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New Leaf June 2019 Discussion • The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox
#11  CRussel 06-16-2019, 01:18 PM
Thanks, everyone. Appreciated. (Now goes back in hiding for the rest of the week.)
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#12  fantasyfan 06-16-2019, 02:06 PM
Quote Bookpossum

However, as Bookworm_Girl said, something like that needs a team of people who bring different skills to the problem.
Despite Fox's claim that Kober may have solved the riddle, it seems to me that she was not a person able to make the intuitive leap that Ventris did. She was a person obsessed with detail. It needs both sorts to deal with a puzzle like this.
Yes, it was a task which was solved because these various people together (even though they worked independently) each contributed specialised skills to the problem.

While I would like to think that Kober would have solved the problem had she lived, the fact is we can never know. Perhaps, despite all her remarkable academic brilliance, she might not have had the flash of inspiration that came to Ventris. For instance, Ventris independently discovered that a particular symbol was a coordinate conjunction. This was an important factor which led to his insight. Kober had (unknown to Ventris) made the same discovery three years earlier and had not made any intuitive leap.

I do think that Kober was treated badly simply because she was a woman and not taken seriously. But it is worth mentioning that Ventris was also dismissed as a “serious” researcher because he was an architect and thus not a “true” academic. It took some time before his finding was accepted.
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#13  Victoria 06-16-2019, 06:08 PM
Just a quick note to say hi, and that I haven’t forgotten the date. I’ve been tied up with company this weekend but look forward to catching up tomorrow.
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#14  gmw 06-17-2019, 08:40 AM
Too much going on, so I still haven't finished (almost half way I think).

I liked the introduction; I like non-fiction to set out its path clearly so you have a good idea why you're spending time on aspects that may otherwise seem distractions. So for this much of the book I actually liked the foreshadowing ... but for the rest of the book I find the foreshadowing a bit annoying. I've been told what to expect, now get on and deliver it; don't treat me as if I have the attention span of a 5 year old (if I did this is not the sort of book I would be reading).

I noticed this comment:
Quote issybird
[...] Not enough primary resources on Kober, and the Evans and Ventris sections, necessary because the Kober story would be meaningless without that context, were only secondary source retellings. [...]
which highlighted another aspect I've found annoying: the constant "what this person said about that person" sort of text. Non-fiction often has a fair amount of this sort of thing, but it's not handled as well as it could be in this book, and it really does show how reliant the book is on secondary sources.

That aside, I am enjoying learning about the cracking of this puzzle and I think it is structured quite well. On one hand the author seems intent on emphasising that Kober was critical (and I don't doubt it), and may have solved the problem if she lived longer (anyone's guess), but has also (it seems to me) managed to show that Evans' lack of sharing is quite likely the biggest contributor to the delay in cracking the code, while Kober's sharing (published articles) aided subsequent work. So one of the very good things about this book is the demonstration that science is best played as a team sport.

Quote issybird
[...]But also interesting to me in that context is how Ventris was a throwback to the earlier age of archeologists, that of the wealthy amateur. I wonder to what extent the antipathy between Korber and Evans was that of one marginalized person for another? [...]
Yes, even from the introduction these aspects have tantalised. Evans, so rich that getting permission to dig is merely a matter of buying the property! A man of privilege, and of his time and class in his prejudices and expectations. Kober always struggling, trying to get scholarships but continuing even without, because she wants to work her way right through the problem. What I'm going to find with Ventris is still to be read, but I am definitely intrigued.


I am pleased to be reading it, and so far I'd have to say the book is probably about as good as one can hope for in presenting such potentially dry material. As has already been said: it's good but not great.

On a technical level, my Kobo makes the symbol font and images far too small to be useful on the e-reader screen ... but since I'm not actually trying to solve the puzzle I'm just ignoring that problem, and taking a look at the symbols occasionally on my computer screen.
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#15  Dazrin 06-17-2019, 12:35 PM
I enjoyed this quite a bit but only gave it 3 stars on GR but would have given it 3.5 if that was supported.

The outline of the book worked for me, the linear (ha!) timeline of Evans to Kober to Ventris worked well, The narrative is what put me off a bit. For a book with the stated goal of showing that Kober was the absolutely critical piece to solving the riddle of Linear B with quotes like this:
Quote
THIS IS THE TRUE STORY of one of the most mesmerizing riddles in Western history and, in particular, of the unsung American woman who would very likely have solved it had she only lived a little longer.
and this:
Quote
In recent years, Kober’s role in the decipherment has been likened to that of Rosalind Franklin, the English scientist now considered the unsung heroine of one of the most signal intellectual feats of the modern age, the mapping of the molecular structure of DNA by Francis Crick and James Watson.
it felt like her role was downplayed and undermined by sections like this (emphasis mine):
Quote
Some of these, arrived at independently by Ventris after Kober’s death, would bring about its solution.
and this:
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If her teaching load had not been so great, if her Guggenheim Fellowship had been renewed, if she had been hired at Penn after all, if Myres had not saddled her with a crushing secretarial load, if her champion John Franklin Daniel had lived—if she had lived—it is entirely possible that Alice Kober would have solved the riddle of Linear B.
That is a LOT of ifs. And it is still only "entirely possible" that Kober would have been able to solve it.

I certainly applaud her detail and organization and especially how much she was able to accomplish with so little to work with but as someone else said above, it isn't clear that she could have made the jump to Greek. That type of jump tends to speak of more intuition than the logical steps Kober was taking.

In the end it seems that her graph ended up being her largest contribution to the project. She gave Ventris the means to logically organize Linear B in a way that let him take the leap. The descriptions of him don't make me think he could have come up with that form of organization on his own while the descriptions of her make it sound like she would have happily gone on organizing till the end of time given a chance without taking the leap to actual sounds and then interpretation.

Was her contribution critical? I would say yes. At the very least Ventris was able to use her tool to enable his leap. If he hadn't had that to work with it may very well have taken extra years for someone to get to that point. Something we know Ventris didn't have.

Quote gmw
That aside, I am enjoying learning about the cracking of this puzzle and I think it is structured quite well. On one hand the author seems intent on emphasising that Kober was critical (and I don't doubt it), and may have solved the problem if she lived longer (anyone's guess), but has also (it seems to me) managed to show that Evans' lack of sharing is quite likely the biggest contributor to the delay in cracking the code, while Kober's sharing (published articles) aided subsequent work. So one of the very good things about this book is the demonstration that science is best played as a team sport.
I think this is spot on. Starting first with Evans, then with Myres, if there had been full information sharing of the tablet inscriptions and then more sharing of individual progress it is likely that the riddle would have been solved much earlier.
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#16  Dazrin 06-17-2019, 12:39 PM
Is anyone else surprised to find that we don't know what killed Alice Kober? We knew she died early but what happened was never stated early, it became distracting to me as her illness went on that we didn't know what it was. I really wish that "we don't know" was stated early on rather than leaving it open and letting us wonder. I kept expecting an answer only to find that there isn't one.
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#17  Dazrin 06-17-2019, 12:47 PM
For Linear B itself, the dropping of consonants at the end of words feels like a huge leap of translation to me. That is the step that really makes it difficult for me to imagine Kober solving this.

Also, the adaptation of the indigenous (we assume) Linear A script to suit Greek words when Greek is (apparently) so structurally different from the original seems odd. But, given the almost pre-history nature of this, I suppose it makes sense. There weren't a lot of other written languages to draw from. I would be interested in knowing how and why the ancient Greeks moved from Linear B to their own script. I don't think there have been any bridging or intermediary steps between Linear B and ancient Greek found. Certainly they didn't have a hard Linear B to Ancient Greek transition and it was a more smooth transition though. Or, did Linear B not catch on in the mainland and Ancient Greek is an independent construct? We know there was some on the mainland but not the extent or any of that history. I want to know more!
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#18  Dazrin 06-17-2019, 12:54 PM
While I'm on a posting spree...

I was really amused by the "highly expressive" names for foreigners and slaves:
Quote
Among them are “Goat-Head,” “Mouse-Head,” “Having the Bottom Bare,” and “Devourer of Excrements.”
Wow! Them's fightin' words! I wonder what reaction the recipients of those names had. Did they not understand they were being insulted like that? Or, if they did and were foreigners, did they not have the ability to do anything about it? Were the Greeks/Minoans that dominant at the time?
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#19  Victoria 06-17-2019, 05:41 PM
I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s comments and share many of your thoughts as well. I enjoyed the book. I’ve always found ancient history & linguistics fascinating, so it definitely held my interest. That said, I’d only give it a 2.5 or 3.

My quibble, and it really did annoy me, is with the book’s framework that Kober’s work was deeply unappreciated, and that Michael Ventris has been given too much credit. I don’t agree with either point.

I’m glad Fox took the time to go through Kober’s personal papers and has highlighted her accomplishments. They were substantial and she deserves that recognition. And it’s true that like other women in academic positions, Kober wasn’t treated fairly by the university system.

I realize many of you see this differently, but when the author compares her treatment to Rosalind Franklin, I felt she was going too far. Franklin was robbed. No one stole Kober’s work, or claimed it as their own. Her papers were published under her own name. She was invited to give lectures. Her work on Linear B was acknowledged by male colleagues working in the field, who reached out to collaborate with her. She was awarded an important fellowship and granted a year’s leave by the university to focus on her research. And Kober could have had a higher profile. She was encouraged to publish more and lecture more, but was reluctant to do so.

For example Fox criticizes Michael Ventris for not mentioning Kober in the BBC announcement of his discovery. How unfair! It was an overwhelming time. It was only a few days after his discovery. He was pressed to make the public announcement by his BBC friend who wanted the scoop. And he still was hesitant himself, and unsure about how the academics would react.

On page 263, Fox acknowledges that Ventris credited Kober “at some length” in a scholarly lecture. She says that he acknowledged her publications, her systematic analysis, etc., “But it was too little too late”. Come on! What’s more important? Ventris crediting her work in an academic address, with a published transcript, or mentioning her in a 3 minute public announcement when he was still in shell shock?

And that wasn’t the only time - there are many instances where Ventris recognized Kober’s breakthroughs, and he personally reached out to her on a number of occasions. He wasn’t responsible for the glass ceiling in the university system.

I think I found the framework of women’s rights frustrating because I felt it was insincere and unnecessary. Kober’s work was substantial enough on its own to warrant the book. I thought Fox decided to use an exposé framework, and draw comparisons with Franklin to artificially heighten interest in the book, not because she believes Kober was mistreated in terms of her work on Linear B. That undermines women, including Kober and Franklin, is a disservice to Ventris, and is dishonest with her readers.

End of rant

Would Kober have solved Linear B? Maybe - who can say for sure how Bennett’s publication of the Pylos Tablets in 1951 would have helped her? I don’t know. But she did have the benefit of seeing far more of Evans’ tablets than anyone else; an advantage Ventris didn’t have.

Michael Ventris worked without the educational background and formal advantages that the academics had. Of course Kober’s work assisted him. But the collaborative approach to problem solving that he took, and the intellectual insights he had were uniquely his own. He also took the huge risk of leaving his job, so he could concentrate on the work. I think any credit he got for the discovery was well deserved, and in no way detracts from Kober.
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#20  Victoria 06-17-2019, 06:25 PM
Quote Dazrin
Is anyone else surprised to find that we don't know what killed Alice Kober? We knew she died early but what happened was never stated early, it became distracting to me as her illness went on that we didn't know what it was. I really wish that "we don't know" was stated early on rather than leaving it open and letting us wonder. I kept expecting an answer only to find that there isn't one.
Yes, I did. Another thing I found distracting was being told ahead of time that solving Linear B destroyed Michael Ventris’ marriage and career. I kept expecting to read that his wife left him and he was fired and neither came.

In terms of her death, wasn’t it jarring to see how many people died young? And there were many personal tragedies too.
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