Friday, July 13, 2018

The gift of Genetics: sanity in the midst of Current News

My emphasis on my outdated genetics brought me a wonderful birthday gift, the Kindle edition of Richard Dawkins recent book.  It came from a friend young enough to have been one of my last students (actually, his mother was one of my last graduate students), but he must have been shocked by my ignorance, only a little exaggerated (better that than gobbledygook).  Dawkins saved my sanity, and he writes so well.  So now I've downloaded Darwin himself; it has been his original Origin of Species that I'd left unread.  No matter how old, it has all the honesty and thoughtfulness (and he too wrote so well) that I need.  I'll just Publish this note for now.  And again thank Cian for giving me the credit to profit so richly in old age from reading Dawkins.

Sunday, February 18, 2018


Athena's Little Owl
After weeks I return to this topic, lest it grow stale.
First, the word that small dictionaries define simply as "owl" proves to be quite different from what I imagined its history might be, and I can't go more deeply into its history right now than just to make that much clear.  I hadn't known more about owls than about the etymology of their name.  I'll come back to "glaux" later if I can.

(1) Even in Greek, even in Attic Greek, it is not the standard word for 'owl'.  The basic word for that  kind of a bird is onomatopoeic and like its call that hearers have heard as something like kookoo  or the Latin ulula (whether or not strictly considered it derives from the verb ululare).  Only about the time that the Iliad reaches its final form, especially in Attic Greek, it seems, does it seem to stand alone for Athena's little owl: in vase-painting and in a classical type of statue, known in copies, she holds it and, by the way, as I learned it is that little owl (koukouvaya in spoken modern Greek) that fits in a human hand and that all over Europe is the common type and size, not the big barn owl that rural Americans are familiar with.  Albrecht Dürer's exquisite watercolor dated 1506 as well as the justly famous Late Protocorinthian perfume bottle in the Louvre, ca. 635-625 BC, are just the right size, not more that three inches long.  The French diminutive, chouette, is usually preferred in the critical literature.  In earlier ancient Greek authors glaukos means the pale, gray-bluegreen, of the sea surface or for eyes, especially in Homer, where Athena is specifically called glaukopis (just as Hera is cow-eyed).   The adjectival forms, as glaukos -e -on, occur earlier commonly than the noun. The big dictionary Greek dictionary, Liddell, Scott, and Jones, spells all this out carefully.  The fullest account in a single-volume work that I have is, Partridge, Origins, 1958, s.vv. words like glass, ff. and, in the "elements" section at the back, glauco-, since of course, one of the Hellenistic doctors will have coined glaucoma (Pliny has it in Latin, but doubtless got it from his sources; (made-up scientific terms are not actually part of the 'natural' history of the word as such).  The OUP family of dictionaries, of course, are also useful and the ever-loving Webster's Collegiate.  One just had to learn not to think that one got the answer just by looking in one place.
(2) It was from one of my favorite reference books, H. J. Rose's Handbook of Greek Mythology (still in print, but the original HB editions have larger print and wider margins), with which I had started, a habit since I first 'took' Mythology more than half a century ago, that I first found Rose's noting Homer addressing her as glaukopis, which 20th century translators render as 'bright-faced', though the older ones (think Alexander Pope or Lang, Leaf, and Myers) translate as green (or gray)-eyed.  I think you can imagine both at once.  Now, as an alternate name for Athena, glaukopis seems to me perfect, but in giving new names to residences, in those towns that still prefer naming addresses, it is customary not to choose names that some neighbors find difficult or awkward.  Of course, the Latin name Minerva, gets used on houses first, though she was Etruscan and not the same goddess; if a poet called her fair-faced it was taken from Greek literature (a jolly sentimental mixup in German, which Mary Midgley incorporated in her memoir, is German Romantic dressed in antique garb, more or less, so her title The Owl of Minerva is simply charming, and is solid evidence for the continued prevalence of Latin in English education.  I found that I'd bought it when it came out but hadn't got around to reading it).  You begin to see how one can get distracted in this sort of "research".
(3) Perhaps the best single volume on Athens Oxbow Monograph 67 (1997),  a very rare treasure, 40 independent specialist articles from a conference on Athens, all of them interesting and worth having, which I just had to have for its Proto-Attic and above all for its article on the KX Painter on Samos.  Seeing that I am interested in the history of the kylix cup and in the namepiece of the Samos Painter which was found there. ..  But the volume has rewarded my interest in a number of other areas, too.  Of course, it is in the nature of Attic Potters and Painters, who traded so widely and influenced other potteries, who matter so much for their development of glaze-paint, who illustrate Greek literature richly and incessantly, so that I think we could not half understand either the literature or the daily life without the vase-painting, that scholars like John Boardman and Erika Simon (to name only the two to whom it is dedicated) could so generously dedicate their lives to it without, even so, come near to exhausting it.  One article, from a hand devoted to an utterly careless late black-figure group of vases, the Painter of the Half-Palmettes, left us a slew of rapidly produced vases many with, as he shows, a sanctuary of Athena and her local cult.  François Lissarrgue, op. cit., pp. 125, ff, fig. 25, London B 359, showing her chouette on a little column behind the goddess's large profile bust to l.  That bust, also, dates it: not earlier than the kore statue from the Acropolis signed by a sculptor named Antenor: the end of Late Archaic.  The rest of the vases are consistent with this one (in fact, most of them could come from stock produced to be sold at a single festival (though one wouldn't want to put that in print).  Now, who would look at this kind of painted ware if some picture-gallery dealer had it for sale?  No one.  It is evidence; it is history of popular religion.  And, by the way, it's the kind if vase-painting that never (at least I can't imagine it) gets faked.
Anyhow, I had to finish this.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Pre-DNA Double-helix Genetics

Dominant and Recessive: Mendel's Peas
I don't know how many reading this had textbooks in which genetics were Mendelian.  I was an assistant professor before the brightly colored, full-paged Life magazine publication of the double helix appeared and was read by everyone.  When I was in school, Genetics was those three generations represented schematically in terms of genetic dominance.  We all realized that of four children of the same parents, the two brunettes also carried genes for red hair (and that was why ladies who wanted to be red-haired had only to bleach their hair with hydrogen peroxide), and the two kids who had been tow-haired as youngsters did not grow up red-haired (as my next sister and I did), but brown-haired.  Indeed, my father was true blond and my mother brunette.  But all four of us children had brown eyes.  I suppose that was why I found genetics interesting.  Both of my paternal grandparents had pale eyes, and and my father's were true pale gray, but so were my maternal grandfather's.  Nana's were a beautiful dark chocolate brown, and her lashes and brows were as black as her hair (and, of course, it turned white and black, real salt and pepper, as she aged).
Anyhow, if you want to know about Mendel, whom I regard as an intellectual hero, just go to the Wikipedia.  And yet, with all the Ancestry advertisements and Louis Gates on television, I haven't gone beyond popular genealogy.  And it would be genetics that would tempt me.
What I began thinking about was that Mendel, so far as he could go without technology, remains worth considering.  He was very careful, after all.  And it's not as if genetic dominance were hogwash.  I daresay the minor uncertainties that so worried early 20c scientists here and there in a Mendelian third generation could be explained, e.g., by epigenetic research—not that I'd know how to do it.
Note: When I faced all the pages of Egyptian painting provided in the Images by Google, though I did not find another cat between Dynasty 18 and the Late Periods, I did find one from the famous tomb of Khnumhotep of Dynaasty 12 (Middle Kingdom) at Beni Hasan, more than half a millennium even earlier than Nebamun's.  It is the same kind of cat and also, of course, is part of Khnumhotep's hunting scene.  Of course, Middle Kingdom painters didn't use modeling as a few New Kingdom ones did. But I went through all the tiresome choices of Egyptian painting for Middle School children and did not find additional cats. 
Back to living cats.  Cats do have eyelashes (to be distinguished from the furry rims in the place of brows), but they are hard to photograph.  One day a close-up of my ginger tabby, Percy, did record his lashes, and they are ginger-colored, too.  I conclude with photos taken the same day which seem to match the pattern of markings on Nebamun's cat.

Showing "red" lashes

When eyes are fully open, the lashes don't show
The sections of pattern are alike, down to the tail
The stomach markings have yet to be photographed...

I forgot to mention a couple of important details:
(l) The Egyptian ones I found are, so to speak, black-and-blond tabbies, and they are the ones that have identical markings, in exactly the same configurations and symmetrical.  Even as dark tabbies have black stripes they also have dark eyelashes, and so has Percy, my cat.  Yes, cats do have very slight lashes on their upper eyelids (not to be confused with the short hair brows, so to speak), and only the hybrid males with white bibs, bellies, and paws have the lashes that are pale.  I have never seen a blond tabby from Egypt.
(2) The new young "Morris", the blond one (like the original Morris, whether he was part white I no longer remember) on some of the bags of Nine-Lives kibble, with his "signature" written across him, is like Percy, identically marked, line for line, and with the same adorable face, with a little chin like that which now serves as the trademark of the New York Public Library.  Young "Morris" (the blond one: the same brand of cat food also used black-and-tan kittens).
(3) I cannot guess how many painted Egyptian cats there are.  Stupidly, I once supposed that all the bronze cats, which are feminine, of course, too, are the dark color of ancient bronze.  Well, I suppose they may have been.  I mean that I have been forced to admit that though the goddess Bastet ought to have been a brown goddess's color, she wasn't always so imagined.  I mean, the Louvre has a tiny bronze of a bronze mother cat happily nursing a litter of kittens, and perhaps she isn't even Bastet.  So far, I rely on the Cat Fanciers' page that says that it is only toms that are free of white patches.

It is astonishing how interesting things are once you quit just assuming.  Well, Darwin's curiosity was legendary.

Friday, September 15, 2017

My Cat from the Tomb of Nebamun

This fragment from a New Kingdom Hunting scene in the British Museum today comes from the Theban tomb of the tomb of a nobleman named Nebamun.  To attest to a good life, the basic trilogy of subjects, going back to the beginning of Egyptian funerary painting in the Old Kingdom, include the Banquet, the Hunt (and/or his means of living, such as agriculture or shipping), the Portraits (with or without Deities).  In the magisterial Tomb of Nebamun, a perfect cat, as good as life, accompanies the hunter.   For I have been adopted by a perfect Egyptian cat; the Algonquin Hotel's new Hamlet is similar and beautiful but not quite so Egyptian.
It is easy to overlook the cat, and even the butterfly, so I did it justice by making a special trip to the museum.  For the cat is important, being nearly a millennium earlier than all those elegant Saitic cats.  And the domestic cat is surely originally Egyptian—we just take for granted that small cats can be pets.  And not funerary, either.  My new cat, who adopted me, about six months ago (I know not from whom he had been abandoned, but he was already neatly neutered), shares all the features and character of Nebamun's.

The question is, how do cats, usually without our deliberate breeding, produce truly ancestral types through time and space?  All the pedigrees, with fancy names, beginning with "Siamese" such as Abyssinian (which may not have stripes) or Bengal (with strong spots) or Bombay (solid black, pedigree granted in 1950s) or Burmese (puma-brown and lovely), have been created by cat-fanciers.
Since it took me more than a week to find my British Museum detail, I started by looking for defined types.  It's not like dogs, which are working animals, and all the pages of cats on line seem to be, if not cute kittens whose traits are not yet well defined,  apart from long-haired (which basically seem to be "Persians") either sturdy and round-faced (British) or narrow-faced with very long tails, long toes with clearly defined joints, muscular-haunched and very short-haired.  
That is, they all can (and do) mate with one another, so they are all domestic cats, tout court.
It seems to me that they are all descendants of either forest-floor or barn cats or tree dwellers. American short-hairs seem to me to be as perfectly hybridized as can be.  My old cat, RIP aet 18, more or less, like most of the cats in our neighborhood, was a typical American short-hair: he had lots of white on his face and underside and the white was fluff: my friends who are allergic to cat fur got runny-eyes if they sat where he had been, and cats that had no white but whose undercoat was fluff ("bunny fur"), were regular American tom tabbies, and allergenic, too.  My new cat, a wonderful creature, may of course have been purchased from a breeder, but the Algonquin Hotel's new cat is a true NYC alley cat; he even came with a torn ear.  He may not be, however, a true climber.  My climber, though with all the personality traits of breeds given "Asian" names, is named Percy.
The little book (such as you are tempted to buy as stocking stuffers at the book shop's check-out) called "The Little Black Cat Book", which a dear friend sent me years ago, is my source for the "Bombay" breed, pedigreed only in the 1950s.  I remembered how such black breeds are known to occur.  Once, some time in my adolescence, my mother took me with her to a household of fanciers of Siamese, whether some of her second cousins or customers who had done a Stanley Home Products party.  In either case, they controlled very carefully the breeding of their cats: I was fascinated by how they lived (compare the TV program about breeders and exhibitors of pet ferrets); my own cats had been chosen at the SPCA.  Anyway, they had a gloriously beautiful accidental cat: a large neuter male solid black with emerald eyes.  He was the offspring of two seal-point Siamese, and he was very fond of humans.  He was the loveliest cat I ever saw, and they told me I could adopt him.  But I had no place of my own, and I knew I couldn't take care of him.  But, nota bene, I never forgot that cat.  That "Bombay" cat, I am sure, was the result of such an accidental hybrid.  Yet, I am no expert on breeding, of course.
Anyway, whether ginger or tiger or black (or perhaps including Russian Blues), cats with body configuration like Nebamun's 18th dynasty cat, with long bones, and paws meant for climbing, and no white bunny fur undercoat but pure short-hair coats, like my Percy, very nice and sleek, also have panther/puma personalities and the ancestral propensity to climb and small high voices and affection for their humans, BUT they are not lap cats, gentle and clean though they are.  In fact, Percy is the most assiduous washer of all the cats I've had.  He is also very alert and intelligent, responsive to verbal commands without much teaching.  And, of course, he loves cat toys.  He's not fussy about food, however, eating any kibble of decent quality, and I've never seen him stalking the blue jays or cuckoos, and he's plain afraid of opossums.  So I'll Publish this now, adding a photo later.

photos taken this July.  His eyes are the color of Dijon mustard.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

More rewards from Arthur Waley

Finally I treated myself to a masterpiece that everyone had told me to read.  I suppose that I am not the only person who for unfathomable reasons resists what it seems that everyone estimable recommends: for example, I put off watching "The Seventh Seal" for decades.
But finally I downloaded the eBook edition of "Monkey".
If there is no one, at just this moment in history, who has not read "Monkey", or who supposes that Waley's translation of Genji is surpassed by the later one (though both are excellent) or that "Monkey" is any less relevant than it ever was, or less joyous, let me risk putting off anyone who suffers from the same resistance to recommendations as I have had, that though it is never too late to read it (the extra Introduction by the Chinese scholar-ambassador, Hu Shih, also is very fine, in the edition available online dated at the end of Arthur Waley's preface to 1942) makes this the edition of choice, I think.
I won't even hint at "Monkey"'s perennially pleasures, but if you need any help, read the front matter first.  If you find the daily news just fine, well...

Friday, June 23, 2017

Golden Peaches

It has been years since I last read it straight through, and by now I have picked up perspective that I lacked when Schafer's The Golden Peaches of Samarkand was first published and, to my pleasure, is still in print, both literally in hard copy and as an e-book.  I never took Schafer's course, but most of my friends did, and his colleagues admired it, too.  I owned the first edition of 1962, one of the UC Press's finest productions, and after I returned to teaching in the 1980s I replaced it (evidently given away to an appreciative friend when I entered a religious order) with the current paperback.  Now that the Kindle edition is so much easier on my eyes, I have acquired it and am grateful that the footnote access works perfectly.  No scholarly book has ever managed its documentation, of almost unequaled adequacy, and mostly the author's own, better than this one; to a reader who habitually reads footnotes it is wonderful to be able to use them just as well as in the original.
There was a period of several months in my last undergraduate year when, privately, I struggled with the realization that I couldn't do graduate work in both Greek and Chinese art and history in the parallel fashion I'd been enjoying; either one demanded some real mastery of the language.  Since I had always worked my way through, my head start in Greek and Latin was decisive; I had not even begun Chinese, and there was always a generous but limited provision of scholarships, fellowships, teaching assistantships (from the budgets of different apartments), and hour-basis jobs in the University Library loan department (where, also, I had learned punch-card based computer programming).  In sum, the University had already treated me as royally as even Oxford or Cambridge was wont to do for such as me.  But my interest in China persisted, and China was foreign only in the same way as Greece was, though I never did study the language.
One evening Antiques Roadshow featured a lion both powerful and exquisite and wonderfully preserved.  As the expert said, it is certainly Tang, and it triggered a search all over my house for my copy of Schafer's book and then to seek it in Amazon,  where, behold, there it is.  What with all the place-names in both the older transliterations rather than pinyin and finding adequate maps (assuming that, like me, you are unhappy without them) it is not easy reading, but I can only say that, even reading it for the first time, one is possessed by it (rather like Arthur Waley's translation of The Tale of Genji in this respect) once you have read not more than a hundred pages.  The Encyclopaedia Britannica Eleventh Edition (1910) double-page map of China is best, but it is more daunting than the most readily available (and possibly based on it) double-page map in any edition of Sherman Lee's A History of Far Eastern Art.  You see, I am actually urging you all to read Edward Schafer's Golden Peaches of Samarkand.  It still bears its 5-star rating in Amazon.
So, this is, you see, my first repayment of my debt alluded to in the last Post, a true pleasure of real value in recompense for time taken to try to chase that money trail, since now I see that all the media are finally onto it.  The latter quest isn't something that one values having learned more than half a century later.
Of course, each of us may find his own Golden Peaches.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Epilogue, esp. to Post of March 18, 2017

Enough of politics and banking!
Not that learning about all that, better late than never, but I cannot even keep up with what I've realized, and there is no way that I could learn (and judge what I've read) enough to offer advice to you all, most of whom know more than I do.  It is not that I am surprised by Money being more shocking than reading a few spy novels years ago taught me, and of course I am too old to be shocked to read that all nations, apparently, are engaged in covert actions (and of course I don't have to believe everything that I read, but surely we all can respect all thoughtful opinions), but the current specialists don't realize even as much as I do about knavery as well as sanctity through the ages; some even write that it all began with the CIA!
But with everything falling apart, why add my bit?
Let's just have the grace to realize that our readers can work it out alone (and, for that matter, what one learns from others must be struggled through each by himself).
I just mustn't pontificate on what I have yet to digest.
Only, in the primary sense of the word, I am, of course, a liberal.  And I owe a debt to give most to the arts that have given me the most.