Four-legged Espionage

The cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself.
(William S. Burroughs, The Cat Inside, 1986)

Today, after Wikileaks and Snowden, we are used to think of espionage as cyberwarfare: communication hacking, trojans and metadata tracking, attacks to foreign routers, surveillance drones, advanced software, and so on.
In the Sixties, in the middle of the Cold War, the only way to intercept enemy conversations was to physically bug their headquarters.

The problem, of course, was that all factions listend, and knew they were listened to. No agent would talk top secret matters inside a state building hall. The safest method was still the one we’ve seen in many films — if you wanted to discuss in all tranquillity, you had to go outside.
It was therefore essential, for all intelligence systems, to find an appropriate countermeasure: but how could they eavesdrop a conversation out in the open, without arousing suspicion?

In 1961 someone at CIA Directorate of Science and Technology had a flash of inspiration.
There was only one thing the enemy spies would not pay attention to, in the midst of a classified conversation: a cat passing by.
In the hope of achieving the spying breakthrough of the century, CIA launched a secret program called “Acoustic Kitty”. Goal of the project: to build cybercats equipped with surveillance systems, train them to spy, and to infiltrate them inside the Kremlin.

After all, as Terry Pratchett put it, “it is well known that a vital ingredient of success is not knowing that what you’re attempting can’t be done“.

After the first years of theoretical studies, researchers proceeded to test them in vivo.
They implanted a microphone inside a cat’s earing canal, a transmitter with power supply, and an antenna extending towards the animal’s tail. According to the testimony of former CIA official Victor Marchetti, “they slit the cat open, put batteries in him, wired him up. They made a monstrosity“. A monstrosity which nonetheless could allow them to record everything the kitty was hearing.

But there was another, not-so-secondary issue to deal with. The furry incognito agent would have to reach the sensible target without getting distracted along its way — not even by an untimely, proverbial little mouse. And everybody knows training a cat is a tough endeavour.

Some experiments were conducted in order to guide the cat from a distance, basicially to operate it by remote control through electrical impulses (remember José Delgado?). This proved to be harder than expected, and tests followed one antoher with no substantial results. The felines could be “trained to move short distances“; hardly an extraordinary success, even if researchers tried to make it look like a “remarkable scientific achievement“.
Eventually, having lost their patience, or maybe hoping for some unexpected miracle, the agents decided to run some empirical field test. They sent the cat on its first true mission.

On a bright morning in 1966, two Soviet officials were sitting on a park bench on Wisconsin Avenue, right outside the Washington Embassy of Russia, unaware of being targeted for one of the most absurd espionage operations ever.
In a nearby street, history’s first 007 cat was released from an anonymous van.
Now imagine several CIA agents, inside the vehicle, all wearing headphone and receivers, anxiously waiting. After years of laboratory studies, the moment of truth had come at last: would it work? Would they succeed in piloting the cat towards the target? Would the kitty obediently eavesdrop the conversation between the two men?

Their excitement, alas, was short lived.

After less than 10 feet, the Acoustic Kitty was run over by a taxi.
RIP Acoustic Kitty.

With this inglorious accident, after six years of pioneering research which cost 20 million dollars, project Acoustic Kitten was declared a total failure and abandoned.
One March 1967 report, declassified in 2001, stated that “the environmental and security factors in using this technique in a real foreign situation force us to conclude that […] it would not be practical“.

One last note: the story of the cat being hit by a taxi was told by the already mentioned Victor Marchetti; in 2013 Robert Wallace, former director of the Office of Technical Service, disputed the story, asserting that the animal simply did not do what the researchers wanted. “The equipment was taken out of the cat; the cat was re-sewn for a second time, and lived a long and happy life afterwards“.

You can choose your favorite ending.

His Anatomical Majesty

The fourth book in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection, published by Logos, is finally here.

While the first three books deal with those sacred places in Italy where a physical contact with the dead is still possible, this new work focuses on another kind of “temple” for human remains: the anatomical museum. A temple meant to celebrate the progress of knowledge, the functioning and the fabrica, the structure of the body — the investigation of our own substance.

The Morgagni Museum in Padova, which you will be able to explore thanks to Carlo Vannini‘s stunning photography, is not devoted to anatomy itself, but rather to anatomical pathology.
Forget the usual internal architectures of organs, bones and tissues: here the flesh has gone insane. In these specimens, dried, wet or tannized following Lodovico Brunetti’s method, the unconceivable vitality of disease becomes the real protagonist.

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A true biological archive of illness, the collection of the Morgagni Museum is really a time machine allowing us to observe deformities and pathologies which are now eradicated; before the display cases and cabinets we gaze upon the countless, excruciating ways our bodies can fail.
A place of inestimable value for the amount of history it contains, that is the history of the victims, of those who fell along the path of discovery, as much as of those men who took on fighting the disease, the pioneers of medical science, the tale of their committment and persistence. Among its treasures are many extraordinary intersections between anatomy and art.

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The path I undertook for His Anatomical Majesty was particularly intense on an emotional level, also on the account of some personal reasons; when I began working on the book, more than two years ago, the disease — which up until then had remained an abstract concept — had just reached me in all its destabilizing force. This is why the Museum, and my writing, became for me an initiatory voyage into the mysteries of the flesh, through its astonishments and uncertainties.
The subtitle’s oxymoron, that obscure splendour, is the most concise expression I could find to sum up the dual state of mind I lived in during my study of the collection.
Those limbs marked by suffering, those still expressive faces through the amber formaldehyde, those impossible fantasies of enraged cells: all this led me to confront the idea of an ambivalent disease. On one hand we are used to demonize sickness; but, with much the same surprise that comes with learning that biblical Satan is really a dialectical “adversary”, we might be amazed to find that disease is never just an enemy. Its value resides in the necessary questions it adresses. I therefore gave myself in to the enchantment of its terrible beauty, to the dizziness of its open meaning. I am sure the same fruitful uneasiness I felt is the unavoidable reaction for anyone crossing the threshold of this museum.

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The book, created in strict collaboration with the University of Padova, is enriched by museology and history notes by Alberto Zanatta (anthropologist and curator of the Museum), Fabio Zampieri (history of medicine researcher), Maurizio Rippa Bonati (history of medicine associated professor) and Gaetano Thiene (anatomical pathology professor).

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You can purchase His Anatomical Majesty in the Bizzarro Bazar Collection bookstore on Libri.it.

The Academy of Enchantment

The time has finally come to unveil the project I have been spending a good part of this year on.

Everything started with a place, a curious secret nestled in the heart of Rome, a stone’s throw away from the Circo Massimo. Very likely, my favorite haven in the whole city: the wunderkammer Mirabilia, a cabinet of wonders recreating the philosophy and taste of sixteenth-century collections, from which modern museums evolved.

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Taxidermied giraffes and lions, high-profile artworks and rarities from all over the world were gathered here after many years of research and adventures by the gallery owner, Giano Del Bufalo, a young collector I previously wrote about.

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This baroque studio, where beauty marries the macabre and the wonderful, has become for me a special spot in which to withdraw and to dream, especially after a hard day.
Given these premises, it was just a matter of time before the idea of a collaboration between Bizzarro Bazar and Mirabilia was born.

And now we’re getting there.
On October 9, within this gallery’s perfect setting, the Academy of Enchantment will open its doors.

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What Giano and I have designed is an alternative cultural center, unprecedented in the Italian scenario and tailor-made for the lovers of the unusual.
The Academy will host a series of meetings with scientists, writers, artists and scholars who devoted their lives to the exploration of reality’s strangest facets: they range from mummification specialists to magic books researchers, from pathologists to gothic literature experts, from sex historians to some of the most original contemporary artists.

You can easily guess how much this project is close to my heart, as it represents a physical transposition of many years of work on this blog. But the privilege of planning its ‘bursting into’ the real world has been accorded only by the friendly willingness of a whole number of kindred spirits I have met over the years thanks to Bizzarro Bazar.
I was surprised and actually a bit intimidated by the enthusiasm shown by these extraordinary people, whom I hold in the highest regard: University professors, filmmakers, illusionists and collectors of oddities all warmly responded to my call for action, which can be summarized by the ambitious objective of “cultivating the vertigo of amazement”.

I address a similar appeal to this blog’s followers: spread the word, share the news and participate to the events if you can. It will be a unique occasion to listen and discuss, to meet these exceptional lecturers in person, to train your dream muscles… but above all it will be an opportunity to find each other.

This is indeed how we like to think of the Academy of Enchantment: as a frontier outpost, where the large family of wonder pioneers and enthusiasts can finally meet; where itineraries and discoveries can intersect; and from which, eventually, everyone will be able to head off towards new explorations.

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In order to attain the meetings you will be requested to join the Mirabilia cultural association; on the Accademia dell’Incanto website you will soon find all about the next events and application methods.
The Accademia dell’Incanto is also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“Keep the World Weird!”

“We Were Amazed”: Anatomy Comes to Japan

Imagine living in a country whose government decided to block any scientific discovery coming from abroad.
Even worse: imagine living in this hypothetical country, at the exact time when the most radical revolution of human knowledge in history is taking place in the world, a major transformation bound to change the way Man looks at the Universe — of which you ignore every detail, since they are prohibited by law.

This was probably a scientist’s nightmare in Japan during sakoku, the protectionist policy adopted by the Tokugawa shogunate. Enacted around 1640, officially to stop the advance of Christianity after the Shimabara rebellion, this line of severe restrictions was actually devised to control commerce: in particular, what the Shogun did was to deny access and trade above all to the Portuguese and the Spanish, who were considered dangerous because of their colonial and missionary ambitions in the New World.
China, Korea and the Netherlands were granted the opportunity of buying and selling. Being the only Europeans who could carry on trading, in the enclave of Dejima, the Dutch established with the Land of the Rising Sun an important economic and cultural relationship which lasted for more than two centuries, until the sakoku policy was terminated officially in 1866.

As we were saying, Japan ran the risk of being cut off from scientific progress, which had begun just a century before, in that fateful year of our Lord 1543 when Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium and Vesalius his Fabrica — two books which in one fell swoop dismantled everything that was believed was above and inside Man.
If the nightmare we previously mentioned never became true, it was because of the Rangaku movement, a group of researchers who set out to carefully study everything the Dutch brought to Japan.
Although for the first eighty years of “isolation” the majority of Western books were banned, ideas kept on circulating and little by little this quarantine of culture loosened up: the Japanese were allowed to translate some fundamental works on optics, chemistry, geography, mechanical and medical sciences.
In the first half of the XIX Century there were several Rangaku schools, translations of Western books were quite widespread and the interaction between japanese and foreign scientists was much more common.

Medical studies were recognized since the beginning as a field in which cultural exchange was essential.
In Japan at that time, physicians followed the Chinese tradition, based on religious/spiritual views of the body, where precise anatomical knowledge was not seen as necessary. Human dissections were prohibited, according to the principles of Confucianism, and those doctors who really wanted to know the inside of the human body had to infer any information by dissecting otters, dogs and monkeys.

The very first autopsy, on an executed criminal, took place in 1754 and was conducted by Yamawaki Tōyō. The dissection itself was carried out by an assistant, because it was still a taboo for higher classes to touch human remains.
All of a sudden, it appeared that the inside of a human body was much more similar to the Dutch illustrations than to those of traditional Chinese medicine books. The account of the autopsy signed by Yamawaki caused the uproar of the scientific community; in it, he strongly supported an empyrical approach, an unconceivable position at the time:

Theories may be overturned, but how can real material things deceive? When theories are esteemed over reality, even a man of great widsom cannot fail to err. When material things are investigated and theories are based on that, even a man of common intelligence can perform well.

(cit. in Bob T. Wakabayashi, Modern Japanese Thought)

In 1758, one of Yamawaki’s students, Kōan Kuriyama, conducted the second dissection in Japanese history, and was also the first physician to cut up a human body with his own hands, without resorting to an assistant.

Sugita Genpaku was another doctor who was shocked to find out that the illustrations of Western “barbarians” were more accurate than the usual Chinese diagrams. In his memoir Rangaku Koto Hajime (“Beginning of Dutch Studies”, 1869), he recounts the time when, together with other physicians, he dissected the body of a woman called Aochababa, hanged in Kyoto in the Kozukappara district (now Aeakawa) in 1771. Before starting the autopsy, they examined a Western anatomy book, the Ontleedkundige Tafelen by Johann Adam Kulmus:

Ryotaku opened the book and explained according to what he had learned in Nagasaki the various organs such as the lung called “long” in Dutch, the heart called “hart,” the stomach called “maag” and the spleen called “milt.” They looked so different from the pictures in the Chinese anatomical books that many of us felt rather dubious of their truths before we should actually observe the real organs. […] Comparing the things we saw with the pictures in the Dutch book Ryotaku and I had with us, we were amazed at their perfect agreement. There was no such divisions either as the six lobes and two auricles of the lungs or the three left lobes and two right lobes of the liver mentioned in old medical books. Also, the positions and the forms of the intestines and the stomach were very different from the traditional descriptions. [Even the bones] were nothing like those described in the old books, but were exactly as represented in the Dutch book. We were completely amazed.

(1771: Green Tea Hag, the beginning of Dutch Learning)

Genpaku spent the following three years translating the Dutch textbook. The task had to be carried out without any knowledge of the language, nor dictionaries available for consultation, by means of constant interpretations, deductions, and discussions with other doctors who had been in contact with the Europeans in Nagasaki. Genpaku’s colossal effort, similar to an actual decryption, was eventually published in 1774.
The Kaitai Shinsho was the first Japanese illustrated book of modern anatomy.

As Chinese traditional medicine gradually began to pale in comparison to the effectiveness and precision of knowledge coming from Europe, in Japan the practice of dissection became widespread.

This was the context for the real masterpiece of the time, the Kaibo Zonshishu (1819), a scroll containing 83 anatomical illustrations created by Doctor Yasukazu Minagaki.
Minagaki, born in Kyoto in 1785, attended public school and became a physician at a clinic in his hometown; but he also was a better and more gifted artist than his predecessors, so he decided to paint in a meticulous way the results of some forty autopsies he had witnessed. The scroll was part of a correspondence between Minagaki and the Dutch physician Philipp Franz von Siebold, who praised the admirable drawings of his Japanese collegue.

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There are  several online articles on the Kaibo Zonshishu, and almost all of them claim Minagaki was obviously distant from the classicist European iconography of the écorchés — those flayed models showing their guts while standing  in plastic, Greek poses. The cadavers dissected here, on the other hand, are depicted with stark realism, blood trickling down their mouth, their faces distorted in a grimace of agony.

But this idea is not entirely correct.
Already since the XVI Century, in Europe, the écorchés paired with illustrations of an often troubling realism: one just needs to look at the dissection of the head by Johann Dryander, pre-Vesalian even, but very similar to the one by Minagaki, or at the cruel anatomical plates by Dutch artist Bidloo in his Anatomia Hvmani Corporis (1685), or again at the corpses of pregnant women by William Hunter, which caused some controversy in 1774.
These Western predecessors inspired Minagaki, like they had already influenced the Kaitai Shinsho. One clear example:

The representation of tendons in the Kaibo Zonshishu

…was inspired by this plate from the Kaitai Shinsho, which in turn…

…was taken from this illustration by Govand Bidloo (Ontleding des menschelyken lichaams, Amsterdam, 1690).

Anyway, aside from aesthethic considerations, the Kaibo Zonshishu was probably the most accurate and vividly realistic autoptic compendium ever painted in the Edo period (so much so that it was declared a national treasure in 2003).

When finally the borders were open, thanks to the translation work and cultural diffusion operated by the Rangaku community, Japan was able to quickly keep pace with the rest of the world.
And to become, in less than a hundred years, one of the leading countries in cutting-edge technology.

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You can take a look at the Kaitai Shinsho here, and read the incredible story of its translation here. On this page you can find several other beautiful pics on the evolution of anatomical illustration in Japan.
(Thanks, Marco!)

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.

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[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.

Afterlife

What will we feel in the moment of death?
What will come after the initial, inevitable fear?
Shall we sense a strange familiarity with the extreme, simultaneous relaxation of every muscle?
Will the ultimate abandonment remind us of the ancient, primitive annihilation we experience during an orgasm?

Following Epicurus’ famous reasoning (which is, by the way, philosophically and ethically debatable), we should not even worry about such things because when death is present, we are not, and viceversa.
Unknowability of death: as is often said, “no one ever came back” to tell us what lies on the other side. Despite this idea, religious traditions have often described in detail the various phases the soul is bound to go through, once it has stepped over the invisible threshold.

Through the centuries, this has led to the writing of actual handbooks explaining the best way to day.
Western Ars moriendi focused on the moments right before death, while in the East the stress was more on what came after it. But eventually most spiritual philosophies share the fear that the passage might entail some concrete dangers for the spirit of the dying person: demons and visions will try to divert the soul’s attention from the correct path.
In death, one can get lost.

One of the intuitions I find most interesting can be found in Part II of the Bardo Thodol:

O nobly-born, when thy body and mind were separating, thou must have experienced a glimpse of the Pure Truth, subtle, sparkling, bright, dazzling, glorious, and radiantly awesome, in appearance like a mirage moving across a landscape in spring-time in one continuous stream of vibrations. Be not
daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. That is the radiance of thine own true nature. Recognize it.
From the midst of that radiance, the natural sound of Reality, reverberating like a thousand thunders simultaneously sounding, will come. That is the natural sound of thine own real self. Be not daunted thereby, nor terrified, nor awed. […] Since thou hast not a material body of flesh and blood, whatever may come — sounds, lights, or rays — are, all three, unable to harm thee: thou art incapable of dying. It is quite sufficient for thee to know that these apparitions are thine own thought-forms.

It seems to me that this idea, although described in the book in a figurative way, might in a sense resist even to a skeptical, seular gaze. If stripped of its buddhist symbolic-shamanic apparatus, it looks almost like an “objective” observation: death is essentially that natural state from which we took shape and to which we will return. Whatever we shall experience after death — if we are going to experience anything, be it little or much — is ultimately all there is to understand. In poetic terms, it is our own true face, the bottom of things, our intimate reality.

In 1978 Indian animator Ishu Patel, fascinated by these questions, decided to put into images his personal view of what lies beyond. His award-winning short movie Afterlife still offers one of the most suggestive allegorical representations of death as a voyage: a psychedelic trip, first and foremost, but also a moment of essential clarity. The consciousness, upon leaving the body, is confronted with archetypical, shape-shifting figures, and enters a non-place of the mind where nothing is certain and yet everything speaks an instantly recognizable language.

Patel’s artistic and fantastic representation depicts death as a moment when one’s whole life is reviewed, when we will be given a glimpse of the mystery of existence. A beautiful idea, albeit a bit too comforting.
Patel declared to have taken inspiration from Eastern mythologies and from near-death experience accounts (NDE), and this latter detail poses a further question: even supposing that in the moment of death we could witness similar visions, wouldn’t they actually be a mere illusion?

Of course, science tells us that NDE are perfectly coherent with the degenerative neurological processes the brain undergoes when it’s dying. Just like we are now aware of the psychophysical causes of mystic ecstasy, of auto-hypnotic states induced by repeating mantras or prayers, of visions aroused by prolonged fasting or by ingestion of psychoactive substances which are used in many shamanic rituals, etc.
But the physiological explanation of these alteration in consciousness does not undermine their symbolic force.
The sublime beauty of hallucinations lies in the fact that it does not really matter if they’re true or not; what is relevant is the meaning we bestow upon them.

Maybe, after all, only one thing can be really asserted: death still remains a white canvas. It’s up to us what we project on its blank screen.
Afterlife does just that, with the enigmatic lightness of a dance; it is a touching, awe-inspiring ride to the center of all things.

Afterlife, Ishu Patel, National Film Board of Canada

Stoned spiders

1948, University of Tubingen, Germany.
Zoologist H. M. Peters was frustrated. He was conducting a photographic research on the way orb-weaver spiders build their web, but he had encountered a problem: the arachnids he was studying insisted on performing this task of astounding engineering only during the night hours, very early in the morning. This schedule, besides forcing him to get up at an ungodly hour, made photographic documentation quite hard, as the spiders preferred to move in total darkness.
One day Peters decided to call on a collegue, young pharmacologist Dr. Peter N. Witt, for assistance. Would it be possible to somehow drug the spiders, so they would change this routine and start weaving their webs when the sun was already up?

Witt had never had any experience with spiders, but he soon realized that administering tranquilizers or stimulants to the arachnids was easier than he thought: the little critters, constantly thirsty for water, quickly learned to drink from his syringe.
The results of this experiment, alas, turned out to be pretty worthless to zoologist Peters. The spiders kept on building their webs during the night, but that was not the worst part of it. After swallowing the medicine, they weren’t even able to weave a decent web: as if they were drunk, the arachnids produced a twisted mesh, unworthy of being photographed.
After this experience, a disheartened Peters abandoned his project.
In Dr. Witt’s mind, instead, something had clicked.

Common spiders (Araneidae) are all but “common” when it comes to weaving. They build a new web every morning, and if byt he end of the day no insect is trapped, they simply eat it. This way, they are able to recycle silk proteins for weeks: during the first 16 days without food, the webs look perfect. Whe nthe spider gets really hungry, it begins sparing the energy by building a wider-meshes web, suitable to catch only larger insects (the spider is in need of a substantial meal).
After all, for a spider the web isn’t just a way to gather food, but an essential instrument to relate with the surrounding world. Most of these arachnids are almost totally blind, and they use the vibrations of the strands like a radar: from the perceived movements they can understand what kind of insect just snagged itself on the web, and if it is safe for them to approach it; they can notice if even a single thread has broken, and they confidently head in the right direction to repair it; they furthermore use the web as a means of communication in mating rituals, where the male spider remains on the outer edges and rythmically pinches the strings to inform the female of its presence, in order to seduce her without being mistaken for a juicy snack.

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During his experimentation with chemicals, Dr. Witt noticed that there seemed to be a significative correspondence between the administered substance and the aberrations that the spiderweb showed. He therefore began feeding the spiders different psychoactive drugs, and registering the variations in their weaving patterns.
Dr. Witt’s study, published in 1951 and revised in 1971, was limited to statistical observation, without attempting to provide further interpretations. Yet the results could lead to a fascinating if not very orthodox reading: it looked like the spiders were affected in much the same way humans react to drugs.

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Under the influence of weed, they started regularly building their web, but were soon losing interest once they got to the outer rings; while on peyote or magic mushrooms, the arachnids movements became slower and heavier; after being microdosed with LSD, the web’s design became geometrically perfect (not unlike the kaleidoscopic visions reported by human users), while more massive doses completely inhibited the spiders’ abilities; lastly, caffeine produced out of control, schizoid results.

Spiderweb after high doses of LSD-25.

Clearly this “humanized” interpretation is not scientific to say the least. In fact, what really interested Witt was the possibility of using spiders to ascertain the presence of drugs in human blood or urine, as they had proved sensitive to minimal concentrations, which could not be instrumentally detected at the time. His research continued for decades, and Witt went from being a pharmacologist to being an entomology authority. He was able to recognize his little spliders one by one just by looking at their webs, and his fascination for these invertebrates never faded.
He kept on testing their skills in several other experiments, by altering their nervous system through laser stimulation, administering huge quantities of barbiturics, and even sending them in orbit. Even in the absence of gravity, in what Witt called “a masterpiece in adaptation”, after just three days in space the spiders were able to build a nearly perfect web.

Near the end of the Seventies, Witt discontinued his research. In 1984 J. A. Nathanson re-examined Witt’s data, but only in relation to the effects of caffeine.
In 1995 Witt saw his study come back to life when NASA successfully repeated it, with the help of statistic analysis software: the research showed that spiders could be used to test the toxicity of various chemicals instead of mice, a procedure that could save time and money.

Anyway, there is not much to worry regarding the fate of these invertebrates.
Spiders are among the very few animals who survived the biggest mass extinction that ever took place, and they are able to resist to atmospheric conditions which would be intolerable to the majority of insects. Real rulers of the world since millions of years, they will still be here a long time — even after our species has run its course.

Collectible tattoos

For some days now I have been receiving suggestions about Dr. Masaichi Fukushi‘s tattoo collection, belonging to Tokyo University Pathology Department. I am willing to write about it, because the topic is more multifaceted than it looks.

Said collection is both well-known and somewhat obscure.
Born in 1878, Dr. Fukushi was studying the formation of nevi on the skin around 1907, when his research led him to examine the correlation between the movement of melanine through vascularized epidermis and the injection of pigments under the skin in tattoos. His interest was further fueled by a peculiar discovery: the presence of a tattoo seemed to prevent the signs of syphilis from appearing in that area of the body.

In 1920 Dr. Fukushi entered the Mitsui Memorial Hospital, a charity structure where treatment was offered to the most disadvantaged social classes. In this environment, he came in contact with many tattooed persons and, after a short period in Germany, he continued his research on the formation of congenital moles at Nippon Medical University. Here, often carrying out autopsies, he developed an original method of preserving tattooed epidermis he took from corpses; he therefore began collecting various samples, managing to stretch the skin so that it could be exhibited inside a glass frame.

It seems Dr. Fukushi did not have an exclusively scientific interest in tattoos, but was also quite compassionate. Tattooed people, in fact, often came from the poorest and most problematic bracket of japanese society, and Fukushi’s sympathy for the less fortunate even pushed him, in some instances, to take over the expenses for those who could not afford to complete an unfinished tattoo. In return, the doctor asked for permission to remove their skin post mortem. But his passion for tattoos also took the form of photographic records: he collected more than 3.000 pictures, which were destroyed during the bombing of Tokyo in WWII.
This was not the only loss, for a good number of tattooed skins were stolen in Chicago as the doctor was touring the States giving a series of academic lectures between 1927 and 1928.
Fukushi’s work gained international attention in the 40s and the 50s, when several articles appeared on the newspapers, such as the one above published on Life magazine.

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As we said earlier, the collection endured heavy losses during the 1945 bombings. However some skin samples, which had been secured elsewhere, were saved and — after being handed down to Fukushi’s son, Kalsunari — they could be today inside the Pathology Department, even if not available to the public. It is said that among the specimens there are some nearly complete skin suits, showing tattoos over the whole body surface. All this is hard to verify, as the Department is not open to the public and no official information seems to be found online.

Then again, if in the Western world tattoo is by now such a widespread trend that it hardly sparks any controversy, it still remains quite taboo in Japan.
Some time ago, the great Italian tattoo artist Pietro Sedda (author of the marvelous Black Novel For Lovers) told me about his last trip to Japan, and how in that country tattooers still operate almost in secret, in small, anonymous parlors with no store signs, often hidden inside common apartment buildings. The fact that tattoos are normally seen in a negative way could be related to the traditional association of this art form with yakuza members, even though in some juvenile contexts fashion tattoos are quite common nowadays.

A tattoo stygma existed in Western countries up to half a century ago, ratified by explicit prohibitions in papal bulls. One famous exception were the tattoos made by “marker friars” of the Loreto Sanctuary, who painted christian, propitiatory or widowhood symbols on the hands of the faithful. But in general the only ones who decorated their bodies were traditionally the outcast, marginalized members of the community: pirates, mercenaries, deserters, outlaws. In his most famous essay, Criminal Man (1876), Cesare Lombroso classified every tattoo variation he had encountered in prisoners, interpreting them through his (now outdated) theory of atavism: criminals were, in his view, Darwinianly unevolved individuals who tattooed themselves as if responding to an innate primitiveness, typical of savage peoples — who not surprisingly practiced tribal tattooing.

Coming back to the human hides preserved by Dr. Fukushi, this is not the only, nor the largest, collection of its kind. The record goes to London’s Wellcome Collection, which houses around 300 individual pieces of tattoed skin (as opposed to the 105 specimens allegedly stored in Tokyo), dating back to the end of XIX Century.

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The edges of these specimens show a typical arched pattern due to being pinned while drying. And the world opened up by these traces from the past is quite touching, as are the motivations that can be guessed behind an indelible inscription on the skin. Today a tattoo is often little more than a basic decoration, a tribal motif (the meaning of which is often ignored) around an ankle, an embellishment that turns the body into a sort of narcissistic canvas; in a time when a tattoo was instead a symbol of rebellion against the establishment, and in itself could cause many troubles, the choice of the subject was of paramount relevance. Every love tattoo likely implied a dangerous or “forbidden” relationship; every sentence injected under the skin by the needle became the ultimate statement, a philosophy of life.

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These collections, however macabre they may seem, open a window on a non-aligned sensibility. They are, so to speak, an illustrated atlas of that part of society which is normally not contemplated nor sung by official history: rejects, losers, outsiders.
Collected in a time when they were meant as a taxonomy of symbols allowing identification and prevention of specific “perverse” psychologies, they now speak of a humanity who let their freak flag fly.

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(Thanks to all those who submitted the Fukushi collection.)

The Museum of Failure

I have a horror of victories.
(André Pieyre de Mandiargues)

Museums are places of enchantment and inspiration (starting from their name, referring to the Muses). If they largely celebrate progress and the homo sapiens‘ highest achievements, it would be important to recognize that enchantment and inspiration may also arise from contemplating broken dreams, misadventures, accidents that happen along the way.

It is an old utopian project of mine, with which I’ve been flirting for quite a long time: to launch a museum entirely dedicated to human failure.

Lacking the means to open a real museum, I will have to settle for a virtual tour.
Here is the map of my imaginary museum.

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As you can see, the tour goes through six rooms.
The first one is entitled Forgotten ingenuity, and here are presented the lives of those inventors, artists or charlatans whose passage on this Earth seems to have been overlooked by official History. Yet among the protagonists of this first room are men who knew immense fame in their lifetime, only to fall from hero to zero.
As a result of an hypertrophic ego, or financial recklessness, or a series of unfortunate events, these characters came just one step away from victory, or even apparently conquered it. Martin F. Tupper was the highest grossing anglo-saxon XIX Century poet, and John Banvard was for a long time the most celebrated and successful painter of his era. But today, who remembers their names?
This introduction to failure is a sort of sic transit, and pushes the visitor to ask himself some essential questions on the ephemeral nature of success, and on historical memory’s inconsistency.

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John Banvard (1815-1891)

The second room is entirely dedicated to odd sciences and wrong theories.
Here is a selection of the weirdest pseudoscientific ideas, abandoned or marginalized disciplines, complex systems of thought now completely useless.
Particular attention is given to early medical doctrines, from Galen‘s pneuma to Henry Cotton‘s crazy surgical therapies, up to Voronoff‘s experiments. But here are also presented completely irrational theories (like those who maintain the Earth is hollow or flat), along other ones which were at one point influential, but now have an exclusively historical value, useful perhaps to understand a certain historical period (for instance, the physiognomy loved by Cesare Lombroso, or Athanasius Kircher‘s musurgy).

This room is meant to remind the visitor that progress and scientific method are never linear, but rather they develop and grow at the cost of failed attempts, dead-end streets, wrong turns. And in no other field as in knowledge, is error as fundamental as success.

The third room is devoted to Lost challenges. Here are celebrated all those individuals who tried, and failed.
The materials in this section prove that defeat can be both sad and grotesque: through multimedia recreations and educational boards the visitors can learn (just to quote a few examples) about William McGonagall, the world’s worst poet, who persisted in composing poems although his literary abilities were disatrous to say the least; about the clumsy and horrendously spectacular attempt to blow up  a whale in Florence, Oregon, or to free a million and a half helium balloons in the middle of a city; and of course about the “flying tailor“, a classic case of extreme faith in one’s own talent.

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Next, we enter the space dedicated to Unexpected accidents, often tragic-comic and lethal.
A first category of failures are those made popular by the well-known Darwin Awards, symbolically bestowed upon those individuals who manage to kill themselves in very silly ways. These stories warn us about overlooked details, moments of lessened clarity of mind, inability to take variables into account.
But that is not all. The concept behind the second section of the room is that, no matter how hard we try and plan our future in every smallest detail, reality often bursts in, scrambling all our projects. Therefore here are the really unexpected events, the hostile fate, all those catastrophes and fiascos that are impossible to shun.

This double presentation shows how human miscalculation on one hand, and the element of surprise “kindly” provided by the world on the other, make failure an inevitable reality. How can it be overcome?

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The last two rooms try to offer a solution.
If failure cannot be avoided, and sooner or later happens to us all, then maybe the best strategy is to accept it, freeing it from its attached stygma.

One method to exorcise shame is to share it, as suggested by the penultimate room. Monitors screen the images of the so-called fail videos, compilations of homemade footage showing common people who, being unlucky or inept, star in embarassing catastrophes. The fact these videos have a huge success on the internet confirms the idea that not taking ourselves too seriously, and being brave enough to openly share our humiliation, is a liberating and therapeutic act.
On the last wall, the public is invited to hang on a board their own most scorching failure, written down on a piece of paper.

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The final room represents the right to fail, the joy of failing and the pride of failure.
Here, on a big bare wall, failure and fortune are represented as yin and yang, each containing the other’s seed, illusory opposites concealing only one reality – the neverending transformation, which knows no human category such as success or failure, indifferent, its vortex endlessly spinning.
To take failure back means to sabotage its paralyzing power, and to learn once again how to move and follow the rythm.

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Above the exit door, an ironic quote by Kurt Vonnegut reminds the visitor: “We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different“.