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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