Women Inventing the Language of Themselves

 

Panel symbolic language representing poem to Inanna
Panel from Nancy Castille’s “Hieratica,” an invented symbolic language, photo by kajmeister.

In honor of Women’s History month, I’d like to highlight the work of two women who are linguists. One toiled for years to decipher a baffling script, though her contributions have been treated as nearly invisible. The other is a friend who recently created a symbolic language to encode a sacred Sumerian text. Both are inspirational examples of perseverance and intuition in unpacking the mysteries of ancient languages.

The Language of the Labyrinth

Alice Kober was a teacher at Brooklyn College in the 1930s who conducted a two-decade odyssey into the mysteries of a pre-Greek language called Linear B. A treasure trove of artifacts on the island of Crete were discovered after the Ottoman Empire fell and the last of the Turks left. Archeologist Arthur Evans uncovered a wealth of tablets in 1903 that suggested a robust culture dating back to 1200 BC, a thousand years before Golden Age of Greece. Attempts to translate the tablets had eluded scholars who had tried to link the symbols to Greek or other languages, and Kober was determined to find the secret.

Alice Kobler deciphers Linear B
Alice Kobler and Linear B, photo from BBC.com

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Battle of the Sexes: The Political is Personal

I remember September 20, 1973 when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in three straight sets at the Houston Astrodome in the Battle of the Sexes.  I remember when Ms. magazine debuted and when Virginia Slims was a sponsor of the magazine and women’s tennis, when people debated about the merits of letting cigarettes bankroll feminism, but feminism needed the money. I recall when it was fashionable for men to call you “little lady” and drape their arms around your shoulders in casual conversation. I remember when tennis rackets were made of wood.

When Rackets Were Made of Wood

The movie, Battle of the Sexes, brings the story of the King/Riggs match to life.  The film gets the tennis right; the film gets a lot of things right. Wooden rackets weighed 25-30% more the aluminum ones, and the racket face was much smaller, which means players couldn’t hit the ball anywhere as hard. Tennis then was much more a game of strategy — ball placement, serve and volley, and the strategic use of the lob. The tennis match choreography shows this to great effect. To the modern viewers, the play may seem oddly lethargic, almost as if it was in slow-motion. That was the reason Riggs beat Margaret Court, known at the time as The Arm because her height advantage gave her more power and a longer reach. Riggs wasn’t faster; he played more strategically and was wilier about placing the ball. After all, if you can play wearing scuba flippers or wearing a hoop skirt, then your play is about wrist movement, not power.

The trailers for the movie and many of the reviews don’t mention Margaret Court, but she’s a core part of the film, which I appreciated. King would never have played Riggs if he hadn’t already beaten the #1 women’s tennis player. The movie even hints at Court’s rampant homophobia which has made recent headlines, a topic that would have not been included in any biopic of this subject made before the 1990s.  Emma Stone is a credible King, but Steve Carrell is a drop-dead perfect Riggs, a showman playing tennis in a dress or with a drink in his hand to win a bet, a game of slow but deceptively accurate shots. Continue reading “Battle of the Sexes: The Political is Personal”

Tax the Peasants with this One Weird Trick!

Taxes are universally despised by everyone who pays them; shared resources are universally used by everyone who pays taxes. These are common unpleasant truths like waste disposal and knowing where hamburgers come from. No one is pleased when April 15th approaches.

While the income tax in the US is a phenomenon that started in the middle of our young history, taxation in general goes back to the dawn of civilization. The notion of paying resources into the central governing body is at least as old as the development of writing. Many of the earliest forms of writing – cuneiform on clay tablets from Lagash, Sumeria ( now modern Iraq) – reflected accounting for taxes paid by the farmers and peasants.  Some of these predated coinage, so many taxes were paid in kind. Farmers paid with chicken, livestock, or grains and if they didn’t have the goods, they paid in labor.

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SeverusTare, Deviant Art

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Arthur Ashe: Sports & Social Justice Badass

Start where you are;
Use what you have;
Do what you can—
Arthur Ashe

Since it is Black History Month, I thought Arthur Ashe would be a fitting subject for a profile as he happens to be the author of my Favorite Inspirational Quote of All Time. I heard that yesterday was also National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, and Monday was the anniversary of Ashe’s death from AIDS-related complications; it was a sign!  I remember him winning Wimbledon in 1975 in very dramatic fashion. I remember him speaking out about apartheid in South Africa. I remember him as one of the first to publically announce he had AIDS, and his passing in 1993.

Little did I know!

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The dude was a charitable foundation, social justice, human rights badass. His life was full of challenges and struggles, but every time he ran into a personal issue – which he resolved – he would turn around and create an organization to raise awareness and help other people so they wouldn’t face the obstacles that he did.  First black tennis player to play in a tournament under apartheid? He created a tennis center for blacks to play in South Africa. Had quadruple bypass surgery? Became national campaign chairman for the American Heart Association for a year. Contracted HIV from a blood transfusion during surgery? Created the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS.

And all before the age of 50. Honestly, as I read through his biography and the works on the AALS (Arthur Ashe Learning Center) arthurashe.org website, it seemed a little ridiculous. How could one person get all that done?  I remember Arthur Ashe when he was alive, and he displayed such dignity and class, that it’s impossible to imagine any of it was exaggerated. Plus, I remember him doing these things. Continue reading “Arthur Ashe: Sports & Social Justice Badass”

Madison, Our Best President

This weekend, flags will be a-flyin’, firecrackers a-poppin’, politicians a-pontificatin’, and barbecues a-grillin’ as our nation celebrates its 240th birthday amid the usual pomp and turmoil. Our national patriotic selves are in particularly high dudgeon this election year, when we all play the game of Why Do We Have an Electoral College, Again? Some you will be tourists, traveling to national parks, or perhaps to our nation’s capital (I hear there’s some GCLS thing coming up soon?)  ‘Tis also a fine time to play another fun game of history, Who’s Your Favorite President?

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Was Lincoln your favorite because he believed in the equality of all individuals and the strength that can come from a united people under a good central government? How about FDR shepherding the country through the miseries of the Depression and anxieties of world war? Jefferson, articulating the freedoms that prompted us to start our grand experiment of independence? Or is it some prez that you lived through more recently? (Though I’d argue anybody after 1976 doesn’t give us enough perspective to evaluate fairly.) Or do you think picking the best president is Uncool, too Nerdy for you?

Nerdy or not, I submit for discussion, Mr. James Madison. He deserves his own carving on Rushmore. He should have his own obelisk on the National Mall, his own memorial next to the Potomac. And it should be the biggest.

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