Monday, June 25, 2012

Just a Postcard

Lentoid disk of crystal, Early Neolithic
Just to share something wonderful, a postcard that I received in 2006.  All I know is that it came from Çatal Hüyük in southern Anatolia, modern Turkey, where the most productive strata (now in all the basic art history textbooks) dated to about 6,000 BCE.  The rest we can see.  It has to be a remarkable piece of natural crystal (the region is volcanic), because if far outdates the invention of glass.  It has to have been carefully and knowingly polished to a regularly rounded surface to produce the image we see (I presume that the back side is encrusted or coated) patiently using emery (again, volcanic).  This site even produced a picture that can hardly be anything but a representation of an erupting volcano.  I am from California and sentimentally attached to Mt. Lassen and Mt. Shasta as well as to the story of Ishi, the last survivor of his tribe in the foothills of Lassen.  These town dwellers of Anatolia, though, are both similar to our native Americans and different, being far older and making some use of copper and representing the human figure in both active (hunting) and cultic depictions, but even for Çatal Hüyük this crystal mirror (photographed over the shoulder, apparently, of a modern girl) is astonishing.  To me, Asia Minor is the most wondrous part of the ancient world.  I wish I could live long enough to understand better how technical and linguistic and social and religious ideas spread from Asia Minor—not to compare Mesopotamia and the other great river valleys in any invidious or belittling way, but we knew about them much earlier owing to Judaeo-Christian interest in Egypt and Mesopotamia, especially.  At the same time, the Book that we have also skewed our point of view.
I want to take time right now to write a Post for Opera Nobilia, but this postcard must be shared.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The enchantment of nebulae

In a recent Post I mentioned a childhood friend whose father worked for Bell.
Jean Ellen (for that was her name) was my own age and went to school with me.  Her mother, who may have been mentally unsound (well, my father thought so) talked with my mother on the phone, sometimes for more than an hour at a time, but whether her talk was beyond my mother's comprehension or incomprehensible per se, I do not know.  I never met her father, but Jean Ellen said that he worked "for Bell".  I had the impression that her access to a telescope, her maps of the heavens, her vocabulary were from her father.
Other little girls might hide under the covers with flashlights to conceal their discussion of what they surmised about boys, but when I was invited to overnight at her house it was astronomy, such as was known in 1944, that we talked about.  Remember that the Mt. Wilson telescope was still new, was in My Weekly Reader, was in Life magazine (though the 200" Hale telescope at Palomar was delayed until 1949), but Jean Ellen was far more interested and well informed than I was.
The thing that I came to wonder most about was the nature of nebulae.  We knew, of course, from the dictionary that the word meant just "cloud", but by 1944 it was known that they were spiral (we did not know that they were not uniformly so), and I remember Jean Ellen's telling me that they might be whole galaxies like our Milky Way.  I also remember (and there was little science fiction worthy of the name at that time) that there might be other stars with planets, but, owing to their being so distant, probably unknowable.
So, whether her father worked for Bell Labs or just for the Telephone Company, through him and his very bright daughter, a goodly part of my mental curiosity was established for life.  It was not as if there were anything beyond a National Geographic sky map then to learn from.  I mean, one was prepared to mock Buck Rogers, for sure!  There was no television, no serious documentaries and no dream, even, of IT permitting me to communicate my childhood's initiations to persons on several continents almost in real time.  Once, in Berkeley, Jean Ellen who was then in Hawaii, came by for a brief visit, but we never again became closely acquainted, no longer children.
I remember the 1944 thoughts about nebulae whenever NOVA, for example, has programs about telescopes and "the edges of the universe".  For, naturally, I could never imagine a simply finite universe, once the reality of galactic nebulae had been grasped.  And whenever a new telescope is announced and then put to work, you can find me at the NASA site.  One knows that the color is digitally induced though it expresses, so to speak, real differentions.  More annoying is the very predictable one-point perspective and telescopic (in the non-scientific sense) action and, worst of all, the awfully uniform speed of these animated reconstructions, very obviously revealing the speed of the digital processors and network servers that were employed.  Also, there is the dreadful background "music" or echoic soundtrack.  Ickypoo!  These things, like the 'period' costumes and 'period' mimicry of light are very serious distractions from science.
I may be too old to tire my eyes and find time enough to learn the subject properly, but I doubt whether I am the only person to be annoyed by the extraneous stuff, and the young woman scientist who obviously has been repeatedly photographed and recorded making a statement off a teleprompter--and other such debasements of the material.
Not that I ought to gripe about NOVA.  I am indeed grateful, but...
And no youngster now has much excuse for not knowing at least what I do.  I, too, had to fight to listen to the NBC Symphony or the Metropolitan Opera when there was a major sports event at the same hour; I wasn't the one who bought the radio or paid the electricity.  I am sure that in many, many families, just as the parents work themselves weary for their children, the sacrifice may not extend to the things most important to their young.  It is understandable, just one of the facts of life that are mastered during the early adolescent years.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

All I want is dignity

Kavala.  1960.
For Greece
As I write, about 8 hours later in Greece, the people I love best besides a few of my own are voting.  I have known Greece since 1959, and I speak the language well enough that after about 48 hours through Customs I think in Greek, except when I am among other English speakers.
I have no specific political allegiance in Greece, except that I didn't like the Colonels and I would not have liked it if after WW II the country had become permanently Communist, like Albania.
For most of my life, whenever I traveled in Greece, I conversed with all sorts of Greeks.  I heard the stories of women who had to give up a baby for adoption, knowing only that it was in, e.g., Texas; I heard, as still vivid personal memories, stories of people discarding out of the KTEL bus windows fistfuls of paper money with lots of zeroes but no value, though by the late 1950s the Bretton Woods plans had fixed the drachma at just about 30 to the dollar.  It was fistfuls of aluminum lepta that one left on the taverna table for the paidi who cleared the tables and was otherwise unsalaried (with 100 lepta to the drachma and 30 dr to the dollar...).  In the country some of the children were obviously very, very poor, but every time I went to other Mediterranean countries I noticed how clean and self-respecting Greeks were compared with anyone else with equally little money.  And so forth; I could tell you detail after detail to the same effect.
I do not want to suggest that I ever thought Greeks perfect.  But the way people have been talking in the media and generally north of the Alps is very grievous to me, though I am not myself Greek.  I know they are tax-averse, but as an American what have I to say about that?
Only yesterday, from John Psaropoulos on NPR (I also read his blog), I finally heard him talk plainly about the psychological effect on all the older half of the population of the post WW II trouble and poverty.  Just as I can, barely, remember the 1930s recession (my father earned $12 / week in a grocery when I was born), so Greeks who grew up pre-Euro and, especially, pre-Bretton Woods and Marshall Plan (not that that was perfect, but it did make a difference) have a pride in being Greek (because of their whole history, not just antiquity) that is grounded in self-respect based on what one truly is.  The last years have been horribly, cruelly painful for them, but we can trust Greece to keep its children in school and keep them close to the family.
Yes, of course, I know that there were professional beggars and that they used their children, but there were many, many more who sold combs and Chiclets from trays at the bus stations and who polished shoes (luckily, shoes were still made of leather) at almost every street corner, and trays of koulouria (rings of bread with sesame), for example.  Again, images keep coming to mind, of all the little goods and services that eked out a living.
Yes, I did notice that with the preparation for the Olympics, which Greece wanted so much, with the year when Athens was the Cultrual Capital of Eurose, with the importance of Greek fruits and vegetables as a cash crop, with the cultivation of viniculture for very good wines and the oenology to maintain their excellence, with the disappearance of the donkey for the most part, with the replacement of the buses sold to Greece when nearly worn out by other countries with Mercedes-Benz ones, most even with AC, and the beautifully banked and faced highways (not autobahn or freeway, but...), such as that which made the trip along the kaki skala en route to Corinth so much less hair-raising, that joining the European community did fairly rapidly bring the standard of living to the lower margin of "respectability" in transalpine Europe.
And it is true that Greeks (barring shipping barons and such, who are few) do work harder than most other workers, and certainly not less.
And it is true that Greeks are profoundly democratic, it being, for example, normal to see the best dressed persons on a bus or train or ship talking politics or philosophies or almost anything fit for discussion with the shabbiest of their fellow passengers or, of course, with everyone else in a kapheneion or a koureion.
So I hope the outcome of the election will be beneficial for Greece, because I also firmly believe that a Europe that abandoned Greece would somehow have lost its soul.
I don't know enough about international banking to have an opinion of my own about its responsibility (though I shall never forget how Enron tried to deprive California of sufficient electricity).
I guess that in about eight hours from this posting we shall begin to hear at least speculation about polling.