Pair of World War II posters warning about gremlins

This week I learned: gremlins, smart walls, and the secret life of the Korowai

This week I learned about the surprisingly short history of gremlins, how new technology could give your walls eyes, and about what happened when an isolated Papuan tribe met Western society’s fascination with the “primitive”.

Gremlins – a modern mythology

Perhaps this is showing my (relative) youth, but I always assumed that when it came to the ranks of fairytale creatures, gremlins were of a kind with goblins, imps, pixies and boggarts – inventions of a much older time, when people took the existence of unicorns, monsters and fairy-folk as plain fact.

But humans are a superstitious species still, even if these days we tend to apply our magical thinking to more mundane objects like street lamps or bubble gum. And the higher-stakes a situation, the more likely we are to apply magical thinking to it – which helps explain the proliferation of gremlins, not in the Dark Ages, but in the RAF during World War II.

The etymology of the word “gremlin” is hard to definitively pin down, but wherever it came from, sources suggest it sprang up as aviation slang sometime in the 1920s. But it was in the 1940s that gremlin awareness really began to spread through the air force, as chronicled in 1942 in the Royal Air Force Journal:

[A] mountain of documentary evidence seems to have accumulated. Apparently there are Mediterranean Gremlins as well as East Fifeshire Gremlins. Pilots of every branch and Command of the Service seem to be on nodding terms with them. Their habits are a matter of day-to-day discussion. There has grown up a mass of Gremlin-lore, and even of Gremlin literature.

Gremlins were described as small, malicious creatures who took pleasure in sabotaging aircraft: breaking components, causing malfunctions, tipping up the nose of a taxiing plane, and even whispering confusions into the pilot’s ear. As suggested in the above article, WWII aircrew went to great lengths discussing different subspecies of gremlins, their geographical distribution and preferred pranks.

A “warning” about them published in RAF bulletins in verse form suggests that even at the time, gremlins weren’t taken all that seriously. Following on from verses like-

White ones will wiggle your wing tips,
Male ones will muddle your maps,
Green ones will guzzle your glycol,
Females will flutter your flaps.

-the poem concludes:

And that is the tale of the Gremlins,
As told by the PRU,
(P)retty (R)uddy (U)nlikely to many,
But a fact, none the less, to the few.

Still, belief in gremlins – even half-joking – may have served an important purpose among RAF aircrew. Author and historian Marlin Bressi has suggested that, by giving the aircrews something to blame for minor misfortunes besides themselves, their machines, or each other, gremlins improved morale within the RAF. So in their own, small way, these mischievous sprites may have helped win World War II.

Original source: Wikipedia

Your walls could soon be watching you

In a development that has the potential to fuel dozens of utopian visions – and at least as many dystopian – researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research Pittsburgh have developed a way to allow any wall to detect electro-magnetic radiation in much the same way a touchscreen does.

Wall++ can detect human movement – as long as the human is close enough to the wall – as well as recognise the different electromagnetic signatures of devices from hair dryers to televisions being turned on and off.

With further development, a system like this could contribute to the ultimate smart home – capable of turning on heat and lights when you walk into the room, dimming the lights when you turn on the TV, or warning you if you’ve left the (electric) oven on. Or it could be used as the ultimate surveillance device. Or, more likely – if the rise and rise of Google and Facebook are anything to go by – it could easily do both.

Original source: Science Magazine

Primitive tribe for hire

A quick Google search will reveal article after article after article about “the mysterious Korowai tribe of south eastern Papua, Indonesian New Guinea”. All of these pieces will inform you, with varying levels of breathlessness, about how the Korowai were only discovered by outsiders in 1974, how they’re one of the last tribes in the world to actively practise cannibalism, and how, strangest of all, they live in treehouses built up on stilts high above the jungle floor – sometimes as high as 45 metres off the ground.

The Korowai have been a go-to for journalists and film-makers looking to document “primitive” humanity for years now. But this year, the BBC released a new documentary that throws into question everything outsiders think they know about the Korowai.

In My Year with the Tribe, presenter Will Millard visited the Korowai four times over the course of a year, purportedly to look at their life, culture, and the challenges they face in the modern world. So far, so predictable. Except that this time, things didn’t quite go as planned.

Whether because Millard deliberately didn’t send any “fixers” in ahead to set things up, because he actually speaks Indonesian (not the first language of the Korowai, but at least a language many of them now speak), or for some other reason, in Millard’s documentary the Korowai he met eventually admitted – on camera – that most of what foreigners see them do, from not wearing clothes to hunting insect grubs for food, they’re doing for money. One Korowai man told Millard, “I lie around until there are guests … and then I get naked and they photograph me”, and presented his price list – “from £5 for a basic photo to £50 for the full insect-grub hunt.”

Their giant treehouses, it came out, were entirely for show, built specifically to show overseas film-makers – including, embarrassingly, the BBC themselves. Where do the Korowai actually live? Mostly, these days, in nearby villages, heading to their jungle “homes” only when the film crews come to visit.

As for their supposedly ongoing cannibalism, so thrillingly reported in the Smithsonian in 2006, that’s been in doubt for over a decade, and My Year with the Tribe doesn’t seem to have turned up any mention of it at all.

It’s enough to bring out the cynic in anyone, but for me, I just find it fascinating – and so very human. If Westerners expected the Korowai to have ignored the revelations of mobile phones and plumbing, if we imagined them as “noble savages” maintaining their traditional lifestyle and didn’t expect them, like us, to be looking for opportunities to support themselves in the modern world to which they now have access – well, I think that says a lot more about us than it does them.

Original source: Jaw-dropping: My Year with the Tribe reviewed

Image source: Wikimedia Commons & Wikimedia Commons
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