Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

‘I’: British Government Considering Solar Power Satellites

November 17, 2020

A bit more space technology news now. The weekend edition of the I, for Saturday 14th November 2020 carried a piece by Tom Bawden, ‘The final frontier for energy’ with the subtitle ‘Revealed: the UK is supporting a plan to create a giant solar power station in space’. The article ran

Millions of British homes could be powered by a giant solar power station 24,000 miles up in space within three decades, under proposals being considered by the government.

Under the plan, a system of five huge satellites – each more than a mile wide, covered in solar panels and weighing several thousand tons – would deliver laser beams of energy down to Earth.

These would provide up to 15 per cent of the country’s electricity supply by 2050, enough to power four million households – with the first space energy expected to be delivered by 2040. Each satellite would be made from tens of thousands of small modules, propelled into space through 200 separate rocket launches, and then assembled by robots.

The satellites would use thousands of mirrors to concentrate the sunlight on to the solar panels, which would be converted into high frequency radio waves. These would be beamed to a receiving antenna on the Earth, converted into electricity and delivered to our homes.

While the prospect of a solar space station beaming energy into our homes might seem outlandish, advocates are hopeful it can be done. The Government and the UK Space Agency are taking the technology extremely seriously, believing it could play a crucial role in helping the country to fulfil its promise of becoming carbon neutral – or net zero – by 2050, while keeping the lights on.

They have appointed the engineering consultancy Frazer-Nash to look into the technical and economic feasibility and it will report back next year.

“Solar space stations may sound like science fiction, but they could be a game-changing new source of energy for the UK and the rest of the world,” the science minister, Amanda Solloway, said.

“This pioneering study will help shine a light on the possibilities for a space-based solar power system which, if successful, could play an important role in reducing our emissions and meeting the UK’s ambitious climate-change targets,” she said.

Martin Soltau, of Frazer-Nash, who is leading the feasibility study, said: “This technology is really exciting and could be a real force for good. It has the potential to transform the energy market and make the net-zero target achievable – and from an engineering perspective it looks feasible.”

Previous analysis by other researchers on economic viability suggests space solar could be “competitive” with existing methods of electricity generation but that will need to be independently assessed, Mr Soltau said.

If the UK is to become net zero it needs to find a green source of energy that is totally dependable because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun definitely doesn’t always shine.

This is where solar space comes in, with its panels sufficiently much closer to the sun that they are not blighted by clouds and darkness.

“This would provide a baseload of energy 24/7 and 365 days a year – and has a fuel supply for the next five billion years,” said Mr Soltau, referring to the predicted date of the sun’s eventual demise.

Until recently, this project really would have been a pipe dream – but two developments mean it is now a realistic prospect, Mr Soltau says.

The first is the new generation of reusable rockets, such as the Falcon 9 launcher from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which mean satellites can be sent into space far more cheaply.

The cost of launching objects into low Earth orbit has gone from about $20,000 (£15,000) a kilogram in the early 2000s to less $3,000 now – and looks to fall below $1,000 in the coming years, he says.

At the same time, solar panels are much cheaper and more than three times as efficient as they were in the 1990s, meaning far fewer need to be sent into orbit to produce the same amount of energy.

Mr Soltau is hopeful, although by no means certain, that his study will find the technology to be feasible in economic and engineering terms – with the technology looking like it’s on track.

The five satellite solar power station system envisaged by the Government will probably cost more than £10bn – and potentially quite a lot more – more than the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which would produce roughly similar amounts of electricity, is expected to cost about £30bn, including decommissioning, Mr Soltau points out.

When all is said and done, there’s no getting away from the fact that building a satellite of that size and complexity in orbit is a mindboggling task. But it could well be feasible.

The article was accompanied by this diagram.

The captions read

  1. Solar reflectors: Orientation of satellite with respect to the Sun controlled to constantly reflect sunlight onto the solar power array below.
  2. Solar panels and transmitters: Approximately 60,000 layers of solar panels that collect the sunlight from the reflectors, and convert this to transmit high frequency radio waves.
  3. Power transmission: High frequency radio wave transmission from satellite to receiver on ground.
  4. Ground station: approximately 5k in diameter rectenna (a special type of receiving antenna that is used for converting electromagnetic energy into direct current (DC) electricity), generating 2 gigawatts of power enough for 2 million people at peak demand.

The solar reflectors are the objects which look rather like DVDs/CDs. The box at the top of the diagram gives the heights of a few other objects for comparison.

The ISS – 110m

The London Shard – 310m

The Burj Khalifa – 830m

The Cassiopeia solar satellite 1,700m.

The use of solar power satellites as a source of cheap, green energy was proposed decades ago, way back when I was at school in the 1970s. I first read about it in the Usborne Book of the Future. I don’t doubt that everything in the article is correct, and that the construction of such satellites would be comparable in price, or even possibly cheaper, than conventional terrestrial engineering projects. I went to a symposium on the popular commercialisation space at the headquarters of the British Interplanetary Society way back at the beginning of this century. One of the speakers was an engineer, who stated that the construction of space stations, including space hotels, was actually comparable in cost to building a tower block here on Earth. There was just a difference in attitude. Although comparable in cost, such space stations were viewed as prohibitively expensive compared to similar terrestrial structures.

Apart from the expense involved, the other problem solar power satellites have is the method of transmission. All the previous systems I’ve seen beamed the power back to Earth as microwaves, which means that there is a possible danger from cancer. The use of laser beams might be a way round that, but I still wonder what the health and environmental impact would be, especially if the receiving station is around 5 km long.

I also wonder if the project would ever be able to overcome the opposition of vested interests, such as the nuclear and fossil fuel industries. One of the reasons the Trump government has been so keen to repeal environmental legislation and put in place measures to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from doing its job, is because the Republican party receives very generous funding from the oil industry, and particularly the Koch brothers. And there are plenty of Tory MPs who also possess links to big oil.

At the moment this looks like a piece of industry PR material. It’s an interesting idea, and I’ve no doubt that it’s factually correct, but given the resistance of the British establishment to new ideas, and especially those which might involve government expenditure, I have grave doubts about whether it will actually ever become a reality. Fossil fuels might be destroying the planet, but there are enough people on the right who don’t believe that’s happening and who get a very tidy profit from it, that I can see the oil industry being promoted against such projects for decades to come.

Gotz von Berlichingen’s Account of How He Got His Iron Hand

November 16, 2020

One of the landmarks in the history of artificial limbs was the iron hand specially made for the German knight, Gotz von Berlichingen after his own was shot off by the Nuremberg forces at a battle at Landshut in Germany. Berlichingen was in born in 1480 in Wurttemberg, where his family were knights. G.G. Coulton includes his description of how got had his real hand shot off and an iron one made so that he could continue his military career, in his collection of medieval texts, Life in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1967), vol. 2: 135-7 along with a number of other stories from the old soldier’s memoirs. Coulton states that Berlingen has been described as the last of the robber barons. From 1541 onwards he fought for the German emperor Charles V in a series of wars, first against the invading Turks, and then against the French. The great German poet and playwright Goethe wrote a play based on his life, and Coulton claim that the romanticism of his memoirs influenced Sir Walter Scott. Von Berlichingen’s account of the loss of his hand is as follows:

I will now tell how I came by my wound. You must know that on Sunday, as I have related above, while we were skirmishing again under the walls of Landshut, the Nurnbergers turned their cannon upon friend and foe alike. The enemy had taken up a strong position on a dyke, and I would fain have broken a spear with one of them. But as I held myself still and watched for an occasion, suddenly the Nurnbergers turned their cannon upon us; and one of them, with a field-culverin, shot in two my sword-hilt, so that the one half entered right into my arm, and three armplates therewithall; the sword-hilt lay so deep in the armplates that it could not be seen. I marvel even now that I was not thrown from my horse; the armplates were still whole; only the corners, which had been bent by the blow, stood forth a little. The other half of the sword-hilt and the blade were bent, but not severed; and these, I believe, tore off my hand betwixt the gauntlet and the arm-piece: my arm was shattered behind and before. When I marked now that my hand hung loose by the skin, and that my spear lay under my horse’s feet, I made as though nothing had befallen me, turned my horse softly round, and, in spite of all, came back to my own folk without let or hindrance from the enemy. Just then there came up an old spearman, who would have ridden into the thick of the fray: him I called to me, and besought that he would stay at my side, since he must see how matters stood with me. So he tarried with me at my prayer, and then he must needs fetch me the leech. When I came to Landshut, my old comrades told me who had fought in the battle against me, and in what wise I had been shot, and that a nobleman, Fabian von Wallsdorf, a Voiglander, and been struck and slain by the same shot, not withstanding that it had struck me first; so that in this wise both friend and foe took harm alike. This nobleman was a fair and goodly gentleman, such that among many thousands you would scarce find any goodlier to behold…

From that time forth, from the Sunday after St. Vitus’ day until Ash Wednesday, I lay in Landshut; and what pain at that time I suffered, each may well imagine for himself. It was my prayer to God that, if I stood indeed in His divine grace, then in His own name He might bear me away to Himself, since I was spoiled now for a fighting man. Yet then I bethought me of a man at arms of whom I had heard my father and old old troopers tell, whose name was Kochli, and who also had but one hand, notwithstanding which he could do his devoir against his foe in the field as well as any other man. Then I prayed to God, and considered within myself that, had I even twelve hands, and His grace and help stood not by me, then were all in vain. Therefore, thought I, might I but get me some little help by means of an iron hand, then I would prove myself as doughty in the field, in spite of all, as any other maimed man. I have ridden since then with Kochli’s sons, who were trusty horsemen and well renowned. And in all truth I can think and say nought else, – now that for wellnigh sixty years I have waged wars, feuds and quarrels with but one fist,-but that God Almighty, Everlasting and Merciful, hath stood wondrously and most graciously by me and at my side in all my wars, feuds, perils

Coulton’s book also has an illustration of the iron hand, based on a engraving preserved by the family.

As you can see, it seems to be an adaptation of the gauntlet and armour for the arm. I think the great 16th century French doctor and surgeon, Pare, created similar artificial limbs, and it shows that medieval science and medicine were rather more advanced than the usual received view of superstitious ignorance. Berlichingen and his hand seem to me to be a great model for a Fantasy or SF character, and I do wonder if Michael Moorcock used him as the basis for the artificial hand wielded by his hero, Corum, who is, like far more famous Elric of Melnibone, another incarnation of his Eternal Champion.

‘I’ Report of Successful Test of Virgin Hyperloop Maglev Train

November 13, 2020

Here’s an interesting piece of science/technology news. Tuesday’s I, for 10th November 2020, carried a piece by Rhiannon Williams, ‘New tube: Hyperloop carries first passengers in 100 mph test run’, which reported that Virgin Hyperloop had successfully tested their proposed maglev transport system. This is a type of magnetically levitated train running in a sealed tunnel from which the air has been removed so that there is no atmospheric resistance. The article ran

Two passengers have become the first to use Hyperloop, a technology which claims to be the future of ultra-fast ground transport.

The demonstration took place on a 500-metre test track in the Nevada desert outside Las Vegas on Sunday.

Josh Giegel, Virgin Hyperloop’s chief technology officer and co-founder, and Sara Luchlan, the company’s head of passenger experience, climbed into a Virgin Hyperloop pod before it entered an airlock inside an enclosed vacuum tube.

Footage showed the pod taking about 15 seconds to complete the journey as the air inside the tube was removed, accelerating the pod to 100 mph before it slowed to a halt.

The futuristic system is intended eventually to allow journeys of up to 670 mph using electric propulsion, and magnetic levitation in a tube, which is in near-vacuum conditions.

The Shanghai Maglev, the fastest commercial bullet train, which also uses magnetic levitation, is capable of top speeds of 3000 mph, meaning it could end up being considered slow by the Hyperloop’s theoretical future standards. The fastest speed achieved by a maglev train was 375 mph on a test run in Japan.

Virgin Hyperloop was founded in 2014 and builds on a proposal by Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk.

The technology could allow passengers to travel between Heathrow and Gatwick airports, which are 45 miles apart, in just four minutes, the company’s previous chief executive, Rob Lloyd, told the BBC in 2018.

Ms Luchlan described the experience as “exhilarating”. It had, she added, been smooth, and “not at all like a rollercoaster”.

The business hopes to seat up to 23 passengers in a pod and make its technology “a reality in years, not decades”. Jay Walder, the current chief executive, said: “I can’t tell you how often I get asked, ‘is hyperloop safe?’ With today’s passenger testing, we have successfully answered this question, demonstrating that not only can Virgin Hyperloop safely put a person in a pod in a vacuum environment but that the company has a thoughtful approach to safety.”

The article was accompanied by this handy explanatory diagram.

The text’s blurry, but should read:

How it works

Hyperloop is a new mode of long-distance transportation that uses electromagnetic levitation and propulsion to glide a vehicle at airline speeds through a low-pressure tube.

Electromagnetic coils along the tube are supplied with an alternating current, causing them to rapidly switch polarity. Permanent magnets beneath the pod are attracted then repelled, creating forward motion and magnetic levitation.

It then shows a diagram of various other high speed vehicles with the proposed Hyperloop system for comparison. These are

Virgin Hyperloop …. 670 mph.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner …. 593 mph.

Maglev (Japan) …. 375 mph.

Javelin (UK) … 140 mph.

Well, colour me sceptical about all this. The ‘Virgin’ part of the company’s name makes me wonder if it’s part of Beardie Branson’s empire of tat. In which case, we’re justified in wondering if it this will ever, ever actually be put into operation. After all, Branson has been telling the good peeps, who’ve bought tickets for his Virgin Galactic journeys into space that everything’s nearly complete, and they’ll be going into space next year, for the past 25 years or so. I don’t believe that his proposed Spaceship 1 or whatever it’s called will ever fly, and that the whole business is being run as a loss so he can avoid paying tax legally. I don’t know how much it would cost to set up a full scale Hyperloop line running between two real towns between several stops within a single city like a subway, but I’d imagine it’d cost tens, if not hundreds of millions. I think it’s too expensive for any government, whether national or local authority, to afford, at least in the present economic situation.

And on a more humorous level, it also reminds me of the rapid transit system in the 2000 AD ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ strip. This was set in a far future in which humanity cowered underground, ruled over by the Terminators. They were a kind of futuristic medieval crusading order, dedicated to the extermination of all intelligent alien life, led by their ruthless leader, Torquemada. Earth was now called Termight, and humanity lived in vast underground cities linked by rapid transit tunnels. A system similar to the Hyperloop, the Overground, ran across Termight’s devastated surface. Termight’s surface had been devastated, not by aliens, but by strange creatures from Earth’s future, which had appeared during the construction of a system of artificial Black and White Holes linking Earth to the rest of the galaxy. These creatures included the Gooney Bird, a giant predatory bird that looked like it had evolved from the Concorde plane, which swept down from its nest in an abandoned city to attack the Overground trains and feed them to its young.

From: Nemesis the Warlock: Volume One, by Pat Mills, Kevin O’Neill and Jesus Redondo (Hachette Partworks Ltd: 2017)

The Hyperloop’s too close to the fictional Overground system for comfort. Will the company’s insurance cover attacks by giant rampaging carnivorous mechanical birds? The comparison’s particularly close as Termight’s surface is a desert waste, and the system was tested out in the Nevada desert.

I realise that ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ is Science Fiction, and that even with its successful test run on Tuesday, it’ll be years before the hyperloop system ever becomes a reality, but I think it might be wise to avoid it if it ever does. After all, you wouldn’t want to be on it when the metal claws and beak start tearing through the tunnel.

Robot Takeover Comes Nearer as Britain Intends to Employ 30,000 Robot Soldiers

November 11, 2020

If this is true, then the robot revolution that’s been haunting the imagination of Science Fiction writers ever since Frankenstein and Karel Capek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots just got that bit nearer. Monday’s edition of the I for 9th November 2020 carried this chilling snippet:

Robot soldiers will fight for Britain

Thirty thousand “robot soldiers” could form a key part of the British army within two decades. General Sir Nick Carter, head of the armed forces, told Sky News that “an armed forces that’s designed for the 2030s” could include large numbers of autonomous or remotely controlled machines.

This has been worrying many roboticists and computer scientists for decades. Kevin Warwick, the professor of cybernetics at Reading University, begins his book with a terrifying prediction of the what the world could be like three decades from now in 2015 in his 1990s book, March of the Machines. The robots have taken over, decimating humanity. The few humans that remain are desexed slaves, used by the machines to fight against the free humans that have found refuge in parts of the world difficult or impossible for robots to operate in. Warwick is absolutely serious about the threat from intelligent robots. So serious in fact, that he became a supporter of cyborgisation because he felt that it would only be by augmenting themselves with artificial intelligence and robotics that humans could survive. I went to see Warwick speak at the Cheltenham Festival of Science years ago. When it came to the time when he answered questions from the audience, he was naturally asked whether he still believed that robots could take over, and whether this could happen as soon as 2050. He replied that he did, and that the developments in robotics had brought it forwards by several decades.

There have been a series of controversies going back decades when a country has announced that they intend to use robot soldiers. When this happened a few years ago, it was received with denunciations by horrified scientists. Apart from the threat of an eventual robot revolution and the enslavement of humanity, a la the Matrix, there are severe moral questions about the operation of such machines. Robots don’t have consciences, unlike humans. A machine that’s created to kill without proper constraints will carry on killing indiscriminately, regardless of whether its targets are a soldiers or innocent civilians. Warwick showed this possibility in his book with a description of one of the machines his department has on its top floor. It’s a firefighting robot, equipped with sensors and a fire extinguisher. If there’s a fire, it’s programmed to run towards it and put it out. All well and good. But Warwick points out that it could easily be adapted for killing. If you replaced the fire extinguisher with a gun and gave it a neural net, you could programme it to kill people of a certain type. Like those with blonde hair and blue eyes. Set free, it would continue killing such people until it ran out of bullets.

Less important, but possibly also a critical factor in the deployment of such war machines, is popular reaction to their use against human soldiers. It’s been suggested that their use in war would cause people to turn against the side using them, viewing them as cowards hiding behind such machines instead of facing their enemies personally, human to human, in real combat. While not as important as the moral arguments against their deployment, public opinion is an important factor. It’s why, since the Vietnam War, the western media has been extensively manipulated by the military-industrial-political complex so that it presents almost wholly positive views of our wars. Like the Iraq invasion was to liberate Iraq from an evil dictator, instead of a cynical attempt to grab their oil reserves and state industries by the American-Saudi oil industry and western multinationals. Mass outrage at home and around the world was one of the reasons America had to pull out of Vietnam, and it’s a major factor in the current western occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Popular outrage and disgust at the use of robots in combat could similarly lead to Britain and anyone else using such machines to lose the battle to win hearts and minds, and thus popular support.

But I also wonder if this isn’t also the cybernetics companies researching these robots trying to find a market for their wares. DARPA, the company developing them, has created some truly impressive machines. They produced the ‘Big Dog’ robot, which looks somewhat like a headless robotic dog, hence its name, as a kind of robotic pack animal for the American army. It all looked very impressive, until the army complained that they couldn’t use it. Soldiers need to move silently on their enemy, but the noise produced by the robots’ electric motors would be too loud. Hence the contract was cancelled. It could be that there are similar problems with some of their other robots, and so they are waging some kind of PR battle to get other countries interested in them as well as an America.

I’m a big fan of the 2000 AD strip, ‘ABC Warriors’, about a band of former war robots, led by Hammerstein, who are now employed fighting interplanetary threats and cosmic bad guys. When not remembering the horrors they experienced of the Volgan War. These are truly intelligent machines with their own personalities. In the case of Hammerstein and his crude, vulgar mate, Rojaws, a moral conscience. Which is absent in another member of the team, Blackblood, a former Volgan war robot, and ruthless war criminal. I really believe that they should be turned into a movie, along with other great 2000 AD characters, like Judge Dredd. But I don’t believe that they will ever be real, because the difficulties in recreating human type intelligence are too great, at least for the foreseeable future. Perhaps in a centuries’ time there might be genuinely intelligent machines like C-3PO and R2D2, but I doubt it.

The war robots now being touted are ruthless, mindlessly efficient machines, which scientists are worried could easily get out of control. I’ve blogged about this before, but the threat is real even if at present their promotion is so much PR hype by the manufacturers.

It looks to me that General Carter’s statement about using 30,000 of them is highly speculative, and probably won’t happen. But in any case, the armed forces shouldn’t even be considering using them.

Because the threat to the human race everywhere through their use is too high.

American Media Silence over Racist Comments by Israeli Former Chief Rabbi

November 9, 2020

One of the points Blum makes in his book America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy, is that the press and the media are complicit in American imperialism and its attendant horrors and crimes through propaganda designed to promote and justify it. And it isn’t what it publishes so much as what it doesn’t report. And news coverage of Israel in America is also very biased. As an example of what American’s didn’t read, he discusses the statement by a former Chief Rabbi of Israel and leaders of the extreme right-wing Shas party, Ovadia Yusuf, that non-Jews were created by the Almighty to serve Israelis. Blum wrote

‘Goyim [non-Jews] were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world; only to serve the people of Israel,’ said Rabbi Ovadia Yusef in a sermon in Israel on October 16, 2010. Rabbi Yosef is the former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel and the founder and spiritual leader of the Shas party, at that time one of the three major components of the Israeli government. ‘Why are gentiles needed?’ he continued. ‘They will work, they will plow, they will reap. We will sit like an effendi [master] and eat,’ he said to some laughter.

Pretty shocking, right? Apparently not shocking enough for the free and independent American mainstream media. Not one daily newspaper picked it up. Not one radio or television station. Neither did the two leading US news agencies, Associate Press and United Press International, which usually pick up anything at all newsworthy. And the words, or course, did not cross the kips of any American politician or State Department official Rabbi Yosef’s words were reported in English only by the Jewish Telegraph Agency, a US-based news service (October 18), and then picked up by a few relatively obscure news agencies or progressive websites. We can all imagine the news coverage if someone like Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said something like ‘Jews have no place in the world but to serve Islam.’ (p. 275).

People won’t have read it or seen it on the news over here either. Peter Oborne, in his documentary on the Israel lobby for Channel 4’s Despatches in 2009, described the attempts by the lobby in this country to suppress any reporting of atrocities committed by Israel and its allies. One of the talking heads on the programme was Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of the Graon. He told how, whenever his newspaper did so, he’d receive an angry visit from the President of the Board of Deputies and his pet lawyer demanding that the story should be spiked on the grounds that it would cause Brits to hate Jews. Senior, and very respected BBC journalists like Orla Guerin were also accused of anti-Semitism by the Board because they dared to report on national news the massacre of Palestinians by Israel’s allies, the Lebanese Christian militia the Phalange in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. A subsequent inquiry found that the report was not anti-Semitic, and only factually inaccurate in one detail.

Now I can appreciate that there are very good reasons why Yusef’s odious remark shouldn’t be reported. It is precisely the views that the Nazis and other anti-Semites and Fascists have claimed Jews have of gentiles. And claims that Jews believe they are superior to gentiles and wish to rule them are behind all the murderous conspiracy theories about them, theories that led to the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. Such views of Jewish racial superiority, as I understand it, profoundly contradict Jewish theology. Contemporary rabbis have argued that Israel’s status as the ‘Chosen People’ does not mean that they are racially superior to anyone us, but rather that they have a special duty as a servant nation to act as moral exemplars, ‘to be a light unto the gentiles’ as the Hebrew Bible states. The prophet Isaiah also states that Jews in exile are to work and pray for the health of the city that they share with their gentile fellows. Since at least the 1920s Jews have been very careful to show that they reject the racial supremacist views that anti-Semites impute to them.

I very well appreciate why decent people would not want to report Yusef’s odious views, especially now with genuine anti-Semitism rising along with racism and Fascism generally. But I believe that these fears are somewhat exaggerated. The great mass of the American and British public, as well as the French, for that matter, aren’t anti-Semitic. Tony Greenstein has published surveys showing that the vast majority of Brits either have a positive view of Jews, or don’t have any particular views about them one way or the other. Less than 10 per cent have negative views of them. That’s clearly too large, but it shows that real Jew-haters are in a minority. Yusef’s views could easily be reported, accompanied by articles making the point that he speaks only for a Fascist Israeli fringe, accompanied by firm rebuttals and denunciations from respected Jewish organisations. There are any number of Jewish critics of Likudnik Fascism.

Besides, Yusef also has other, equally disgusting views about other Jews. A few years ago he got in the pages of Private Eye and a few other publications for what he said about the Holocaust. He declared that the European Jews, who were murdered by the Nazis, got what they deserve because of their sins in their past lives. Yusef may be a Jew, but that’s blatantly anti-Semitic. I understand that it’s also rubbish theology. Judaism doesn’t have a doctrine of reincarnation. The closest I can find to it is the Wheel of Gilgal in Karaite Judaism. If I understand it correctly, this holds that the Lord sometimes gives sinners a second chance and so they are reincarnated after their death. But the Karaites are different from mainstream Talmudic Judaism. Whether you’re Jew or gentile, Yusef’s an unrepresentative, indeed, anti-Semitic, nasty bigot talking nonsense.

But I suspect the refusal to report his remarks isn’t actually about fears that they would promote genuine anti-Semitic. It’s to protect Likud and its coalition partners. An Israeli philosopher and chemist coined the term ‘Judeonazism’ to describe such views amongst Israeli politicians. He was, like many Jews, including Israelis, bitterly critical of the Israeli state’s treatment of the Palestinians. While the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism includes comparing Jews to Nazis, in this case the comparison is entirely apt. Likud and its coalition partners include too many, who have similar views. If Yusef was simply a gutter preacher, whom no-one in Israel listened to, he could be dismissed as yet another fanatical nutter. But he was the founder and spiritual head of one Likud’s coalition partners. His comments should have been reported, not because of what they show about Jews or even Israelis, but because of what they show about Likud.

I’ve made it clear that Fascism, racism and anti-Semitism are murderous doctrines that should be fought everywhere, whether it’s Nazi Germany, Netanyahu’s Israel or present-day China. But by demanding that the western media not report comments like Yusef’s, and the atrocities against the Palestinians that views like his promote, organisations like the Board of Deputies and the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism are complicit in the perpetration of this Zionist permutation of Fascism.

Remember what one liberal Jewish opponent of Zionism once said: ‘To be a Jew is always to stand with the oppressor, never the oppressor’. It’s a view that condemns the right-wing media and the Israel lobby, as well as the Likudnik regime they protect.

The German Communist Party’s 1931 Demands for Women’s Equality

November 4, 2020

One of the other books I’ve been reading during the lockdown is The German Left and the Weimar Republic: Selection of Documents, edited by Ben Fowkes, (Chicago: Haymarket Books 2014). The Weimar Republic was the name given to Germany for the all too brief period from the end of the First World War to the the Nazi seizure of power in 1933/4. It was a tumultuous period which saw the brief rise of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ council seize power briefly, the brutal suppression of soviet republics up and down Germany by the Freikorps, the rise of the Nazis, and splits in the majority Germany socialist, the SPD, which produced the USPD (Independent Socialist Party of Germany), the SAP (Socialist Workers’ Party) and the German Communist Party. The book collects a number of documents from these left-wing parties and movements, which reveal their policies and attitudes towards some of the most important issues of the day.

In 1931 the KPD proposed a law to protect and give full equal rights to working women. I’m putting this up, because while I’m very definitely not a Communist, these demands show how far ahead of their time the Communists were. Women’s right to work was attacked by the Nazis, who saw women’s proper sphere as ‘Kinder, Kirche, Kuche’ – children, church and kitchen. And although governments now are keen, or claim to be keen, to promote women’s equality in politics, culture, industry and science, the laws protection working women from exploitation and arbitrary dismissal have been and are being rolled back. This is line with the general attack on worker’s employment rights and job security.

The KPD proposals ran

We call on the Reichstag to demand that the government introduce a bill to protect and give full equality of rights to working women according to the following principles:

  1. Establishment of complete economic, cultural and political equality of rights between women and men. All laws and emergency ordinances that contradict this are to be abrogated with immediate effect.
  2. Women in all enterprises in industry and agriculture, doing the same work as men, are to be paid wages at the same level as men. The longest daily working time for women is to be set at seven hours, with full wage equality, while for unhealthy and heavy work, as well as for young females below the age of 18, it is to be set at six hours.
  3. (Similar provisions for office workers).
  4. Working women are to have a fully equal right to occupy all posts in all professions. Women workers, office employees and civil service officials are not be dismissed because they are married. All working women are to receive free professional training appropriate to their professional capacity.
  5. All unemployed women must have a legal right to full unemployment insurance payments without means testing or reference to the income of family members. Every kind of compulsory labour or compulsory re-training is prohibited. The right to receive social insurance during the whole period of unemployment is to be guaranteed.
  6. All working women employed in industry, agriculture, commerce and transport and domestic work as well as women in the so -called free professions, housewives and the female relatives or working peasants are to be included in the social insurance system.
  7. Dismissal of pregnant women is legally prohibited up to the 12th month after the birth of the child. The pregnant woman is to receive full pay and be exempt from work from eight weeks before until eight weeks after the birth. Nursing mothers are to receive half and hour twice a day for breast-feeding their children, without any reduction in wages. Maternity homes in sufficient numbers are to be made available to all working women, also creches for babies and children up to three years old, nurseries for children from three to school age. These services are to be provided free of payment. They are to be directed and supervised by control committees made up of delegates from the working population, mainly women.
  8. The interruption of pregnancy is to be permitted by law. The contrary paragraphs of the penal code (184 Section 3 and 28) are to be abolished. All persons condemned under the previous abortion paragraphs are to be amnestied immediately, and all current cases are to be terminated. Abortion carried out by a doctor and the provision of the means to avoid pregnancy count as medicate help in the national system of insurance.
  9. When entering marriage, the woman retains her right to decide independently in all legal and personal matters. She is not dependent on the husband in any of her decisions. After marriage, the women may take the name of her husband, but she may also continue to be known under her maiden name. She has the same parental power over her children as the man.
  10. All exceptional provisions dealing with the unmarried mother and the illegitimate child are removed. Every unmarried women has the right to be bear the title of ‘Frau’. In mixed marriages, the choice of nationality is left to the woman.

Obviously, abortion rights are still extremely controversial today. And one of the reasons for the introduction of zero hours contracts and firms insisting that their employees should sign documents stating that they are self-employed is deny women rights like maternity leave. And unemployed women and men are required to go for compulsory retraining and work under Blair’s wretched ‘welfare to work’ initiative. Which is another Tory idea taken from the Americans.

The reduction of the working day for women would be controversial today. More women work part-time than men because they do the majority of work rearing children and running the home. A week or so ago someone proposed that women’s working day should therefore be shortened generally for those reasons. But one of the drawbacks of this would be that women would need to be paid more than men in order to close the gender income gap. Many men on the political right already feel that they will be discriminated against regarding pay rates because of this.

The KPD made these demands nearly 90 years ago, and despite many of them having been introduced over the following decades, we still need to follow their recommendations to defend the rights of all working women along with workers generally.

Book of Photographs of the Paranormal

October 31, 2020

Photographs of the Unknown, by Robert Rickard and Richard Kelly (London: New English Library 1980).

I thought this book would be a suitably spooky subject for Hallowe’en. Bob Rickard is one of the founders and editors of the Fortean Times, the magazine of the weird that’s been going since the 1970s. A little note on the last page underneath the picture credits gives instruction to readers how they can submit their photographs of the paranormal to the Fortean Times. The blurb on the back cover runs

SEA MONSTERS

ALIENS

LEVITATION

POLTERGEISTS

ECTOPLASM

PHANTOMS

UFOS …. all photographed!

The largest, most complete, most amazing collection of photographs of the Unknown and the Unexplained ever published.

Many have never been published before, others are presented for the first time in their original full colour. They have been researched and collected from all over the world.

If you believe and want to convince other people, if you don’t know for sure but have an open mind, if you’ve ever been inclined to believe but want to see the evidence, you will need this unique archive that covers the whole range of unexplained phenomena.

The book has the following chapters, each containing these individual sections

Introduction

Strange Life, Loch Ness, Water Monsters, Sea Monsters, The Yeti, Bigfoot.

Unusual Natural Phenomena, Living rocks, Falls, Atmospheric magic, Natural ‘UFOs’, ghost lights.

UFOs, Flying Cigars, UFOs and Planes, UFOS over Water, UFO Shapes, UFOs Above Us, UFOs in Motion, UFO Beings Among Us? Optical UFOs, Computer Analysis, UFOs from the Sea.

Psychic Phenomena, Possession, Stigmata, Bleeding Images, Ectoplasm, Mediumship, A Modern Medium, Thoughtography, Kirlian Photography.

Paranormal Persons, BVM and Angels, Portraits of Christ, Aliens, Phantoms, Materializations.

Mind over Matter, Yoga, Pain Immunity, Psychic Surgery, Fire Immunity, Firewalking, Spoonbenders, Table Turning, Levitation of Objects, Apports, Levitation, Poltergeists.

This is another book I ordered from Amazon in order to give myself something to read during the lockdown. I think I remember it from the time it first came out, and if so, then the book really scared me. I was at secondary school, and the books publication was featured on breakfast TV. I remember one of the presenters of the Beeb’s breakfast show introducing a piece on it by saying something about the unknown being photographed and asking ‘but what are they photographing?’ Which is a very good question. The book I remember had a different cover. This was a monotone/ black and white photo of a medium producing ectoplasm from their mouth, in which there were faces. This doesn’t seem to have this image, which may well have come from the hardback edition. Or it may be that I’m confusing it with a completely different book. There is, however, a photo of ectoplasm coming out of a medium’s left nostril, in which there’s the face of a young soldier killed in World War I. It was these ectoplasmic faces which scared me, and I can remember the fear I felt passing the book on a display table in George’s, the big local bookshop in Bristol on a trip there.

Some of the photos are very well known, like Patterson-Gimlin pic of Bigfoot, a still taken from film footage of the creature walking in the American woods made a few years before. To many people, the film and photo are proof that Sasquatch is a real, paws and pelt animal. The film’s been shown on any number of TV documentaries about Bigfoot and the Yeti. Some of the experts called on in these programmes to give their opinion have said that it’s unlikely to be a fake because the fur is of different lengths. You’d see this in a real animal, but not in a costume. On the negative side, other experts have said that it can’t be real, as the creature seems to have both male and female genitalia. But perhaps it’s just got manboobs.

The debate about this photo still goes on today, but others are hoaxes or almost certainly hoaxes. A few years ago it was revealed that the ‘surgeon’s photograph’ of the Loch Ness monster, which has appeared in countless documentaries, newspapers and magazine articles about the cryptid, was very definitely a fake. It was created by adding a plesiosaurus-style neck to a toy submarine, which was then sent sailing in the Loch.

The same goes for some, at least, of the UFO photographs. There’s a photo of a UFO bearing the Ummo symbol. The Ummo messages were a series of letters sent to various people in Franco’s claim, which claimed they came from aliens, who had travelled to Earth from the planet Ummo. They contained a wealth of detail about their spacecraft, language, home world and so on. Most, if not all UFO investigators now believe they were a hoax. As are the photos of the Venusian spaceships taken by George Adamski. One of the photographs Adamski claimed was of an alien spacecraft was actually of his chicken coop. A few weeks ago I went to an online lecture hosted by the paranormal investigation group, ASSAP, in which the speaker suggested that Adamski’s Venusian spacecraft was actually a photograph of a type of gas lantern then available. And yes, they do look exactly the same.

The ‘thoughtographs’ are the images Ted Serios, an alcoholic bellboy, claimed to produce on film using the power of his mind. This was after he’d drunk enough to start his gums and anus bleeding. I don’t know if Serios was ever caught in fraud, but I’ve watched documentaries where sceptics have shown how it could have been faked. The same goes for the piccie of Soviet psychic Nina Kulagina showing off her telekinesis skills. This was debunked back in the ’90s or so in the Channel 4 programme Secrets of the Psychics.

Sceptics have also argued that psychic surgery is also a fraud. The psychics who claim to be able to perform such miracles don’t actually cut into the body of their unfortunate dupes, and the disease organs they remove aren’t human but chicken guts. This particular paranormal field was the subject of an episode of Jonathan Creek, the BBC detective drama about a crime-busting stage magician. That particular episode involved the murder of someone, who was dying and desperate to have similar treatment, or who had actually undergone it. It was some years ago, and I can’t really remember. It doesn’t matter, as the show came down very much on the side of the sceptics.

Sceptics have also presented a strong argument that firewalking isn’t supernatural either. From what I remember, flesh burns at quite a high temperature, higher than the coals and embers on which people walk, and so anyone can do it. Well, that’s what they claim. I wouldn’t like to test it, and don’t advise anyone else to do either unless they know exactly what they’re doing.

The Fortean Times also carried an article a few years ago, which also claimed that the photograph showing a group of men in broadbrimmed hats and raincoats surrounding a diminutive alien was also a hoax. It was published in a German newspaper as an April Fool’s or Hallowe’en prank, or the German equivalents thereof. As for spoon-bending, made notorious by Uri Geller, there’s a trick to fake that which goes all the way back to the 18th century and the book, Rational Recreations. It’s possible that Geller, if he is a fake, is using that trick or similar.

It’s also entirely possible that some of the spirit photos are also fakes. They’ve been taken since the 19th century and the American photographer Hans Mumler. I have a feeling that Mumler was sued by people, who believed he’d deceived them. They noticed that the dead relatives and other people, who appeared in Mumler’s photos, did so in the same poses, expressions and attitudes as they had in other photographs. There were several ways such photographs could be faked with the plates exposed twice, once for the image of the sitter, and again for the supposed spirit. However, I think Mumler, or perhaps one of his competitors, was found not guilty because the prosecution couldn’t prove which method, if any, he’d used.

There are also problems with the photos of mediums producing ectoplasm. I think some fakes used to swallow cheesecloth, which they’d then regurgitate during seances. It was also noted that the female spirit one of the 19th century mediums used to materialise looked remarkably like her, but the two did appear side by side. It’s probably fraud but this argues against it.

Several of the poltergeist photos seem to be of the Enfield polt that was investigated by the SPR and Guy Lyon Playfair in the 1970s. This is a notorious British case which Playfair seemed to believe was genuinely paranormal, and which he publicised. The sceptical UFO magazine Magonia has suggested instead that it was fraud within an unhealthy family situation.

Other paranormal phenomena are almost certainly camera artefacts, such as the mysterious balls of light in one set of photographs, as the book itself suggests. Others include the mysterious tendrils of light captured by a female photographer. I came across the same effect on photos taken by a visitor to Derby jail, which is now open to ghost hunters as a haunted location. A few quick experiments showed that this did seem to be a trick of the light as it was caught in the camera lens.

I’ve also come across an explanation, which I’m afraid I can’t remember, for the Kirlian photographs that were also all the rage at one time. This showed that, as dramatic as they appear, they definitely aren’t of any aura surrounding living things. But they do look really beautiful, however.

I doubt if any of these photographs would convince a sceptic like the late James Randi or mentalist like Derren Brown. On the other hand, it may be that some are genuine, and that there really are paranormal forces out there that some have been able to capture on film.

Thunderfoot Attacks Black South African Student Who Claims Western Science Is ‘Racist’

October 27, 2020

Thunderfoot is another YouTube personality like Carl Benjamin aka Sargon of Akkad, the Sage of Swindon, whose views I categorically don’t share. He’s a militant atheist of the same stripe as Richard Dawkins. He’s a scientist, who shares Peter Atkins’ view that science can explain everything and leaves no room for religion or mysticism. He’s also very right wing, sneering at SJWs (Social Justice Warriors) and attacking feminism. So he’s also like Sargon on that score. But in this video, he does make valid points and does an important job of defending science against the glib accusation that it’s racist.

Thunderfoot put up this video in 2016 and it seems to be his response to a video circulating of part of a student debate at the University of Cape Town. The speaker in this video, clips of which Thunderfoot uses in his, is a Black female student who argues that western science is racist and colonialist. It arose in the context of western modernity and excludes indigenous African beliefs, and if she had her way, it would be ‘scratched out’. One of the African beliefs it excludes is the fact, as she sees it, that sangomas – African shamans – can call lightning down to strike people. She challenges her debating opponent to decolonise their mind and explain scientifically how the sangoma is able to do that. Her interlocutor is not impressed, and laughs out loud at this assertion, which gets a sharp response from the moderator who claims that the debate is supposed to be a circle of respect and they should apologise or leave. The anti-science student states that western science is totalizing, urges her opponent to decolonize their mind, and calls for an African science. She also rejects gravity because Isaac Newton sat on a tree and saw an apple fall.

Thunderfoot answers these assertions by pointing out, quite rightly, that science is about forming models of reality with ‘predictive utility’. It is the ability of scientific model to make useful predictions which shows that the model is an accurate description of reality. Science’s discoveries are true for everyone, regardless of whether they are male or female, Black or White. He shows a clip of militant atheist Richard Dawkins talking to another group of students, and explaining that the proof that science works is that planes and rockets fly. The equations and scientific models describing them have to, otherwise they don’t. Dawkins is another personality, whose views I don’t share, and this blog was started partly to refute his atheist polemics. But the quote from Dawkins is absolutely right. Thunderfoot goes on to say that if African shamans really could call lightning down on people, then surely someone would have used it for military purposes. And to demonstrate, he shows a clip of Thor getting hit with a lightning bolt from an Avengers movie.

As for African science, he then hands over to another YouTuber, who talks about an attempted scam in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. A women claimed that she had a rock which produced refined diesel oil, and called on the government to see for themselves. Which they did. If the woman’s claim was genuine, then Zimbabwe would be entirely self-sufficient in diesel. However, such hopes were dashed when it was revealed that the rock had a hole bored into it from which diesel was being pumped.

The video goes on to make the point that such ‘science denialism’ is dangerous by pointing to the claim of the former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, that HIV didn’t cause AIDS. He tried to stop people using the retroviral drugs used to treat HIV in favour of herbal cures that didn’t work. As a result, 300,000 people may have lost their lives to the disease.

Thunderfoot concludes that this is the situation this student would like to create: an African science which rejects gravity, asserts shamans can strike people with lightning, and in which hundreds of thousands of people die unnecessarily from AIDS. Here’s the video.

Racism and the Rejection of Conventional Science

Thunderfoot is right in that one current view in the philosophy of science is that science is about forming models of reality, which can make predictions. This is the view I hold. He is also correct in that science’s findings are valid regardless of where they are made and who makes them. And I’d also argue that, rather than science, it is this young Black woman, who is racist. She rejects science on the racist grounds that it was created by White Europeans. This is also the genetic fallacy, the logical mistake that a statement must be wrong because of the nature of the person who makes it. The Nazis, for example, made the same mistake when they rejected Einstein’s Theory of Relativity because Einstein was Jewish. They also believed that science should reflect racial identity, and so sacked Jewish mathematicians and scientists in an attempt to create a racially pure ‘Aryan’ science.

Science and the Paranormal

I don’t believe, however, that science automatically excludes the supernatural. There are very many scientists, who are people of faith. Although it’s very much a fringe science – some would say pseudoscience – there is the discipline of parapsychology, which is the scientific investigation of the paranormal. Organisations like the Society for Psychical Research and ASSAP have existed since the 19th century to carry out such investigations. Their members do include scientists and medical professionals. I don’t think it would be at all unreasonable for parapsychologists to investigate such alleged powers by indigenous shamans, just as they investigate appearances of ghosts, psychic powers and mediumship in the west. And if it could be demonstrably proved that such shamans had the powers they claim, then science would have to accommodate that, whether it could explain it or not.

On the other hand is the argument that science shouldn’t investigate the paranormal or supernatural, not because the paranormal doesn’t exist, but because it is outside the scope of scientific methodology to investigate it as different field altogether. Thus science can ignore the general question of whether tribal shamans are able to conjure up lightning bolts as outside its purview and more properly the subject of metaphysics or theology. In which case, it’s left up to the individual to decide for themselves whether these shamans are able to perform such miracles.

Muti Witchcraft and Murder

Thunderfoot and his fellow YouTuber are also right to point out the harm that bad and fraudulent science can do. And there are very serious issues surrounding the promotion of indigenous African magic. Years ago a South African anthropologist defended African muti at an academic conference here in Britain. Muti is a form of magic in which someone tries to gain success and good luck through acquiring amulets made of human body parts. These include the fingers and the genitals. It’s believed they are particularly powerful if they are cut off the victim while they’re still alive. There’s a whole black market in such body parts and amulets in South Africa, with prices varying according to the desired body party. Way back in 2004-5 the police found the remains of a human torso in the Thames. It had been wrapped in cloth of particular colours, and it was believed that it had belonged to a boy, who’d been killed as part of such a ritual.

Indigenous Beliefs and the Politics of Apartheid

Years ago the small press, sceptical UFO magazine, Magonia, reviewed a book by the South African shaman Credo Mutwa. This was supposed to be full of ancient African spiritual wisdom. In fact it seems to have been a mixture of South African indigenous beliefs and western New Age ideas. The Magonians weren’t impressed. And one of the reasons they weren’t impressed was Mutwa himself and the political use of him and other African shamans by the apartheid government.

Before it fell, apartheid South Africa had a policy of ‘re-tribalisation’. This was the promotion of the separate identities and cultures of the various indigenous peoples over whom the White minority ruled. This included the promotion of traditional religious and spiritual beliefs. These peoples had intermarried and mixed to such an extent, that by the 1950s they had formed a Black working class. And it was to prevent that working class becoming united that the apartheid government promoted their cultural differences in a policy of divide and rule. Mutwa was allegedly part of that policy as a government stooge.

Attacks on Science and Maths for Racism Dangerous

I’ve put up several videos now from Sargon attacking the assertion that western education and in particular mathematics is racist and somehow oppressed Blacks. I’m putting up this video because it does the same for the assertion that western science is also racist.

Not only are science and maths not racist, it is also very definitely not racist to reject some forms of African magic. Killing and mutilating people for good luck is absolutely abhorrent and should be condemned and banned, and those who practise it punished, regardless of its status as an African tradition. At the same time it does need to be realised that the South African government did try to keep Black Africans down and powerless partly through the promotion of indigenous spiritual beliefs. It’s ironic that the young woman shown arguing against science does so in an apparent belief that its rejection will somehow be liberating and empowering for Black Africans. And Thunderfoot has a chuckle to himself about the irony in her arguing against science, while reaching for her ipad, one of its products.

Belief in the supernatural and in the alleged powers of indigenous shamans should be a matter of personal belief. Disbelieving in them doesn’t automatically make someone a racist bigot. But this young woman’s rejection of science is racist and potentially extremely dangerous, because it threatens to deprive Black South Africans like her of science’s undoubted benefits. Just like Mbeki’s rejection of the link between HIV and AIDS led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of desperately ill men, women and children.

Conclusion

What is particularly irritating is that this young woman and her fellow students are affluent and, as students, highly educated. If the woman was poor and uneducated, then her views would be understandable. But she isn’t. Instead, she uses the language and rhetoric of postmodernism and contemporary anti-colonialism. It does make you wonder about what is being taught in the world’s universities, arguments about academic freedom notwithstanding.

In the past, there has been racism in science. Eugenics and the hierarchy of races devised by 19th century anthropologists as well as the Nazis’ attempts to create an Aryan science are examples. But attacks on conventional science and mathematics as racist, based on no more than the fact that modern science and maths have their origins in contemporary western culture is also racist and destructive.

Glib attacks on science by people like the young student in the above video not only threaten its integrity, but will also harm the very people, who most stand to benefit. They should be thoroughly rejected.

‘I’ Obituary for Stage Magician and Sceptic James Randi

October 26, 2020

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.

Radio 4 Serialisation Next Week of ‘The Haunting of Alma Fielding’

October 23, 2020

I put up a piece a little while ago about the book, The Haunting of Alma Fielding: a True Ghost Story, by Kate Summerscale. This was a poltergeist case investigated in the 1930s by the Hungarian researcher Nandor Fodor. Now just weeks after the book’s publication, it’s being serialised in five parts on Radio 4 as their ‘Book of the Week’, read by Emma Fielding. Is she any relation of Alma, the woman at the centre of the case, we wonder. The instalments are broadcast at 9.45 am, Monday to Friday. The blurb for the adaptation in the Radio Times by Jane Anderson on page 132 runs

Fans of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher will be delighted to know that Kate Summerscale’s latest book has been successfully condensed into five parts for radio. After reports in 1938 of a house in Croydon being invaded by a malevolent poltergeist, Nandor Fodor, a fellow at the International Institute for Psychical Research, was determined to explain the mysterious goings on, but this is more of a psychological than a psychical investigation. Gripping, engaging and utterly brilliant.

The blurbs for the individual instalments run as follows.

Monday

Flying Teacups. Emma Fielding reads Kate Summerscale’s book, which tells the story of ghosthunter Nandor Fodor’s efforts to unravel the mystery of the haunting of a housewife living in Croydon in the 1930s. Abridged by Julian Wilkinson. (p. 133).

Tuesday

The Pilfering Poltergeist. Nandor takes Alma to the seaside, where once again her poltergeist creates a stir. (p. 135).

Wednesday

Astral Projection. Alma tells Nandor Fodor about an experience of astral projection, which raises questions and unease over her case builds. (p. 137).

Thursday

An Unsettling Turn of Events:.Nandor Fodor has questions to answer. (p. 139).

Friday

An Encounter with Sigmund Freud. Explanations for Alma’s supernatural experiences prove controversial. (p. 141).

I also somehow doubt that it’s an accident that this is being broadcast in the run up to Hallowe’en either!