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Old 06-01-2019, 06:40 AM   #1
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June 2019 Discussion • The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox



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Minos, a bronze-age king who ruled over the city-state Knossos in Crete, wasn't one for winning hearts and minds. According to Greek mythology, he'd regularly (possibly as often as every year – accounts differ) throw 14 kids to the minotaur in his labyrinth, built by Daedalus, whom he also locked up. He had a mechanical giant who patrolled the shore outside his palace.

He was also real, according to Arthur Evans, an English archaeologist who unearthed an ancient palace with a maze of interconnected rooms at Knossos in 1900. Inside the palace were hundreds of clay tablets written in a script that had never been seen before. The tablets dated to about 1450BC – seven centuries before the Greek alphabet existed – making them the earliest examples of writing ever found in Europe. But if there were revelations in these texts about Minos, they were locked away.

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Old 06-15-2019, 06:40 AM   #2
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It's time to discuss The Riddle of the Labyrinth. What did we think of it?
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Old 06-15-2019, 01:43 PM   #3
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I thought this solid but not stellar. I like both puzzles and ancient history, so this played to both interests.

I was absolutely fascinated by it, by the account of the deciperment. I thought it gave a good feel for both the grunt work involved and the inspired guesses that were equally necessary. I also thought it described linear B and the approaches taken very well, although I found the comparisons to English and Latin to be of more of a dunderhead nature. It's tough to hit the right note with this kind of explanation, especially when what the reader brings to it will be all over the place.

I also was interested in the understory of how Kober's being a woman hindered her, from being her mother's caretaker to the jobs she could get to being used as a glorified secretary. And also her inability to say no; the need for a woman to propitiate rather than strike out on her own course.

Overall, though, I thought the whole account was rather skimpy. 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. 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? Korber resented Evans rich amateur male who had the leisure and the resources to follow his bent, and Evans could allow himself to feel contemptuous toward the Jewish American woman academic who had the training he lacked.
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Old 06-15-2019, 05:08 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by issybird View Post
I also was interested in the understory of how Kober's being a woman hindered her, from being her mother's caretaker to the jobs she could get to being used as a glorified secretary. And also her inability to say no; the need for a woman to propitiate rather than strike out on her own course.

Overall, though, I thought the whole account was rather skimpy. Not enough primary resources on Kober, and the Evans and Ventris sections.
I particularly liked the Kober section. Her patient, careful and precise analysis of the syllabary of Linear B and her discovery that it was inflicted proved to be enormously significant. It was certainly the reason that Michael Ventris was finally able to decode the script two years after Kober’s early death—a fact that he later rather belatedly admitted.

Kober brings to mind her contemporary, Rosalind Franklin. Here was another woman whose efforts resulted in the basis for the discovery of the DNA double helix but whose contributions to it were largely ignored while the rewards were reaped by men who built on her indispensable work.

I don’t find the book “skimpy” as an introduction to this intriguing subject which was in process over years. The use of a tri-part structure works fine by focussing on three specific individuals and could certainly provide a basis for further exploration.

I noticed that there are an enormous number of source notes for the materials in the book which could lead to further study. Perhaps more explanatory notes would be useful.

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Old 06-15-2019, 05:42 PM   #5
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BTW If you wish to hear Michael Ventris making his announcement of the decoding of Linear B which took place on July 1, 1952 it is available on You Tube.

https://youtu.be/pOOGJAQ4eg4The
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Old 06-15-2019, 08:34 PM   #6
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Sorry, folks, I'm dealing with some family health issues, and haven't had time to finish. I'll get there, but it'll likely be another week before I can contribute. Apologies to the group.

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Old 06-15-2019, 11:35 PM   #7
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I thought it was an interesting book. I agree with the good but not stellar and rated it 3.5 stars. I know very little about Greek history and mythology, and it's not something that especially interests me. However, I enjoyed reading the book and was happy to be exposed to a topic that I probably wouldn't have picked out on my own. Therefore, I'm glad it was just enough detail to hold your interest and not too dry.

I liked the human aspect of the story and how it was structured on the biography of 3 key people who all had different backgrounds to contribute to the story of Linear B's decipherment. Just imagine how passionate these people were in pursuit of solving "the locked room mystery" as the author referred to it. It wasn't just passion but I think also obsession which fueled them. There was no prize money as motivation.

What I found particularly interesting is that ultimately it was solved not by being competitive and secretive but by openness and collaboration that helped to link the different pieces of information that different people knew. It's amazing that the decipherment was done by hand without computers or a bilingual inscription.
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Old 06-15-2019, 11:37 PM   #8
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Quote:
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Sorry, folks, I'm dealing with some family health issues, and haven't had time to finish. I'll get there, but it'll likely be another week before I can contribute. Apologies to the group.

Charlie.
I'm sorry to hear about your family troubles, Charlie. Join us when you can.
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Old 06-16-2019, 01:54 AM   #9
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I'm sorry to hear about your family troubles, Charlie. Join us when you can.
Same here, C. R.
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Old 06-16-2019, 03:32 AM   #10
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Yes Charlie, I hope all is well very soon.

I too enjoyed the book, being something of an Ancient History tragic. Linked to that I find archaeology fascinating, and I love puzzles and the ways people go about solving them. So this was definitely ticking all those boxes for me.

For me, the central section on Kober dragged because I thought that Fox was too exhaustive in her detailed study of what Kober was doing. Yes, the work she did was absolutely amazing in terms of her punch card system and the detailed analysis she did. It was all done with pencil and paper at the kitchen table after a demanding day of teaching, marking papers and what have you, and was indeed extraordinary.

However, as Bookworm_Girl said, something like that needs a team of people who bring different skills to the problem. Sadly there was precious little collaboration for much of the time. Arthur Evans refused to make more of the tablets available; Kober rebuffed Ventris very rudely when he suggested collaboration, though others did join him.

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.
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Old 06-16-2019, 12:18 PM   #11
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Thanks, everyone. Appreciated. (Now goes back in hiding for the rest of the week.)
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Old 06-16-2019, 01:06 PM   #12
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Quote:
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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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Old 06-16-2019, 05:08 PM   #13
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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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Old 06-17-2019, 07:40 AM   #14
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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:
Originally Posted by issybird View Post
[...] 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:
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[...]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.

Last edited by gmw; 06-17-2019 at 07:49 AM. Reason: Added missing quote ref
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Old 06-17-2019, 11:35 AM   #15
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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:
Quote:
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:
Originally Posted by gmw View Post
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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