going on?

I believe this is evidence for an Islamic population fraction greater than some threshold above 20% being an attractor in the sense of dynamical systems theory. With the Islamic doctrine of its superiority to other religions and destiny to bring other lands into its orbit, plus scripturally-sanctioned discrimination against non-believers, once a Muslim community reaches a certain critical mass, and if it retains its identity and coherence, resisting assimilation into the host culture, it will tend to grow not just organically but by making conversion (whether sincere or motivated by self-interest) an attractive alternative for those who encounter Muslims in their everyday life.

If this analysis is correct, what is the critical threshold? Well, that's the big question, particularly for countries in Europe which have admitted substantial Muslim populations that are growing faster than the indigenous population due to a higher birthrate and ongoing immigration, and where there is substantial evidence that subsequent generations are retaining their identity as a distinct culture apart from that of the country where they were born. What happens as the threshold is crossed, and what does it mean for the original residents and institutions of these countries?

That is the question explored in this satirical novel set in the year 2022, in the period surrounding the French presidential election of that year. In the 2017 election, the Front national narrowly won the first round of the election, but was defeated in the second round by an alliance between the socialists and traditional right, resulting in the election of a socialist president in a country with a centre-right majority.

Five years after an election which satisfied few people, the electoral landscape has shifted substantially. A new party, the Fraternité musulmane (Muslim Brotherhood), led by the telegenic, pro-European, and moderate Mohammed Ben Abbes, French-born son of a Tunisian immigrant, has grown to rival the socialist party for second place behind the Front national, which remains safely ahead in projections for the first round. When the votes are counted, the unthinkable has happened: all of the traditional government parties are eliminated, and the second round will be a run-off between FN leader Marine Le Pen and Ben Abbes.

These events are experienced and recounted by “François” (no last name is given), a fortyish professor of literature at the Sorbonne, a leading expert on the 19th century French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, who was considered a founder of the decadent movement, but later in life reverted to Catholicism and became a Benedictine oblate. François is living what may be described as a modern version of the decadent life. Single, living alone in a small apartment where he subsists mostly on microwaved dinners, he has become convinced his intellectual life peaked with the publication of his thesis on Huysmans and holds nothing other than going through the motions teaching his classes at the university. His amorous life is largely confined to a serial set of affairs with his students, most of which end with the academic year when they “meet someone” and, in the gaps, liaisons with “escorts” in which he indulges in the kind of perversion the decadents celebrated in their writings.

About the only thing which interests him is politics and the election, but not as a participant but observer watching television by himself. After the first round election, there is the stunning news that in order to prevent a Front national victory, the Muslim brotherhood, socialist, and traditional right parties have formed an alliance supporting Ben Abbes for president, with an agreed division of ministries among the parties. Myriam, François' current girlfriend, leaves with her Jewish family to settle in Israel, joining many of her faith who anticipate what is coming, having seen it so many times before in the history of their people.

François follows in the footsteps of Huysmans, visiting the Benedictine monastery in Martel, a village said to have been founded by Charles Martel, who defeated the Muslim invasion of Europe in a.d. 732 at the Battle of Tours. He finds no solace nor inspiration there and returns to Paris where, with the alliance triumphant in the second round of the election and Ben Abbes president, changes are immediately apparent.

Ethnic strife has fallen to a low level: the Muslim community sees itself ascendant and has no need for political agitation. The unemployment rate has fallen to historical lows: forcing women out of the workforce will do that, especially when they are no longer counted in the statistics. Polygamy has been legalised, as part of the elimination of gender equality under the law. More and more women on the street dress modestly and wear the veil. The Sorbonne has been “privatised”, becoming the Islamic University of Paris, and all non-Muslim faculty, including François, have been dismissed. With generous funding from the petro-monarchies of the Gulf, François and other now-redundant academics receive lifetime pensions sufficient that they never need work again, but it grates upon them to see intellectual inferiors, after a cynical and insincere conversion to Islam, replace them at salaries often three times higher than they received.

Unemployed, François grasps at an opportunity to edit a new edition of Huysmans for Pléiade, and encounters Robert Rediger, an ambitious academic who has been appointed rector of the Islamic University and has the ear of Ben Abbes. They later meet at Rediger's house, where, over a fine wine, he gives François a copy of his introductory book on Islam, explains the benefits of polygamy and arranged marriage to a man of his social standing, and the opportunities open to Islamic converts in the new university.

Eventually, François, like France, ends in submission.

As G. K. Chesterton never actually said, “When a man stops believing in God he doesn't then believe in nothing; he believes anything.” (The false quotation appears to be a synthesis of similar sentiments expressed by Chesterton in a number of different works.) Whatever the attribution, there is truth in it. François is an embodiment of post-Christian Europe, where the nucleus around which Western civilisation has been built since the fall of the Roman Empire has evaporated, leaving a void which deprives people of the purpose, optimism, and self-confidence of their forbears. Such a vacuum is more likely to be filled with something—anything, than long endure, especially when an aggressive, virile, ambitious, and prolific competitor has established itself in the lands of the decadent.

An English translation is available. This book is not recommended for young readers due to a number of sex scenes I found gratuitous and, even to this non-young reader, somewhat icky. This is a social satire, not a forecast of the future, but I found it more plausible than many scenarios envisioned for a Muslim conquest of Europe. I'll leave you to discover for yourself how the clever Ben Abbes envisions co-opting Eurocrats in his project of grand unification.


Logtail 1.3 Released

Thursday, April 6, 2017 14:21

I have always been an inveterate watcher of log files. There is no better way to gain an insight into what is going on in your computers and spotting little emerging mouselike problems before they mature into moose-sized disasters than keeping an eye on the various system log files. This is particularly the case when running public servers, where unusual activity in the log file may alert you to developing denial of service attacks or other assaults from the Internet Slum.

In 1997, faced with the need to monitor several servers in a “server farm” and watch multiple log files on each machine, I developed Logtail, a Perl program which simultaneously monitors any number of ASCII log files on a machine and optionally forwards log entries as they arrive to one or more other machines where they can be watched. Internet IP addresses in log entries can be optionally expanded to host and domain names, but this is practical only for lightly-loaded public servers or machines serving requests exclusively from a local network.

Twenty years later, Logtail 1.3 updates the program to be compatible with the most recent releases of Perl (it was tested on Perl 5.22), use high-level networking facilities instead of messy low-level calls which were the only option available when it was originally developed, and transparently support both IPv4 and IPv6 Internet protocols. (When running on a machine which does not support IPv6, the program should fall back to IPv4-only support. I do not have such a machine, so I have not been able to verify that this works.)

Documentation has been updated to XHTML Strict/CSS3 standards, with Unicode typography and, yes, a man page is still included. You can download the latest version from the Logtail Web page or directly. Prior releases remain available.


Reading List: The Long War

Tuesday, March 28, 2017 23:54

Pratchett, Terry and Stephen Baxter. The Long War. New York: HarperCollins, 2013. ISBN 978-0-06-206869-9.
This is the second novel in the authors' series which began with The Long Earth (November 2012). That book, which I enjoyed immensely, created a vast new arena for storytelling: a large, perhaps infinite, number of parallel Earths, all synchronised in time, among which people can “step” with the aid of a simple electronic gizmo (incorporating a potato) whose inventor posted the plans on the Internet on what has since been called Step Day. Some small fraction of the population has always been “natural steppers”—able to move among universes without mechanical assistance, but other than that tiny minority, all of the worlds of the Long Earth beyond our own (called the Datum) are devoid of humans. There are natural stepping humanoids, dubbed “elves” and “trolls”, but none with human-level intelligence.

As this book opens, a generation has passed since Step Day, and the human presence has begun to expand into the vast expanses of the Long Earth. Most worlds are pristine wilderness, with all the dangers to pioneers venturing into places where large predators have never been controlled. Joshua Valienté, whose epic voyage of exploration with Lobsang (who from moment to moment may be a motorcycle repairman, computer network, Tibetan monk, or airship) discovered the wonders of these innumerable worlds in the first book, has settled down to raise a family on a world in the Far West.

Humans being humans, this gift of what amounts of an infinitely larger scope for their history has not been without its drawbacks and conflicts. With the opening of an endless frontier, the restless and creative have decamped from the Datum to seek adventure and fortune free of the crowds and control of their increasingly regimented home world. This has resulted in a drop in innovation and economic hit to the Datum, and for Datum politicians (particularly in the United States, the grabbiest of all jurisdictions) to seek to expand their control (and particularly the ability to loot) to all residents of the so-called “Aegis”—the geographical footprint of its territory across the multitude of worlds. The trolls, who mostly get along with humans and work for them, hear news from across the worlds through their “long call” of scandalous mistreatment of their kind by humans in some places, and now appear to have vanished from many human settlements to parts unknown. A group of worlds in the American Aegis in the distant West have adopted the Valhalla Declaration, asserting their independence from the greedy and intrusive government of the Datum and, in response, the Datum is sending a fleet of stepping airships (or “twains”, named for the Mark Twain of the first novel) to assert its authority over these recalcitrant emigrants. Joshua and Sally Linsay, pioneer explorers, return to the Datum to make their case for the rights of trolls. China mounts an ambitious expedition to the unseen worlds of its footprint in the Far East.

And so it goes, for more than four hundred pages. This really isn't a novel at all, but rather four or five novellas interleaved with one another, where the individual stories barely interact before most of the characters meet at a barbecue in the next to last chapter. When I put down The Long Earth, I concluded that the authors had created a stage in which all kinds of fiction could play out and looked forward to seeing what they'd do with it. What a disappointment! There are a few interesting concepts, such as evolutionary consequences of travel between parallel Earths and technologies which oppressive regimes use to keep their subjects from just stepping away to freedom, but they are few and far between. There is no war! If you're going to title your book The Long War, many readers are going to expect one, and it doesn't happen. I can recall only two laugh-out-loud lines in the entire book, which is hardly what you expect when picking up a book with Terry Pratchett's name on the cover. I shall not be reading the remaining books in the series which, if Amazon reviews are to be believed, go downhill from here.