Links, Curiosities & Mixed Wonders – 28

Here is a new collection of trivia and oddities to start the year off right; enjoy!

  • Let’s begin with an extraordinary case reported in September 1988 in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology:

The patient was a 15-year-old girl employed in a local bar. She was admitted to hospital after a knife fight involving her, a former lover and a new boyfriend. Who exactly stabbed whom was not quite clear but all three participants in the small war were admitted with knife injuries. The girl had some minor lacerations of the left hand and a single stab-wound in the upper abdomen.

The laparotomy revealed two holes in her stomach, resulting from a single stab wound; the stomach was empty and no gastric fluid spillage was noted in the abdomen, so the doctors sutured the wound and the young patient fully recovered within 10 days.
The bad story seemed to be resolved when, precisely 278 days later, the girl came back to the hospital with sharp pains in her abdomen, and as soon as they saw her the doctors immediately understood that the young woman was pregnant and about to give birth. On closer examination, however, there came a surprise: although the uterus was contracting normally and the cervix was almost fully dilated, the patient had no vagina. Between the labia minora, below the urethral meatus, there was only a shallow skin dimple. The baby, a perfectly healthy male, was delivered by cesarean section, but at that point

curiosity could not be contained any longer and the patient was interviewd with the help of a sympathetic nursing sister. The whole story did not become completely clear during that day but, with some subsequent inquiries, the whole saga emerged.
The patient was well aware of the fact that she had no vagina and she had started oral experiments after disappointing attempts at conventional intercourse. Just before she was stabbed in the abdomen she had practised fellatio with her new boyfriend and was caught in the act by her former lover. The fight with knives ensued. [Subsequently] she had been worried about the increase in her abdominal size but could not believe she was pregnant although it had crossed her mind more often as her girth increased and as people around her suggested that she was pregnant. […] The young mother, her family, and the likely father adapted themselves rapidly to the new situation and some cattle changed hands to prove that there were no hard feelings. […] A plausible explanation for this pregnancy is that spermatozoa gained access to the reproductive organs via the injured gastrointestinal tract. It is known that spermatozoa do not survive long in an environment with a low pH, but it is also known that saliva has a high pH and that a starved person does not produce acid under normal circumstances. […] The fact that the son resembled the father excludes an even more miraculous conception.

  • Katharina Detzel (above) was committed to a mental hospital in 1907 for performing abortions and sabotaging a railroad line in political protest. While confined in the asylum, she constructed a life-size doll with male features, using straw from her mattress. The doll provided her with venting and comfort: she punched it when she was angry and danced with it when she felt happy.
  • In Atlantic City until the 1970s there was a show, dangerous and cruel, that was all the rage: diving into the sea from 18 meters high with horses. (Thanks, Roberto!)
  • Flash news: we have two noses.

  • The facial expression these young ladies are making is called ahegao, and many of you may know that it derives from Japanese hentai in which upturned/crossed eyes, stuck-out tongue and flushing cheeks are used to represent the height of sexual arousal. This pose, which is allusive while not being explicitly pornographic, moved from comic books to the Internet in a short time, becoming a widespread phenomenon on social media. Interestingly, tracing the history of the ahegao face reveals that it owes all its fortune to Japanese censorship.
  • Let’s stay in the Land of the Rising Sun: in 1803 some strange, UFO-like vessel ran aground on the shores of Japan. Inside was a beautiful red-haired teenager, dressed in strange clothes and unable to speak Japanese. The inhabitants, convinced that she might be a princess from a distant country, and wanting to avoid trouble with the local authorities, decided… to throw her back into the sea. Truth or legend?
  • An incredible resource for all artists, and more: J.G. Heck’s Iconographic Encyclopedia, published between 1849 and 1851, has been digitized in a new interactive form that includes more than 13,000 spectacular illustrations. (In each section, the “Plates only” button at the top allows you to exclude the text.)

  • Above is one of the small robots appearing in the science fiction film Silent Running (1972), capable of moving in a funny, almost human-like manner. A very thorough article reveals their “secret”: they were basically costumes operated by legless actors. Director Douglas Trumbull, who at the time was accused of being insensitive about employing disabled people, recalls in interviews that the four actors actually had a great time and were handsomely paid for their job.
  • Speaking of cinema, here is some utter genius at work. Starting in the 1930s, director Melton Barker made the same film, The Kidnappers Foil, more than 130 times, using the same script and largely the same shots. The subject was basic: a little girl named Betty Davis is kidnapped on her birthday; the town’s children, attracted by the reward put up by the missing girl’s father, organize several search parties; they finally succeed in rescuing her, and in the finale a big party erupts in which the children perform dances and musical numbers.
    What, then, was Barker’s gimmick? The film was played exclusively by the children residing in the town where he was staying at the time. Parents gladly paid a small fee for their children to be immortalized on film; within a few weeks of the filming being finished, the movie was ready to be shown in local movie theaters, to the delight of all the residents.
    In this way, moving from town to town across the United States, Melton Barker was able to sustain himself for 40 years. In 2012 the few surviving prints of The Kidnappers Foil were added to the National Film Registry for preservation as historically significant; you can see some versions of the film on this website.
  • In Lviv, during the Nazi occupation, many Polish intellectuals managed to avoid concentration camps and receive additional food rations by undertaking a singular job: louse-feeder. (Thanks, Roberto!)

  • The story of the leg of Santa Anna — a Mexican politician, general, dictator, and president — is almost as adventurous as that of its owner. The Generalisimo had been wounded in 1838 by cannon fire during a battle against the French, and had suffered an amputation below his left knee. He had initially buried the leg on his property in Vera Cruz. Once he became president of Mexico again in 1842, he had his leg exhumed and taken, in a luxurious ornate carriage, to Mexico City; there he had prepared an elaborate state funeral for his amputated limb, burying it in a small glass coffin. Two years later, the Santa Anna government was overthrown and a mob of rioters, in addition to destroying the president’s statues, dug up his leg and dragged it through the streets until there was nothing left of it.
    After regaining power, during the Battle of Cerro Gordo in 1847, Santa Anna was attacked by surprise while he was having lunch. Fleeing in a hurry, he left behind his wooden leg: it was collected as a trophy by U.S. infantry soldiers. That is why the prosthesis pictured above is still in the Illinois State Military Museum today.
  • And let’s talk about animals: in Brazil, in the small seaside town of Laguna, residents and dolphins have been joining forces to fish for 140 years. Only there is some doubt that it is the dolphins who have trained the humans.
  • News from last year but which for some reason I find touching: some archaeologists are hunting for the grave of Nancy, an elephantess who escaped from a traveling circus in 1891.
  • And finally, here is a spider doing a cartwheel (via Bestiale):

That’s all, see you next time!

The Village of Puppets

A few days ago I visited Maranzana, a village in Monferrato known to be populated by strange inhabitants…
(Turn on English subtitles!)

Living Machines: Automata Between Nature and Artifice

Article by Laura Tradii
University of Oxford,
MSc History of Science, Medicine and Technology

In a rather unknown operetta morale, the great Leopardi imagines an award competition organised by the fictitious Academy of Syllographers. Being the 19th Century the “Age of Machines”, and despairing of the possibility of improving mankind, the Academy will reward the inventors of three automata, described in a paroxysm of bitter irony: the first will have to be a machine able to act like a trusted friend, ready to assist his acquaintances in the moment of need, and refraining from speaking behind their back; the second machine will be a “steam-powered artificial man” programmed to accomplish virtuous deeds, while the third will be a faithful woman. Considering the great variety of automata built in his century, Leopardi points out, such achievements should not be considered impossible.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, automata (from the Greek, “self moving” or “acting of itself”) had become a real craze in Europe, above all in aristocratic circles. Already a few centuries earlier, hydraulic automata had often been installed in the gardens of palaces to amuse the visitors. Jessica Riskin, author of several works on automata and their history, describes thus the machines which could be found, in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, in the French castle of Hesdin:

“3 personnages that spout water and wet people at will”; a “machine for wetting ladies when they step on it”; an “engien [sic] which, when its knobs are touched, strikes in the face those who are underneath and covers them with black or white [flour or coal dust]”.1

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In the fifteenth century, always according to Riskin, Boxley Abbey in Kent displayed a mechanical Jesus which could be moved by pulling some strings. The Jesus muttered, blinked, moved his hands and feet, nodded, and he could smile and frown. In this period, the fact that automata required a human to operate them, instead of moving of their own accord as suggested by the etymology, was not seen as cheating, but rather as a necessity.2

In the eighteenth century, instead, mechanics and engineers attempted to create automata which could move of their own accord once loaded, and this change could be contextualised in a time in which mechanistic theories of nature had been put forward. According to such theories, nature could be understood in fundamentally mechanical terms, like a great clockwork whose dynamics and processes were not much different from the ones of a machine. According to Descartes, for example, a single mechanical philosophy could explain the actions of both living beings and natural phenomena.3
Inventors attempted therefore to understand and artificially recreate the movements of animals and human beings, and the mechanical duck built by Vaucanson is a perfect example of such attempts.

With this automaton, Vaucanson purposed to replicate the physical process of digestion: the duck would eat seeds, digest them, and defecate. In truth, the automaton simply simulated these processes, and the faeces were prepared in advance. The silver swan built by John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803), instead, imitated with an astonishing realism the movements of the animal, which moved (and still moves) his neck with surprising flexibility. Through thin glass tubes, Merlin even managed to recreate the reflection of the water on which the swan seemed to float.

 

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Vaucanson’s Flute Player, instead, played a real flute, blowing air into the instruments thanks to mechanical lungs, and moving his fingers. On a similar vein, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a little model of Napoleon was displayed in the United Kingdom: the puppet breathed, and it was covered in a material which imitated the texture of skin.  The advertisement for its exhibition at the Dublin’s Royal Arcade described it as a ‘splendid Work of Art’, ‘produc[ing] a striking imitation of human nature, in its Form, Color, and Texture, animated with the act of Respiration, Flexibility of the Limbs, and Elasticity of Flesh, as to induce a belief that this pleasing and really wonderful Figure is a living subject, ready to get up and speak’.4

The attempt to artificially recreate natural processes included other functions beyond movement. In 1779, the Academy of Sciences of Saint Petersburg opened a competition to mechanise the most human of all faculties, language, rewarding who would have succeeded in building a machine capable of pronouncing vowels. A decade later, Kempelen, the inventor of the famous Chess-Playing Turk, built a machine which could pronounce 19 consonants (at least according to Kempelen himself).5

In virtue of their uncanny nature, automata embody the tension between artifice and nature which for centuries has animated Western thought. The quest not only for the manipulation, but for the perfecting of the natural order, typical of the Wunderkammer or the alchemical laboratory, finds expression in the automaton, and it is this presumption that Leopardi comments with sarcasm. For Leopardi, like for some of his contemporaries, the idea that human beings could enhance what Nature already created perfect is a pernicious misconception. The traditional narrative of progress, according to which the lives of humans can be improved through technology, which separates mankind from the cruel state of nature, is challenged by Leopardi through his satire of automata. With his proverbial optimism, the author believes that all that distances humans from Nature can only be the cause of suffering, and that no improvement in the human condition shall be achieved through mechanisation and modernisation.

This criticism is substantiated by the fear that humans may become victims of their own creation, a discourse which was widespread during the Industrial Revolution. Romantic writer Jean Paul (1763-1825), for example, uses automata to satirise the society of the late eighteenth century, imagining a dystopic world in which machines are used to control the citizens and to carry out even the most trivial tasks: to chew food, to play music, and even to pray.6

The mechanical metaphors which were often used in the seventeenth century to describe the functioning of the State, conceptualised as a machine formed of different cogs or institutions, acquire here a dystopic connotation, becoming the manifestation of a bureaucratic, mechanical, and therefore dehumanising order. It is interesting to see how observations of this kind recur today in debates over Artificial Intelligence, and how, quoting Leopardi, a future is envisioned in which “the uses of machines [will come to] include not only material things, but also spiritual ones”.

A closer future than we may think, since technology modifies in entirely new directions our way of life, our understanding of ourselves, and our position in the natural order.

____________

[1]  Jessica Riskin, Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence.
[2]  Grafton, The Devil as Automaton: Giovanni Fontana and the Meanings of a Fifteenth-Century Machine, p.56.
[3]  Grafton, p.58.
[4]  Jennifer Walls, Captivating Respiration: the “Breathing Napoleon”.
[5]  John P. Cater, Electronically Speaking: Computer Speech Generation, Howard M. Sams & Co., 1983, pp. 72-74.
[6]  Jean Paul, 1789. Discusso in Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: the Automaton in the European Imagination di Minsoo Kang.

L’automa misterioso

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Una mattina di novembre del 1928, un camion si fermò di fronte al prestigioso museo scientifico della città di Philadelphia, il Franklin Institute; la cassa che i fattorini fecero scendere dall’autocarro conteneva un complesso rompicapo.
La facoltosa famiglia Brock, infatti, aveva deciso di donare alla collezione del museo una serie di parti meccaniche che originariamente componevano una macchina in ottone. Si trattava di un vecchio automa ereditato dal loro antenato John Penn Brock o, meglio, di quello che ne rimaneva: il burattino meccanico era sopravvissuto a un incendio, riportando però gravi danni.

Il lavoro di restauro si preannunciava laborioso e complicato, anche perché non c’era nessuno schema o progetto originale su cui basarsi per comprendere come assemblare i pezzi; mentre Charles Roberts, talentuoso tecnico del Franklin Institute, si metteva pazientemente all’opera, in parallelo si cominciò a investigare la storia dell’automa. A quanto si sapeva, il burattino era stato costruito da Johann Maelzel, inventore tedesco vissuto a cavallo fra ‘700 e ‘800. Quest’uomo, seppur sprovvisto di una formale educazione, possedeva una geniale mente ingegneristica: certo, spesso prendeva “ispirazione” da idee altrui in maniera un po’ troppo disinvolta, ma sapeva perfezionarle talmente bene da sorpassare sempre l’originale. Realizzò strumenti musicali che imitavano il suono di intere bande militari, cronometri, metronomi, burattini automatici, e tutta una serie di stupefacenti meccanismi. La sua amicizia turbolenta con Ludwig van Beethoven gli aprì le porte del successo, e per molti anni Maelzel girò il mondo, esibendo i suoi automi (fra cui anche una ricostruzione del famigerato “Turco” di cui abbiamo parlato in questo articolo) dall’Europa alla Russia, dalle Americhe alle Indie.
John Penn Brock, a quanto dicevano gli eredi, aveva acquistato questo meccanismo da Maelzel in persona, durante un viaggio in Francia. In effetti quando arrivò al Franklin Institute il burattino indossava un’uniforme, ormai a brandelli, che lo faceva assomigliare vagamente a un soldato francese.

Durante il restauro, i tecnici del museo cominciarono pian piano a comprendere quale incredibile tesoro avessero ricevuto in dono. Rispetto agli altri automi, notarono infatti una grossa differenza: se normalmente gli ingranaggi contenenti la memoria di movimento si trovavano all’interno del corpo del manichino stesso, in questo caso essi erano talmente voluminosi che era stato necessario nasconderli nella base dell’automa. Era la più grande memoria meccanica di questo tipo mai vista, perlomeno in un pezzo d’epoca. Questo significava che la macchina doveva essere in grado di compiere delle azioni di una complessità senza precedenti.

La memoria dell’automa era contenuta in grandi dischi in ottone (camme), dentellati in maniera irregolare. Il motore li faceva girare, e tre lunghe dita d’acciaio ne seguivano i contorni, “traducendo” la forma dei bordi nelle tre dimensioni spaziali e veicolando, tramite un intricato sistema di leve e ingranaggi, il movimento alla mano del burattino.

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Quando i lavori furono ultimati, l’automa aveva ripreso quasi del tutto la sua forma originaria. Gli mancavano ancora le gambe, distrutte nell’incendio, e probabilmente alcuni ingranaggi che avrebbero permesso un movimento più fluido e “umano” della sua testa. Anche la penna che aveva in mano era andata perduta, e venne sostituita da una stilografica. Ma l’essenziale era stato ricostruito.

Non appena fu data carica ai motori, l’automa tornò in vita dopo decenni di inattività. Abbassò la testa, appoggiò delicatamente la punta della penna sul foglio. Quello che stava per succedere andava oltre ogni aspettativa.

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Il burattino cominciò a delineare alcuni fra i più elaborati disegni mai riprodotti da un automa. Dopo aver creato quattro diverse illustrazioni, venne il momento delle poesie: l’automa scriveva i suoi versi con un’arzigogolata e leziosa calligrafia, dimostrando di non aver perso per nulla la “mano”. Ma la sorpresa più grande doveva ancora venire.

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Dopo aver scritto il terzo e ultimo poema, l’automa sembrò fermarsi per un attimo, quasi fosse indeciso se svelare o meno il suo segreto; infine aggiunse, sul bordo, una frase. Ecrit par l’Automate de Maillardet, “scritto dall’Automa di Maillardet”.
L’inventore della macchina non era quindi Maelzel!

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Dalla profondità degli ingranaggi dell’automa stesso era emersa la sua vera storia, e l’identità del suo creatore.
Henri Maillardet (1745-1830) era un orologiaio svizzero che aveva lavorato a Londra, prima di morire in Belgio. Egli aveva costruito diversi automi, fra cui uno in grado di scrivere in cinese che fu regalato da Re Giorgio III all’Imperatore della Cina. Ma il suo lavoro più ambizioso e straordinario aveva rischiato di rimanere attribuito all’inventore sbagliato, se Maillardet non avesse deciso di lasciare nella memoria di quel burattino meccanico la traccia del suo nome.

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L’automa di Maillardet, sulla destra, a Londra nel 1826.

L’automa di Maillardet, costruito probabilmente nella prima decade del XIX secolo, aveva viaggiato da Londra in tutta l’Europa, spingendosi fino a San Pietroburgo. Dal 1821 al 1833 era stato in possesso di un certo signor Schmidt, che l’aveva esibito nuovamente a Londra. Nel 1835 l’automa faceva effettivamente parte della collezione di Maelzel, che lo portò con sé nel suo tour degli Stati Uniti nel 1835 e lo mise in mostra insieme alle sue creazioni a Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. e New York. Dopodiché l’automa scomparve, anche se alcuni ritengono possibile che P. T. Barnum, che conosceva Maelzel, l’avesse acquistato per esporlo in uno dei suoi due musei (situati a Philadelphia e New York). L’ipotesi è plausibile anche perché sappiamo che l’automa aveva subìto i danni di un incendio, e in effetti entrambi i musei di Barnum finirono distrutti dal fuoco.

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Gli ingranaggi di Maillardet sono considerati precursori storici, in epoca pre-elettronica, della cosiddetta memoria ROM (Read-Only-Memory), cioè di un sistema per immagazzinare dati recuperabili in seguito. L’automa ha inoltre ispirato il pupazzo meccanico che compare in Hugo Cabret (2011) di Martin Scorsese e nel romanzo di Brian Selznick da cui è stato tratto il film.

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Per un approfondimento sugli automi, ecco un nostro vecchio post.

Robert Morgan

Robert Morgan è un filmmaker e animatore inglese, dalla fantasia macabra e sfrenata. I suoi surreali lavori in stop-motion hanno vinto numerosi premi, e se avete un po’ di tempo vale davvero la pena di darci un’occhiata: ecco il sito ufficiale di Robert Morgan.

Vi proponiamo qui il suo eccezionale cortometraggio The Separation, la cui trama rimanda chiaramente a Inseparabili (1988) di David Cronenberg, ma che contamina il suo modello con un’atmosfera malsana, morbosa eppure, nel finale, stranamente commovente.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltIG3v_ySuU]

(Grazie, Paolo!)

FAQ: Che cos’è un tupilak?

Inauguriamo qui una nuova rubrica. “FAQ”, acronimo di “Frequently Asked Questions”, sarà lo spazio in cui noi di Bizzarro Bazar rispondiamo alle domande che ci vengono rivolte più frequentemente. Si tratta, ve ne accorgerete, di quesiti comuni, che tutti noi ci poniamo quotidianamente, e siamo felici di poter offrire questo servizio utile e culturalmente encomiabile. Se avete richieste su argomenti che vorreste vedere trattati su “FAQ”, non esitate a domandare.

Partiamo da una delle domande più gettonate, una di quelle che assillano l’uomo moderno: che cos’è un tupilak?

Nella tradizione della Groenlandia, per Tupilaq, o Tupilak, si intende una piccola statuetta rappresentante gli spiriti dei Tupilaq o di altre creature mitiche. Originariamente il Tupilak era composto di materiali differenti, quali ad esempio parti di animali, capelli umani, addirittura parti prese da cadaveri di bambini. Gli stregoni raccoglievano questi pezzi in un posto segreto ed isolato, li legavano assieme, e operavano incantesimi sulle figurine. Permettevano anche che le figurine succhiassero l’energia dai loro organi genitali.


Dopo questa procedura, il Tupilak era pronto per essere immerso nel mare e mandato ad uccidere un nemico. L’affare era però rischioso, perché se la vittima era dotata di poteri magici più forti di chi inviava il Tupilak, poteva essere in grado di capovolgere l’incantesimo, e l’effetto boomerang avrebbe potuto essere fatale per il creatore del piccolo killer.


Nessuno ha mai trovato un vero Tupilak. Essendo stati assemblati con materiali deperibili, buttati in mare – e di base, essendo comunque degli artefatti assolutamente segreti – non stupisce il fatto che non ne sia rimasto nemmeno un esemplare. Quando i primi europei arrivarono in Groenlandia, e sentirono le leggende sui Tupilak, chiesero di poterne vedere alcuni. I locali cominciarono quindi a scolpire alcune statuette per mostrare loro a cosa assomigliassero. Questa tradizione continua ancora oggi, e il commercio di Tupilak ricavati dalla pietra, dall’osso o dal legno permane come uno dei maggiori business locali finalizzati al turismo.

Beatles ventriloqui

Abbiamo già segnalato, su Bizzarro Bazar, una cover di Let It Be degna di nota.

Da beatlesiani puri e duri quali siamo, speriamo di superare qualsiasi aspettativa con questo nuovo filmato: una inquietante Yesterday cantata da un coro… di pupazzi da ventriloquo.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvrN4xHr32o]

Scoperto via BoingBoing.