Links, curiosities & mixed wonders – 5

Here’s a gift pack of strange food for the mind and weird stuff that should keep you busy until Christmas.

  • You surely remember Caitlin Doughty, founder  of the Order of the Good Death as well as author of best-seller Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. In the past I interviewd her, I wrote a piece for the Order, and I even flew to Philadelphia to meet her for a three-day conference.
    Caitlin is also famous for her ironic videos on the culture of death. The latest episode is dedicated to a story that will surely sound familiar, if you follow this blog: the story of the ‘Punsihed Suicide’ of Padua, which was published for the first time in my book His Anatomical Majesty.
    With her trademark humor, Caitlin succeeds in asking what in my view is the fundamental question: is it worth judging a similar episode by our contemporary ethical standards, or is it better to focus on what this tale can tell us about our history and about the evolution of sensibility towards death?

  • In 1966 a mysterious box washed up on a British shore: it contained swords, chandeliers, red capes, and a whole array of arcane symbols related to occultism. What was the function of these objects, and why were they left to the waves?
  • While we’re at it, here is an autopsy photograph from the 1920s, probably taken in Belgium. Was pipe smoking a way of warding off the bad smell?
    (Seen here, thanks again Claudia!)

  • A new photographic book on evolution is coming out, and it looks sumptuous. Robert Clark’s wonderful pictures carry a disquieting message: “Some scientists who study evolution in real time believe we may be in the midst of the world’s sixth mass extinction, a slow-motion funnel of death that will leave the planet with a small fraction of its current biodiversity. One reason that no one can forecast how it will end—and who will be left standing—is that, in many ways, our understanding of evolution itself continues to evolve“.
  • But don’t get too alarmed: our world might eventually be just an illusion. Sure, this concept is far from new: all the great spiritual, mythological or artistic messages have basically been repeating us for millennia that we should not trust our senses, suggesting ther is more to this reality than meets the eye. Yet, up until now, no one had ever tried to prove this mathematically. Until now.
    A cognitive science professor at the University of California elaborated an intriguing model that is causing a bit of a fuss: his hypothesis is that our perception has really nothing to do with the world out there, as it is; our sensory filter might not have evolved to give us a realistic image of things, but rather a convenient one. Here is an article on the Atlantic, and here is a podcast in which our dear professor quietly tears down everything we think we know about the world.
  • Nonsense, you say? What if I told you that highly evolved aliens could already be among us — without the need for a croncrete body, but in the form of laws of physics?

Other brilliant ideas: Goodyear in 1961 developed these illuminated tires.

  • Mariano Tomatis’ Blog of Wonders is actually Bizzarro Bazar’s less morbid, but more magical twin. You could spend days sifting through the archives, and always come up with some pearl you missed the first time: for example this post on the hidden ‘racism’ of those who believe Maya people came from outer space (Italian only).
  • In Medieval manuscripts we often find some exceedingly unlucky figures, which had the function of illustrating all possible injuries. Here is an article on the history and evolution of the strange and slightly comic Wound Man.

  • Looking at colored paint spilled on milk? Not really a mesmerizing thought, until you take four minutes off and let yourself be hypnotized by Memories of Painting, by Thomas Blanchard.

  • Let’s go back to the fallacy of our senses, ith these images of the Aspidochelone (also called Zaratan), one of the fantastical beasts I adored as a child. The idea of a sea monster so huge that it could be mistaken for an island, and on whose back even vegetation can grow, had great fortune from Pliny to modern literature:

  • But the real surprise is to find that the Zaratan actually exists, albeit in miniature:

  • Saddam Hussein, shortly after his sixtieth birthday, had 27 liters of his own blood taken just to write a 600-page calligraphied version of the Quran.
    An uncomfortable manuscript, so much so that authorities don’t really know what to do with it.
  • Time for a couple of Christmas tips, in case you want to make your decorations slightly menacing: 1) a set of ornaments featuring the faces of infamous serial killers, namely Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey DahmerEd Gein and H. H. Holmes; 2) a murderous Santa Claus. Make your guests understand festivities stress you out, and that might trigger some uncontrolled impulse. If you wish to buy these refined, tasteful little objects, just click on pictures to go to the corresponding Etsy store. You’re welcome.

  • Finally, if you run out of gift ideas for Christmas and you find yourself falling back on the usual book, at least make sure it’s not the usual book. Here are four random, purely coincidental examples…
    Happy holidays!

(Click on image to open bookshop)

Sfere cinesi

Fra gli oggetti più curiosi custoditi nelle wunderkammer antiche e moderne, figurano senz’altro le sfere cinesi. Queste palle, spesso chiamate “rompicapo” (puzzle balls), sono in realtà dei puri esercizi di virtuosismo scultoreo e artistico.

Questi oggetti sono costituiti da diverse sfere identiche e concentriche, contenute l’una nell’altra; ma la particolarità che lascia a bocca aperta è che le sfere sono tutte scolpite a partire dallo stesso pezzo d’avorio. La procedura è minuziosa e incredibile: ricavata dall’osso la palla più esterna, lo scultore pratica i primi fori, quelli che saranno comuni a tutte le sfere. Poi con degli scalpelli ricurvi comincia all’interno di questi buchi a scavare in senso orizzontale, separando a poco a poco uno strato dal successivo, e formando così una serie di palle concentriche.

Una volta separate le sfere, ognuna viene decorata in modo differente, sempre operando attraverso gli angusti fori praticati all’inizio. Nell’oggetto finale, le palle concentriche sono perfettamente libere di muoversi, e il “rompicapo” starebbe nel riuscire a riallinearle secondo la posizione originaria utilizzata per scolpirle, utilizzando la punta di una penna d’oca (o un più moderno stuzzicadenti) per non rischiare di rovinarle.

Se le sfere antiche venivano ricavate dall’avorio di elefante o di mammuth, i cui scheletri erano piuttosto comuni in alcune parti della Cina, oggi vengono spesso prodotte in avorio sintetico (polvere d’osso e resina) e in molti altri materiali come giada, resina o legno. Anche in epoca recente, comunque, il lavoro artigiano di scultura è imprescindibile e perfino quelle ricavate da stampi vengono intagliate e rifinite a mano.

Meraviglie fragili e prive di un vero e proprio scopo che non sia suscitare stupore, le sfere cinesi sono talvolta davvero impressionanti: le più grandi, di livello museale e di grosse dimensioni, possono contenere più di 20 sfere interne.

Pubblicità giapponese

Sono aperte le scommesse per capire quale sia il prodotto sponsorizzato da questa splendida pubblicità televisiva, assolutamente weird.