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Edmonton Is Making Its Alleyways a Great Place to Live

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 23/01/2021 - 4:31am in

Tags 

Canada, Housing

Three months ago, Mary-Jane Turnell moved into her new home, an airy suite built above a three-car garage in her daughter’s backyard in Edmonton, Alberta. Turnell had been eyeing this type of living space for years after learning about it from a magazine article.

“It just made sense to me,” Turnell says. Here was a way to downsize and reduce her environmental footprint, while being able to age in place near family, including her grandkids. Plus, she’d still have a yard with a garden to putter in, all located in a mature, walkable neighborhood. “In my circumstances, it’s provided me a chance to be freer. If I travel, I can easily leave my dog with my daughter. And if she travels, I can take care of the kids.”

edmontonMary-Jane Turnell at her above-garage home in the Strathearn neighborhood in central Edmonton on January 5, 2021. Credit: Amber Bracken

Turnell is part of a quiet transformation taking place in Edmonton’s backyards and alleyways. As part of a bold plan to build in rather than out, the city has been loosening regulations and streamlining permitting for garden suites. Its goal is to squeeze more living space into the urban landscape by slipping these apartments — also known as granny flats, laneway housing and accessory dwelling units — into underutilized urban spaces.  While these small-scale living spaces, often located in the backyard of a detached house, are difficult to build in many North American cities, Edmonton is clearing a path for them. 

“Edmonton is like the unassuming leader when it comes to garden suite bylaws and infill policy,” says Ashley Salvador, an urban planner and president of YEGarden Suites, an education and advocacy-based non-profit. Though the city is perhaps better known for its sprawling parking lots, Salvador says she’s seen a culture shift in Edmonton, which is developing a reputation as an unlikely pioneer of progressive urban concepts. “When we first started out [in 2017], no one knew what garden suites were,” she says. “We’d say the word and they’re like, ‘What do you mean? Is that like a shed or something? Are you gardening back there?’”

edmontonA container home in Edmonton’s Ritchie neighborhood. Credit: Amber Bracken

Now, though, the suites have become “pretty mainstream,” according to Salvador, with close to 400 across the city. Salvador has seen a recent uptick in interest due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “People are thinking about their families and loved ones and how to care for them into the future in a way that is resilient and can withstand these kinds of uncertain shocks,” Salvador says.

This commitment to densification is all the more impressive when you consider that Edmonton does have room to continue sprawling outwards, says Sean Bohle, a senior planner for the city. But there are many good reasons for pulling more people into existing neighborhoods regardless. Bohle points to a 2011 report showing that Edmonton’s mature neighborhoods — generally completed prior to 1970 — consistently lost population in the preceding 40 years. That means fewer people utilizing the schools, roads, parks, playgrounds and other infrastructure in those communities. 

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“There’s definitely a fiscal responsibility element to pursuing infill development, but it isn’t purely a fiscal question,” says Bohle. “There’s environmental benefits from containing your urban growth and not expanding outwards, and there’s also a bit of an urban vitality element to it as well. The more people we have in existing areas, these people support local shops and businesses. They’re out in public, they’re in the parks, they’re using the facilities that have already been built.” To that end, Edmonton’s new city plan, approved by city council in December 2020, sets an ambitious target: 50% of new housing units added through infill city wide. 

Garden suites cultivate this density without fundamentally changing the character of neighborhoods, which can help circumvent the kind of NIMBY backlash that might be sparked by, say, a new high-rise apartment building.   

edmontonOne of Edmonton’s many backyard apartments peeks above a hedge. Credit: Amber Bracken

Garden suites hold other advantages for homeowners, as well, giving them the opportunity to adapt their property for rental income, multi-generational living, or to downsize rather than move. 

Recognizing these benefits, Edmonton has been cutting the red tape that often constrains this type of construction. “In the past five years or so, Edmonton has made a tremendous number of changes to try to adjust our zones and our other rules… to make it work for the builders of these types of units,” Bohle says. 

Developers have taken note. “They’ve done a great job of easing the process,” says Daniel Engleman, co-founder of Honomobo, an Edmonton-based business that sells houses, including laneway models, made of shipping containers. Engleman built a 320-square-foot garden suite made of two shipping containers in his own Edmonton backyard in 2016. He rents it out, and he likes how unobtrusive it is, while adding to the vibrancy and security of the back lane.

edmontonThe view of central Edmonton. Credit: Amber Bracken

About 50 percent of Honomobo’s business is now in California, says Engleman, where accessory dwelling units have been made simpler to build across the state. But Engleman says that while it costs about $2,500 for a garden suite permit in Edmonton, fees in California add up to $30,000 to $40,000.    

In Edmonton, simplifying the process for building a garden suite has included expanding the size of suites allowed (up to 1,400 square feet, depending on lot size) and locations where they can be built. Garden suites were once limited to specific spots, such as corner lots, but zoning bylaw updates mean garden suites can now be built on almost every single-family residential lot in Edmonton. 

Another major change saw garden suites move from a discretionary use to a permitted use, meaning if all rules of the zoning bylaw are met, a permit can’t be denied. Last summer, another barrier was removed when the city eliminated parking minimums, so garden suites no longer require a set number of parking stalls. 

Perhaps the most whimsical change has been that, as more people move into alleyways, other residents are starting to see those spaces differently —  as places for more than just throwing their garbage and parking their cars. In recent years, businesses have started opening in at least one Edmonton back alley. A one-day pop-up art show and auction called the Secret Alley Gallery was held in 2016 in a narrow downtown laneway. And in 2019, a laneway block party was hosted in an alley with three garden suites, featuring food trucks, music, entertainment and garden suite tours. “It opened the door to people seeing [alleys] in a little bit of a different light,” says Salvador. 

For the City of Edmonton, the increasing number of building permits being issued speaks to the garden suites’ success in densifying the city. City data for core, mature and established neighborhoods shows 65 garden suite building permits issued in 2019, up from just nine in 2013. 

Bohle says that, while that number may seem small, “These things really take time to take effect.” Plus, for the people building such suites, the changes have been significant, he says. Some families have found a way to accommodate an adult child with disabilities, while aging residents have been able to downsize and stay in their communities, or help an adult child get into the housing market. 

For Turnell, the Edmonton grandma who moved into her garden suite three months ago, those changes have made her golden years even better. “It’s nice that way, because it makes everybody’s life a little easier and I get to spend time with my grandkids,” she says.  

The post Edmonton Is Making Its Alleyways a Great Place to Live appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Certain Conditions Apply: Canada’s Child Benefit is a ‘Basic Income’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 15/01/2021 - 4:11pm in

Tags 

Opinion, Canada

The Canada Child Benefit is a bona fide Basic Income, even if certain conditions apply.

Trump and the Spectre of Mussolini

The big news today has been last night’s attack on the Capitol by Trump’s supporters. They had been fired up to make the assault by Trump’s continued insistence that he is the real winner of the election, but it has been stolen from him by vote-rigging from the Democrats. As Mike himself has pointed out, Trump himself has not been averse to trying to do this himself. Earlier this week it was revealed that Trump had tried to persuade Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, to find one more vote for him in the state more than those cast for Joe Biden. And a week or so ago it was also reported that he had also been considering calling in the army in order to defend his presidency. If he had done so, it would have been a coup attempt.

Microsoft News in a piece they published today about the attack state that among the mob were members of various far right groups, such as the Proud Boys, the Nationalist Social Club and supporters of the Qanon conspiracy theory. This is the bizarre belief that Trump has been secretly fighting a war against an evil covert group determined to take over and subvert America. Last night there had been various messages posted on right-wing websites urging ‘Revolution’ and ‘Civil War’. World leaders have expressed their disgust and condemnation of the attack, though as Mike also points out, there has been no condemnation of Trump himself from Boris or Priti Patel. The attack is ominous, as it shows just how fragile American democracy is.

Indeed. Way back in the 1990s there were fears of a similar attack with the emergence of militia movement. These are right-wing paramilitary organisations founded by people, who really believe that America is in danger of being taken over by the extreme left, or the forces of globalism and the one world Satanic conspiracy or whatever. Many of them were explicitly racist with the connections to the neo-Nazi right. At one point a woman claiming to be a senior officer in the movement appeared online urging the various militias to unite and march on Washington. Her call was ignored, largely, I think, because the other militia leaders didn’t trust her and were extremely suspicious of her motives. I got the distinct impression that they suspected her of being an agent provocateur and that the march was some kind of trap by the federal government. There was no armed paramilitary march, and so America dodged a coup attempt, or whatever it was, that time.

But the attack is also reminiscent of an assault on government even further back, almost one hundred years ago. This was the infamous ‘March on Rome’ of Mussolini’s Fascists. This succeeded in getting him appointed as the new Prime Minister by the Italian king, Emmanuel II, and began the process which saw him overturning Italian democracy to forge the Fascist one-party state and his personal dictatorship. Of course, for such coups to be successful, the armed forces, capital and the civil service must be willing to collaborate with the insurgents. Mussolini had the support of Italian industry and the big landowners, as he offered to protect capitalism from the forces of revolutionary socialism. The Fascists also included a number of ex-servicemen, the squadristi, and they had considerable support within the regular Italian armed forces. However, the head of the Italian police had absolute contempt for the Fascists and offered to defend the Italian government from the Fascists. But the king turned him down, and caved in to the future Duce.

There are similarities to last night’s events. Many right-wing Americans do seem to fear that Communism and anarchy are somehow about to overrun America with the violence of some of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in America and the supposed ‘cultural Marxists’ that have allegedly taken over the American educational system. And the fears that there really is a secret conspiracy to overthrow American democracy and enslave its citizens has been around for decades. Bizarre conspiracy theories appeared in the 1970s about the Bilderberg group and the Trilateral Commission, claiming that these groups really ran the world. Then in the 1990s George Bush senior’s statement that he was going to create a ‘new world order’ prompted comparisons with the Nazis, as Hitler had also said the same about his regime. It was also linked to older conspiracy theories about the Freemasons because the Latin version of the phrase, ‘Novo Ordo Seculorum’, supposedly appears on American dollar bills along with various Masonic symbols. These theories claimed that America was being secretly run by a group of Masonic Satanists, who were planning turn America into a totalitarian, Communist state and send Christians to concentration camps. Even the collapse of Communism did not allay these fears. Many of those, who bought into these bizarre theories, thought that the collapse of the Soviet Union was all some kind of ruse. One variety of these myths claimed that the Russians had established secret military bases in Canada and Mexico, and at a given signal Soviet tanks would roll over the border into America. The 1990s were arguably the peak of such beliefs, as shown in the popularity of similar stories of covert government pacts with aliens from Zeta Reticuli and TV’s The X-Files. But such fears have certainly not gone away. There was a resurgence during Obama’s presidency, when America’s first Black president was accused by the bonkers elements on the American right of being a secret Muslim. or atheist. Or Communist. Or Nazi. Whatever, Obama was filled with rage against White Christians. One pair of pastors told the listeners of their church radio station that Obama was going to establish a dictatorship and would massacre even more people than Chairman Mao. Alex Jones was repeating and amplifying similar myths over on his internet radio and TV station. He claimed that Obama was going to invoke emergency legislation under the pretext of impending environmental disaster to force ordinary Americans into refugee camps. Militant feminists and gays were part of this conspiracy, in which humanity was to be transformed into a race of genderless cyborgs. Jones lost a considerable part of his audience when he was banned from various social media platforms thanks to his claims that a Boston pizza parlour was really a front for supplying children to be abused by members of the Democratic party and that several high school shootings had really been faked to provoke popular support for gun control laws. This caused real distress to the bereaved parents, who were accused of being ‘crisis actors’. Jones has nearly vanished from the public stage, though he still appears here and there. Even when he had an audience, many people still regarded him as a joke. But it looks like the conspiracy theories Jones promoted, and the underlying distrust of the government, still have a powerful hold on many Americans.

Fortunately, yesterday was different from 1920s Italy. America’s military has so far shown no interest in coming to Trump’s aid and overthrowing democracy. Black Lives Matter is extremely unpopular in certain areas, but the police, security forces and private industry aren’t backing armed paramilitary units to defend capitalism. American democracy is being shaken and tested, but so far it hasn’t cracked. The problem is, it’s not clear how long this will last. By calling for people to storm the capitol, Trump has struck a blow against democracy. He’s been unsuccessful, but this might inspire a future president with the same inclinations to try again. And they might be more successful.

And we’re not safe from such assaults over here. Mike in his article has warned that the Tories appear to be taking notes from Trump, while Zelo Street points out that the same people, who backed Trump also back the Tories and Brexit over here. He concludes with a warning of who the Brexiteers will blame when it all finally goes bad:

Many Brexiteers believe it’ll be someone else’s fault – Remainers, ethnic minorities, foreign nationals, multinational corporations, those of insufficiently patriotic intent – when it all goes bad. It won’t be Bozo, Ms Patel, Gove, or Nigel “Thirsty” Farage they will be going after.

There is a real danger of America becoming, if not a dictatorship, then a very authoritarian, Fascistic state. And Britain following.

See also: Four dead after Trump provokes US Capitol riot – and the UK Tories are taking notes | Vox Political (voxpoliticalonline.com)

Zelo Street: Trump Insurrection – Next Stop UK (zelo-street.blogspot.com)

Will Johnson Quit or Be Forced Out, Once He Has Wrecked the Country For Brexit?

Also in Lobster 80 for Winter 2020 is a very interesting piece by Simon Matthews, whose observations about Johnson’s real motives for running for PM and supporting Brexit I discussed in my previous blog post. Matthews has a piece, ‘Time for the Pavilion (or: there are 365 Conservative MPs)’ pondering whether Johnson will either retire as PM or be forced out by angry members of his own party, once he has successfully ruined the country with a hard Brexit.

And Matthews makes some very interesting observations. Johnson’s majority looks impressive, but is actually very fragile. 50 Tory MPs, for example, voted against the imposition of the second national lockdown at the beginning of November. And many of the 80 new MPs forming the Tories’ parliamentary majority actually have very small majorities in their own constituencies. He writes

Secondly, and less remarked upon, Johnson’s majority of 80 is actually quite fragile. No fewer than 78 Conservative MPs have a majority of 5,000 or less, and of these 34 have a majority of 2,000 or less. Indeed,
all the fabled ‘red wall’ seats that Johnson gained are in this category. Any MP in this situation would be aware that it really wouldn’t take much of an electoral swing to oust them.

Also, although the background of the typical Tory MP is privately educated, with a background in the financial sector, think tanks and policy groups, and is strongly anti-EU, there are still 102 Tory MPs who support the European Union.

Finally, and a puzzling anomaly, there are still 102 Conservative MP’s who were pro-EU in 2016. Admittedly, some of these may have been so at that time because it was party policy (i.e. now party policy has changed,
their views will have changed, too); and there will be others who were ‘pro-EU’ on the basis of Cameron’s re-negotiation of 2015-2016. But, nevertheless, amongst those 102 there must be some (40? 50?) who would much rather the UK stayed as close to the EU as possible, including membership of the Single Market, Customs Union and the EEA rather than exit everything, in its entirety.

BoJob’s position is very precarious. If things get very desperate, and the Tory party does decide it wants to form a ‘government of national unity’ in a coalition with Labour and the Lib Dems, it would only take 45 Tory MPs to oust him.

The article then goes to discuss the problems Johnson faces from Brexit, and particularly the challenge it poses to the integrity of the UK, and opposition from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the EU and the Americans, and members of both chambers of parliament. He’s also got severe problems with the Covid crisis, and the havoc this and the consequent lockdown has played with the economy. The sacking of Dominic Cummings could be seen as a warning shot to Johnson from Brady and the party’s donors out in the tax havens, who feel they are being ignored by the PM. But he notes that the donors and corporate backers really don’t seem to have an idea of the massive damage that Brexit will inflict on the UK economy. It will destroy 60-65 per cent of UK manufacturing, and although stockpiling of food and other goods has been going on since 2017, these supplies can only last for so long. So that Britain will return to the food queues of the ’60s and ’70s at the borders.

He makes the point here that the majority of British ports are foreign owned. In footnote 7 he writes

The owners of the UK’s main trading ports are Associated British Ports (owned in Canada, Singapore and Kuwait), Forth Ports (Canada), Hutchison Port Holdings (Singapore), Peel Group (the Isle of Man and Saudi Arabia), PD Ports (Canada) and Peninsular and Oriental Group (complex, but seemingly Dubai, China and Hong Kong). The latter group include P&O Dover Holdings Ltd, which operates most of the ferry services out of Dover, and is owned by the Peoples Republic of China. (The other ferry services at Dover, DFDS, are owned in Denmark). The intention post-Brexit of declaring many UK ports ‘free ports’, when so many can be connected back to tax havens anyway, is striking, and one wonders to what extent the owners of these ports have lobbied for that outcome.

Matthews concludes that Boris is on such shaky grounds that he may well decide to jump before he’s pushed.

The truth is that Johnson can now be ambushed by so many different groupings for so many different reasons, that the chances of him remaining PM after he has delivered the hard Brexit his backers require
must be doubtful. And why would he anyway? He looks bored most of the time and wants money. Leaving Downing Street – and the cleaning up – to others, gives him time to spend with his many different families, time to write his memoirs for a hefty advance, the chance of a US TV show and time to kick on, as all ex-UK PMs do, with earning serious money on the US after-dinner speaking circuit. The possibility that some formula will be devised to facilitate his exit, possibly a supposed medical retirement, looks likely.

After all, he’s been sacked from every job he’s ever had. Why would he wait until he is sacked from this one?

See: Time For the Pavilion (Winter 2020) (lobster-magazine.co.uk)

I found this interesting in that it showed that there is grounds for optimism amongst the gloom. The Tories have a huge majority, but it’s fragile. Very fragile. If Starmer actually got his act together and started behaving like a leader of real opposition party, he could start cutting it down significantly. But he doesn’t, perhaps because, as a Blairite, the only policy he has is stealing the Tories’ and winning the support of their voters, and backers in big business and the Tory media. Hence his silence and his determination to persecute the socialists in the Labour party.

It also shows just how much damage the ‘No Deal’ Brexit Johnson seems determined to deliver will do to Britain. It’s going to wipe out nearly 2/3 of our manufacturing industry. This won’t matter for the Tories or Blairite Labour. Blair took the view that British manufacturing was in decline, and that it could be successfully replaced by the financial sector. This hasn’t happened. Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism argues very clearly that the British and other economies still depend very much on the manufacturing sector. The fact that it appears comparatively small to other sectors of the economy merely means that it hasn’t grown as much as they have. It does not mean that it is irrelevant.

And it also shows once again how this chaos and poverty is being driven by a desire to protect the Tories’ backers in the financial sector, and the foreign companies owning our utilities, as well as the British rich squirreling their money away in tax havens. Shaw pointed this all out in once of his books written nearly a century ago, condemning the way the idle rich preferred to spend their money on their vapid pleasures on the continent, while the city preferred to invest in the colonies exploiting Black Africans instead of on domestic industry. He stated that while the Tories always postured as the party of British patriotism, the opposite was the truth: it was the Labour party that was genuinely patriotic, supporting British industry and the people that actually worked in it.

Shaw was right then, and he’s right now, no matter how the Tories seek to appeal to popular nationalistic sentiment through images of the Second World War and jingoistic xenophobia about asylum seekers. The Tories haven’t backed British industry since Thatcher and Major sold it all off. The only way to build Britain back up is to get rid of her legacy.

Which means getting rid of Johnson, the Tories and Starmer.

the recession’s likely long-term impact on homelessness

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 11/12/2020 - 2:59am in

I’ve just written a report for Employment and Social Development Canada on the current recession’s likely long-term impact on homelessness in Canada. An overview of the report can be found here.

the recession’s likely long-term impact on homelessness

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 11/12/2020 - 2:59am in

I’ve just written a report for Employment and Social Development Canada on the current recession’s likely long-term impact on homelessness in Canada. An overview of the report can be found here.

Homelessness planning during covid

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 08/12/2020 - 7:23am in

The Calgary Homeless Foundation has just released a 12-city scan of homelessness planning during COVID. It’s a national study (which I authored).

My ‘top 10’ overview of the study can be found here.

Homelessness planning during covid

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 08/12/2020 - 7:23am in

The Calgary Homeless Foundation has just released a 12-city scan of homelessness planning during COVID. It’s a national study (which I authored).

My ‘top 10’ overview of the study can be found here.

‘I’ Article on Companies Developing Technology to Cleanse Air of CO2

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 01/12/2020 - 10:08pm in

This is interesting. It might be another corporate puffpiece, but if it’s genuine then it does seem that some of the technology in SF novels about combating climate change might be coming true.

In its edition for Saturday, 28th Novewmber 2020, the newspaper ran this story ‘Conjuring a climate solution out of thin air’ by Maeleine Cuff, subtitled ‘Giant machines that can suck CO2 out of the atmosphere? This is no sci-fi’. It said

Scientists agree that global climate targets are slipping out of reach. To keep warming below 1.5 C – the “safe” climate threshold – the world will have to work out a way to remove 100 to 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere this century.

Enter direct air capture (DAC). It is an offshoot of carbon capture and storage, whereby pollution from factories and power plants is trapped and stored underground. DAC takes that one step further, focusing on pulling the gas directly from the air. That is a tougher ask, because CO2 in our air is at much lower concentrations than in the flue gases of a power plant. But DAC technology can scale, it could give humankind the power to control global pollution levels.

This month the Government pledged £1bn to the creation of four industrial carbon capture clusters, which will trap emissions from industry and pipe them out to sea for storage.

There are signs a breakthrough might be close. Swiss firm Climeworks has built a handful of DAC plants across Europe. Orca, under construction in Iceland, will be the world’s biggest facility when it opens next year, capable of removing four million tons of CO2 every year. Canadian rival Carbon Engineering, meanwhile, is building a plant that could suck away a mikllion tons a year.

Both use chemical reactions to bind CO2 molecules, drawing them away from the other gases that make up our air. The CO2 can then be pumped underground for storage or used with hydrogen to make low-carbon fuels.

In the UK, the captured CO2 is most likely to be pumped into spent oil and natural gas fields in the North Sea. There is little need to worry about it escaping once it has been stored, says Professor Stuart Haszeldine, an expert in carbon capture technologies at the University of Edinburgh. “We know how to do this,” he says. “We know what the engineering is. And most importantly we know how to behave and and remediate this if something does go a bit wrong.

Climeworks is partnering with Icelandic start-up Carbfix to store its CO2 safely in basalt rock, “Even if you have an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, it cannot come out again,” says Christoph Beuttler from Climeworks.

It is still early stages for DAC – there are only 15 plants in North America and Europe – and the tech remains very expensive.

Costs should come down, however, as efficiency improves. Climeworks thinks it can reduce the cost of extracting a ton of carbon dioxide from $1,000 to $100 within a decade. But DAC is never going to be a cheap option. “The fact is, it is going to be easier to decarbonise a lot industrial processes than it is to build an entire sector from a standing start,” says Dr Mark Workman, a carbon storage expert at Imperial College London.

There is also a fierce debate over who will pay for it. Most experts think governments will have to force the creation of a new market. That could be in the form of subsidy regime, or with legislation to force fossil-fuel producers to arrange for storage.

A hike in VAT to pay for the polution caused by goods and services has also been mooted, placing the cost on a public who, Dr Workman argues, are not prepared for the scale of such a challenge. “We are going to remove an invisible gas and store it in invisible storage sites. And we are going to be talking vast quantities of money – tens, if not hundreds of billions of pounds,” he says. “There is does need to be a much broader social dialogue about this.”

There was also a boxed article on the same page, ‘DAC in the UK’, which ran

In St Fergus on the east coast of Scotland, Pale Blue Dot Energy wants to build not only a carbon storage hub for Scotland but also the UK’s first direct air capture (DAC) system. It has teamed up with Canadian firm Carbon Engineering to get a DAC site up and running by 2026.

It faces a race to be the UK’s first DAC plant. Climeworks tells I the Government’s funding announcement means it is now looking at expanding into the UK too.

Stephen Baxter predicted this kind of technology in one of his ‘Xelee’ novels. Set centuries in the future, Earth is tackling the problem of global warming by freezing the Carbon Dioxide out of the atmosphere and turning them into giant balls of dry ice. The planet’s waste heat is also dumped into space by beams of giant lasers.

No-one’s talking about giant lasers just yet, the use of technology to scrub the atmosphere of Carbon Dioxide does seem to be close. It’s just that at the moment it’s too massively expensive to be practical on a large scale. Perhaps a new technological breakthrough will be needed before it becomes really affordable.

‘I’ Obituary for Stage Magician and Sceptic James Randi

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 26/10/2020 - 10:43pm in

Last Tuesday, 20th October 2020, the stage magician and sceptic James Randi passed away at the age of 92. Randy was a controversial. After starting out as a stage magician, Randi turned to exposing fake psychics. He was a prominent member of the Sceptics’ organisation CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal, along with scientist and broadcaster Carl Sagan and the mathematician Martin Gardner. CSICOP’s founders were alarmed at the growth of interest in the occult. Sagan, a Humanist, published his attack on the supernatural in the Demon Haunted World. He seemed to be frightened that we were entering a new Dark Age of superstition, where science and rationality would be forgotten, and in which people would begin their day by poring over their horoscopes.

The I published this obituary of Randi in their weekend edition for 24th-25th October 2020, reprinted from the Washington Post. It runs

James Randi, who has died aged 92, was an internationally acclaimed magician and escape artist who spent much of his career debunking all things paranormal – from spoon bending and water dowsing to spirit channelling and faith healing.

Randall James Ham Hamilton Zwinge was born in Toronto in 1928. A child prodigy, he was shy and often lonely. Bored by rote classroom learning, he sought refuge in the library. At a young age, he developed an interest in magic, and at 17 he dropped out of high school, turned down several college scholarships and joined a travelling carnival as junior magician.

He overcame a stammer and fear of speaking in public, affected a turban and goatee, and honed his illusionist skills under a series of stage names, including Zo-Ran, Prince Iblis, Telepath and the Great Randall.

After a stint at faking clairvoyance, in which many took his prophecies seriously – he correctly predicted the winner of baseball’s World Series in 1949, for example – he said he was unable to persuade believerss that his powers were strictly terrestrial. He said he “couldn’t live that kind of lie” and returned to conventional magic as The Amazing Randi.

He also became an escape artist and held Guinness world records for surviving the longest time inside a block of ice (55 minutes) and for being sealed the longest in an underwater coffin (one hour and 44 minutes), breaking a record set by Harry Houdini.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Randi’s many appearances on television made him a fixture of prime time entertainment. In 1973 he toured with heavy metal rock star Alice Cooper as an executioner simulating the beheading of the singer at each performance.

Randi cheerfully described himself as a “liar” and “cheat” in mock recognition of his magician’s skills at duping people into thinking they had seen something inexplicable when it was, in fact, the result of simple physical deception. He was equally dismissive of psychics, seers and soothsayers. “The difference between them and me,” Randi told The New York Times in 1981, “is that I admit that I’m a charlatan. They don’t. I don’t have time for things that go bump in the night.”

Randi and the research organisation he helped found in 1976, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, offered payouts ranging up to $1m (£77,000) to anyone who could demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal phenomenon under controlled conditions. While he had many takers, he said, none of them earned a cent.

In 2010, at the age of 81, Randi publicly announced he was gay. He married a Venezuelan artist, Deyvi Pena in 2013. The following year, film-maker Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein released An Honest Liar, a documentary of Randi’s life.

I first became aware of Randi in the early 1980s, when he appeared in the pages of the Absurder attacking Doris Stokes. Stokes was a medium, who was then in news, much like Derek Acorah and other celebrity psychics a few years ago. Randi showed that much of her comments and remarks when she was supposedly getting in touch with the dead were ‘bunkum statements’. They sounded true and unique to the reader or listener, but they were actually vague and described the way most people felt. Her descriptions of the deceased and the questions she asked her audience were also so vague that they would apply to someone there, who would then become convinced that Stokes was genuinely in contact with a dead friend or relative.

Several times Randi’s own outspoken comment about those he judged to be frauds landed him in legal. In one case, he was sued for libel by a man he claimed was called by the police ‘the shopping mall molester’. Er, not quite. The target of Randi’s wrath had been arrested for sexually assaulting a 12 or 13 year old girl in a shopping centre. But he hadn’t been charged with the offence, as it was dropped due to plea bargaining. And because he hadn’t been charged with it, Randi’s comments were technically libel.

He also got into similar trouble with Uri Geller. He called him a fraud, at which Geller sued him in every country in the world. This resulted in Randi settling out of court with the notorious spoon-bender.

Actually, I think Randi is probably right here. Geller’s most famous trick of bending spoons has been around since at least in the 18th century. It’s mentioned in a book of such amusements from that time, Rational Recreations. Geller was also successfully sued in the 1970s or so by an Israeli engineering student for misleading advertising. Geller’s publicity claimed his act presented overwhelming proof of the paranormal. The student went to see it and wasn’t impressed. He sued, claiming that all he’d seen was standard stage magic. The beak concurred, and judged in his favour.

There was also a scandal a few years ago when it turned out that Randi’s partner was actually an illegal immigrant, who was living in the US under an identity he’d stolen.

Randi was a colourful figure, but I was never a fan of his. While I agree that fake psychics and mediums certainly exist, and should be exposed because of the way they exploit the grieving and vulnerable, I don’t share his dismissal of the supernatural. I think it’s genuine, but that its very nature makes scientific verification extremely difficult, if not impossible. CSICOP also came off as arrogant, smug and vindictive in their attacks on the paranormal and its believers and practitioners. So much so that they were seen as a kind of scientific witch hunt by their victims. A few years ago the organisation changed its name to CSI, which stands for the Committee for Scientific Investigation. And not Crime Scene Investigation. The name change was not occasioned because there was a cop drama with that acronym as its title playing at the time.

So RIP James Randi. He was a colourful character, who entertained millions, particularly in his bust-up with Geller. Gray Barker, the former Ufologist who began the Men In Black myth with his book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, took great pleasure in Randi’s antics, calling him ‘the Amusing Randi’. But I leave to the reader to decide for themselves whether the paranormal exists. And not everybody who believes in it deserves sneers and ridicule.

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