30 October 2014

The Dissection of Jeremy Bentham, or the Auto-Icon

On the unusual events that occurred immediately following the death of English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), one of the key founders of utilitarian thought:

He had specified in his will that his body was to be offered up for public dissection, a useful thing in itself. At that time, because of the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh (when Christ will supposedly return at the Last Judgement to open the graves of the dead), there was still a Christian taboo against not burying bodies. This meant there was a general shortage of specimens for pathologists to work on. 
Before the dissection began, at London's Webb Street School of Anatomy, twenty-eight of Bentham's friends gathered to say farewell. His corpse lay before them in a simple nightshirt. In a scene straight out of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (then just into its second edition), the funeral oration was dramatically accompanied "with thunder pealing overhead and lightning flashing through the gloom". Once the eulogy had finished, Dr Southwood Smith made sure, as Bentham's will had specified, "to ascertain by appropriate experiment that no life remains". He then carefully stripped the flesh from the bones and placed the internal organs and "the soft parts" in labelled glass containers "like wine decanters". His cleaned bones were then pinned together with copper wire and the skeleton dressed in a suit of Bentham's clothes, padded out with hay, straw and cotton wool. A sachet of lavender and naphthalene was placed in the stomach cavity to discourage moths. Again adhering to the instructions in his will, the body was seated in "a Chair usually occupied by me when living in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought". The whole ensemble was to be enhanced by the presence of Dapple, his favourite walking stick, and topped off with his actual head (well preserved and with a suitable hat on it). 
- John Lloyd & John Mitchinson, The QI Book of the Dead, London, 2009, p390-1.

The head preservation didn't go according to plan, so a waxwork model was put in its place, but the real Bentham's mummified head was placed into a display cabinet with the rest of the 'exhibit' and lay at Bentham's feet, until it was placed into safe storage much later, on account of it being subject to many university pranks. These resulted because Bentham's body has been on public display since his death. Since 1850 the body, which Bentham described as his 'Auto-Icon', has resided in University College London, and his remains can still be seen today.

The Times of 7 June 1832, the day after Bentham's death in London aged 84, carried an obituary 'from a most respectable [unnamed] gentleman well acquainted with the deceased':

In conformity with the desire of his father, he practised for a short time in equity, and was immediately remarked for the ability he displayed; but the death of his father left him with a moderate fortune and the free choice of his course of life, when he at once abandoned all prospects of professional emoluments and honours, and devoted the whole of his subsequent life to those labours which he believed would produce the greatest happiness to his fellow-creatures. His extreme benevolence and cheerfulness of disposition are highly spoken of by all who had the honour to be admitted to his society, which was much sought after, and also by his domestics and by his neighbours who were acquainted with his habits. The news of the Reform Bill having been carried greatly cheered his last hours.     

28 October 2014

Te Awanga British Car Museum

Having recently enjoyed a return visit to the Southward Car Museum in Paraparaumu, New Zealand's finest car museum, I was looking forward to paying a visit to the smaller, more specialised collection at Te Awanga near Cape Kidnappers in the Hawkes Bay during my Labour Weekend visit there. The British Car Museum (at 63 East Rd, Te Awanga) didn't disappoint, and for aficionados of British cars it's definitely worth a spot on your trip itinerary, as long as you don't mind the slightly idiosyncratic curatorial approach taken by its owner, Ian Hope.

What I like about the museum is that it's not a pristine, hermetically-sealed time capsule. These are working cars that have been used by real families, and it often shows with rust spots here and there, and some cars on display that still require restoration. Couple that with the huge task of organising the place and you'll understand why the captions on the cars aren't necessarily word perfect and visitors are bombarded with the curious message to 'not touch the cars unless you're naked', attached on laminated cards pegged to every vehicle. WOF and maintenance slips are sometimes stuffed between car radiator grilles, a fair bit of dust mounts up in hard-to-reach places (Ian jets about on a mobility scooter to save his legs), and space is at such a premium that most cars at ground level have another suspended above them on a metal frame to save space - in the event of a serious earthquake, run like hell! These observations aren't criticisms - it's just fair warning that the British Car Museum is a bit 'rough and ready' - but there are plenty of automotive highlights for people who remember the days when New Zealand's roads were dominated by mostly weedy-engined, unreliable yet wonderful British cars (and quite a few German ones). Some highlights:

This is the first impression that awaits you

Rare 1970 MG Mk.2 1300 2-door coupe 

1967 Austin 1100 Vanden Plas mini-limo

Austin 1100s (in various guises)

1961 Bedford van, which served as an electrician's van in Wainuiomata from the early '60s

Plenty of Morris Minors

Also: Old piano player rolls, incl. 'Mr Jelly Lord' & 'Canadian Capers'

26 October 2014

Te Mata Peak

A visit to the spectacular vantage point of Te Mata Peak just south of Havelock North, overlooking the Hawkes Bay, on a sunny Labour Weekend, 26 October 2014.

24 October 2014

Democratised connectivity & modern conflict

Connectivity has huge effects on conflict: democratizing and weaponizing communications technology, and putting into the hands of individuals a suite of lethal tools that used to belong only to nation-states.

In August 2011, for example, in the Libyan coastal city of Misrata, school children used mobile phones to mark Gaddafi regime sniper positions on Google Earth, allowing French warships off the coast to target them. In the same battle, rebels used smartphone compass apps and online maps to adjust rocket fire in the city's streets. Syrian fighters use iPads and Android phones to adjust mortar fire, and video game consoles and flat-screen TVs to control homemade tanks. Snipers use iPhone apps and cellphone cameras to calculate, then record, their shots.

The technology writer John Pollock has brilliantly described the role of online activists in the Arab Spring, not only for political mobilization, but also for logistics and tactical coordination -- as in April 2011 when Libyan rebels, at night in the open field, planned an assault on a rocket launcher via a multinational Skype hookup. None of this would have been possible a decade ago.

This democratized connectivity will increasingly allow distant players to participate directly in conflicts. For nation-states, we see this "remote warfare" trend in the Predator remotely piloted aircraft, which can be flown from the other side of the planet through satellite uplinks. But non-state groups can play the same game: In 2009, Iraqi insurgents pointed ordinary satellite TV dishes at the sky, then used Skygrabber, a $26 piece of Russian software, to intercept the Predator uplink. The guerrillas had hacked the Predators's control system, far easier than shooting down the actual aircraft.

- Dr David Kilcullen, 'The Future of War? Expect to see urban, connected, irregular 'zombie' conflicts', Foreign Policy 'Best Defence' blog, 28 May 2014

22 October 2014

Doomed in his innocence in the sun

Tonight I enjoyed watching Bruce Dern in Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running for the first time - an influential 1972 ecological sci-fi film. But the soundtrack just goes to show how tastes can date - what would be the modern equivalent of a film featuring such jarringly awful songs as those sung by Joan Baez, like this one?

Trumbull, on the other hand, has impeccable credentials in the movie world, having been the special photographic effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey and also having worked on effects for such films as The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner and more recently Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

See also:
Movies: Children of Men, 21 January 2014
Movies: Contagion, 13 November 2011
TV: 'When We Left Earth', 26 October 2009 

21 October 2014

Two films by Walter Ruttmann

One advantage of enjoying films from the archives of silent cinema is that those films are often available online to share with others. Such is the case for the two German films I saw last night at the Film Society screening in Wellington. The two 1920s 'portrait' films shown, both by the Frankfurt-born Walter Ruttmann, were the global gazetteer Melodie der Welt (Melody of the World) from 1929 and the Berlin-glorifying Berlin: Die Sinfonie der GroƟstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City) from 1927. Both were 'half-length' features, with Melodie running 49 minutes and Berlin just over an hour. Each has its own Germanic charms.

Melodie is hugely ambitious and must have taken ages to shoot, with its multitude of film imagery from all over the globe offering a hopeful view of human endeavour and the similarities amongst peoples. It's a hectic journey. For example, the film's third act contains parallel scenes including the start of a pampered, upper-class woman's day in Germany compared with that of a peasant worker in Southeast Asia, and illustrating how a geisha's hair is prepared, before hurrying on to a survey of languages of the world (with a smattering of humour in a moderately bizarre cameo from George Bernard Shaw asking some chap for directions to St Albans), meals of every type, dance and music, and the toil of work followed by the joy of returning home at the end of it. (Note if you're viewing the clip, the film does have a soundtrack - it's just the first few minutes that are silent).

The more focused Berlin is so busy and lively it should have been an inspiration for Richard Scarry's 'Cars & Trucks & Things That Go'. Berlin under Ruttmann's lens is a pumping, thriving mega-machine, churning out heavy industrial produce and shunting thousands of denizens in every direction through its massive train stations. It's a great example of documentary film-making and a wonderful record of a day in the life of a proud city before the 1929 stock market crash and the coming war swept so much away.

Ruttmann died in 1941 from injuries sustained during front-line action as a war photographer.

See also:
Movies: The Famous Five in German, 1 June 2014
Art: NZ posters by young German artists, 30 June 2012
Blog: My top 5 museums in Berlin, 24 June 2011