GROWING OLD UNGRACEFULLY: The Case of the Missing Vulva

Barry Evans / Yesterday @ 8 a.m. / Growing Old Ungracefully

Of Carl Sagan’s three talented wives*, his second, Linda Salzman, can claim to have the greatest potential for everlasting fame. “Everlasting” in this context is how long a pair of gold-anodized aluminum plaques designed by her will last in a vacuum. The plaques are attached to the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, launched in 1972 and 1973 respectively, which are currently about 100 astronomical units (1 AU = average earth-sun distance) from us, heading out beyond the solar system at around 26,000 mph.

Here’s the right-hand side of the 6 in. x 9 in. plaques, the part that drew most attention at the time of launch. Not so much for what they depict, as for what they don’t: the woman’s vulva. Pubic hair? No problem, both guy and gal have been shaved, but whereas he’s fully endowed, she’s a female eunuch.

Linda Salzman, who was married to Carl Sagan at the time, drew the plaques as last minute add-ons while NASA was readying the Pioneers for launch. The plaque designers were Sagan and Frank Drake — that’s Drake as in the “Drake Equation,” the well-known back-of-the-envelope attempt to gauge the likelihood of finding intelligent life in our galaxy. (“Intelligent” defined here as the ability to build a radio telescope!)

Dr. Drake, currently Emeritus Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, headed the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute for many years. He’s probably best known as the first radio astronomer to listen for potential signals from ETs in 1960. One of his lesser achievements was to write the forward for my book The Wrong-Way Comet and Other Mysteries of the Solar System, which is how I was able to ask him about the Pioneer plaque and the missing vulva.

Drake wasn’t sure who had nixed the vulva in the plaques — someone high-up in government circles? possibly a U.S. Senator? — but he was certain that in the original version, the lady had her labia. He told me this in 1992. Carl Sagan presented a different version of the story in his 2000 book Cosmic Connection. “The decision to omit a very short line in this diagram was made partly because conventional representation in Greek statuary omits it,” he wrote. But he was also afraid of censorship. “In retrospect, we may have judged NASA’s scientific-political hierarchy as more puritanical than it is … not one Victorian demurrer was ever voiced …”

He was certainly right about the Greek statuary. Here, for instance, (there are many similar instances) are the Three Graces, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (This is actually a 2nd century AD copy of the 2nd century BC Greek original.)

No slit, no vulva, not a cameltoe in sight. Just, well, nothing. A blank alabaster triangle of Barbie-doll blandness. What’s going on here? You could argue, I suppose, that in the absence of a waxing studio in the agora, or of Gillette Venus razors, the ancient Greeks didn’t know their coochies from their kleos.

But c’mon, of course the ancients knew what they were getting into — that is, um, what they were sculpting. Pussies are ubiquitous in many ancient cultures, starting with the Venus of Willendorf, circa 30,000 BC.

These days, of course, nothing is hidden — the trend begun in 1866 by French artist Gustav Courbet in his (still notorious) painting The Origin of the World is alive and well today. But the ancient Greek anatomically-deprived depiction of women begs the question, why? Is it somehow linked to their standard depiction of tiny penises? Was the holiest of holies just too sacred to be portrayed? Does it relate to the second-class status of women back then? (As a recent op-ed in The Guardian claims: “Western civilization, at its root, indoctrinated shame around the feminine anatomy … The heroic male struts his stuff; the woman, even the sexualized woman, hides her [anatomy] away.”)

And what about those plaques, anyway? Will the ETs know which way is up? Only The Simpsons know for sure.


* Carl Sagan’s first wife was Lynn Margulis, a powerhouse of a biologist. Margulis came up with the idea of symbiogenesis to explain the origin of complex eukaryotic cells. I wrote about this remarkable woman here.

His second third wife is Ann Druyan, co-producer of Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos series and writer-producer of the recent follow up (with Neil deGrasse Tyson) of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.


Barry Evans gave the best years of his life to civil engineering, and what thanks did he get? In his dotage, he travels, kayaks, meditates and writes for the Journal and the Humboldt Historian. He sucks at 8 Ball. Buy his Field Notes anthologies at any local bookstore. Please.



James Tressler / Yesterday @ 8 a.m. / Letter From Istanbul

About six years ago, not long before my arrival, newly elected President Obama visited Turkey.

The trip was part of a whirlwind tour, Obama’s first as president. There was the emergency G20 summit in London, where leaders approved a $1 trillion package to stem the bleeding of the global economic crisis. Then there had been a kiss-and-greet stop in France. In Prague, a few days later, I had the opportunity – among some 30,000 others – to listen to Obama’s speech at Prague Castle.

And then, the last stop on the tour, there was Turkey. During this visit, Obama addressed the Turkish Parliament in Ankara, visited the Ataturk Memorial, and also spoke to a group of students at a forum in Istanbul.

The other night, my girlfriend Özge and I were watching the video of this students’ forum on YouTube, and it felt like a flashback, a time capsule.

First of all, watching the video, one is reminded of the star power, the high-voltage excitement that Obama exuded, that seemed to follow him wherever he went, at the time of that first international tour. Trust me: I was there, a lot of us were. I can recall waking up at 5 a.m., along with my flatmate, and thousands of other people, walking up the hill to Prague Castle, then waiting for several hours. When Obama and his wife, Michelle, stepped up to the podium, the cheers of welcome that greeted him from tens of thousands of Czechs (waving both Czech and American flags) still rings in my ears today.

Accompanying that excitement, like a dark passenger, was the powerful sense of urgency all of us felt, with the crisis brewing a tempest beyond the champagne-colored skies that lit the Golden City that day.

That afternoon, we listened as the youthful-looking president discussed the crisis in some detail, as well as his proposal for a multi-lateral agreement that would seek to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons.

We listened as he praised the Czech people for standing up to the forces of totalitarianism during the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, for helping bring the spirit of democracy and change to the former Eastern bloc, and becoming a member of NATO.

“We are here today,” Obama said, “because enough people ignored the voices who told them the world cannot change. We’re here today because of the people who stood up, took risks, to say that freedom is a right for all people – no matter what side of a wall they live on, or no matter what they look like.”

It was an exciting, memorable morning. Afterward, I have a memory of riding the tram back to my neighborhood in Prague’s Vrsovice neighborhood, and the other passengers who’d attended the speech were still clutching their Czech and American flags, little smiles on their faces, their eyes dreamy as they looked out at the spring.

After nearly a decade of living abroad, seeing rallies and demonstrations against American foreign policy, it was startling to see that a U.S. president was still capable of generating, even inspiring, so much raw excitement and wonder. You felt as if perhaps a new day was dawning, and you almost didn’t care if such naivety was dangerous. After all, what was the world without naivety and danger? Certainly not a brave one; and we wanted to be brave.


As I said, I wasn’t in Turkey at that point. I arrived a few months later. But I did know that the president, following that joyous Prague spring morning, had a somewhat different reception awaiting him in Turkey.

“Who does he think he is – addressing (my) Parliament?” my Turkish flatmate, who I will call Osman, angrily asked later on. “Osman” was indignant, as if the American president were holding a gun to his country’s head.

Then, and now, I say Obama’s visit to Ankara was a courtesy call, a diplomatic protocol; after all, he was the newly elected president, and Turkey was presumably an important ally in the Muslim world. Why shouldn’t he – by invitation, of course – drop by and say “hello?”

During his Parliamentary address, the president expressed the need for a stronger alliance between the two countries, as NATO partners, especially as the relationship had become somewhat strained by differences over the region, e.g. Iraq War.

As I say, the speech itself was fairly standard, a shore-up rather than a grandstand, if you will. There were no public speeches (security concerns, most likely).

But there was one noteworthy incident, one that Turks still recall, with a mixture of fondness and bemusement: During a visit to the Ataturk memorial with then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while the two leaders paid their respects to the Liberator, a cat (cats are a fixture of all cities in Turkey) suddenly appeared, presenting its feline visage for some impromptu petting and a photo-op. The next day, the photo of the two leaders and the cat (cat people would argue it was the cat who was in charge) appeared in all the Turkish newspapers. Even today, when you mention Obama’s visit to Turkey, people still remember – even more than his Parliament address, or student forum, or even his visits to Ataturk’s memorial or the Blue Mosque – that famous cat.

Watching the YouTube footage with Özge, we found his meeting with the students in Istanbul to be far more interesting than the Parliament address. It was a kind of forum, where students were able to ask questions, which were translated, if necessary, by a device attached to the president’s waistcoat.

The students grilled Obama on everything from global warming, to the Kurdish issue, to the president’s views on whether Turkey should be granted EU membership (which Obama said he supported).

“Some people say that you are a different face from (former president) Bush, but really you are just the same,” one young man boldly asserted. “Can you tell us how you are different?”

“I think time will have to answer that,” Obama replied, nodding with respect to the frankness of the question.

“He looks tired here,” I remarked to Özge. “But then, I suppose he would be – he’s at the end of the trip here.”

We noticed, too, that all of the women in the audience were un-covered, indicative of perhaps the desire to present the visiting president with a view of Turkey as a “modern,” secular country. One wonders, with the recent lifting of the headscarf ban at universities, if the women in the audience today would have a more representative mixture.

Özge said that was a good point.

“And also the questions they are asking,” she said, “You can see that the questions were probably pre-selected, to focus on certain issues.”

What questions would the students ask Obama today, if he visited them again?


Also, as we watched, reflecting forward-back, we couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between Obama then, and now. Like all U.S. presidents, he has since taken his lumps in the opinion polls; his approval ratings have dipped noticeably (more so at home than abroad). Certainly, the Beatlemania-like excitement of that spring has all but evaporated.

Meanwhile, America and Turkey’s relationship has taken new, at times, alarming twists. Erdoğan, who has since become president, seeks to expand the powers of that office, and has raised concern both here and abroad about his long-term aims.

With Erdoğan’s rise, Turkey’s relationship with the West in general has taken a downturn. The ambitious Turkish president has grown increasingly disenfranchised (scores of people have been arrested for the crime to “insulting” the president; one suspects that he is easily “disenfranchised”). He seeks to – as some claim – restore Ottoman Empire glory, and/or to hedge the country’s bets by flirting with the East (Certainly, Washington wasn’t pleased when Turkey began considering purchasing a Chinese-produced missile defense system; Erdoğan has also spoken publicly of giving up on hopes of EU membership, and of joining the Shanghai Pact instead).

At any rate, the wider issues of Erdoğan, of East-West relations, are too complex, too jumpy, too byzantine and far-reaching, to attempt to discuss here. My point really was just to have a look back, the memory triggered by listening to the then-newly elected president talking with a group of Turkish students, and thinking about all the excitement trailing around Obama at that time. As I said, even in the Turks, historically suspicious of the West, a certain gleam of wonder could be seen in more than a few of their eyes, if only for the briefest of moments. Again, as has been seen back home, a lot of that gleam has long since dried up, but perhaps not all of it.

The next morning, I was on my way to a lesson with my driver. We were listening to the reports on the Gallipoli anniversary, which had been marked around the country the previous day, the Irish president had been in town, along with other visiting dignitaries, and one of my Irish friends had actually gone and met him.

“I wish Obama would come back,” I said to the driver, who is Kurdish. Together we follow the news of the fighting in Kobane.

The driver nodded, laughing.

“Yes, maybe you could meet him!” he said.

“That would be cool,” I said. “We could both meet him!”

“Yes,” he said. “That would be cool.”

I wonder what the cat would say.


James Tressler is a writer living in Istanbul.

Two-Alarm Apartment Building Fire at the Corner of Harris and California

Hank Sims / Yesterday @ 6:16 a.m. / Fire!

Photo: Tracy Green-Severns.

Photo: Andrew Howard.

Humboldt Bay Fire has been called to fight an active structure fire at an apartment building at the corner of California and Harris streets.

The Eureka Police Department has been called to provide traffic control at that intersection, and the Arcata Fire District has been summoned to help provide coverage while the Eureka-based fire department fights the fire. PG&E and the city building department have also been called.

The first firefighters on the scene reported that the flames were emanating from the bottom of the building and were spreading up to the top floor.

Friend of the LoCO Andrew Howard, who sent along the photo at right, reports that the neighborhood was awakened by several small explosions either right before the fire broke out, or during it.

The apartment building, which is owned by the Squires family, is a well-known sight on Harris Street.

Photo: Tracy Green-Severns.


Photo: Enrique Siliezar


(UPDATED: TWO IN CUSTODY) Shooting Homicide in Phillipsville; Law Enforcement Searching For Person of Interest

Andrew Goff / Saturday, April 25 @ 10:05 p.m. / Crime


Photo provided by a reader at the scene.

UPDATE, 4/26: Lt. George Cavinta of the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office tells the Outpost that two male subjects have been taken into custody in connection with this case. Cavinta said that his office will be releasing more information soon.


The Outpost is in the process of gathering information about a shooting that occurred earlier tonight in Phillipsville.

In scanner traffic from just before 8:30 p.m., a call can be heard asking for medical service on Phillipsville Loop Road where a person has sustained a gunshot wound to the head. Responding medical personnel later report that the victim has died. Later deputies describe the incident as a homicide. 

Just before 9 p.m. a be on the lookout is heard in which the on-foot person of interest is described as a male adult with a shaved head wearing a grey shirt. The edited scanner audio below contains relevant information from between the times of 8:25 p.m. and 9 p.m.


Location provided by CHP Watch

Pedestrian Killed by Vehicle on Highway 101 in Crescent City

Andrew Goff / Saturday, April 25 @ 10:04 p.m. / Traffic

LoCO‘s CHP Watch notes that a pedestrian was struck and killed by a vehicle on Highway 101 in Crescent City near the Renner/Patriot Food Mart. CHP is providing updates here.

Car Fire on 101 Safety Corridor

Andrew Goff / Saturday, April 25 @ 6:19 p.m. /

LoCO readers and CHP Watch indicate an abandoned motor home is on fire on Highway 101 just off the safety corridor. Emergency personnel has responded. Traffic does not seem to be affected.

Updates here.

Photo courtesy Tenaya Goddard


Motorcycle Crash on Wabash

Hank Sims / Saturday, April 25 @ 11:34 a.m. / Traffic

Reader Jeff Peters tells us that Wabash Avenue is currently tied up as emergency personnel attend to a motorcycle spill at the corner of B Street, in front of the Stop ‘n’ Shop.

It’ll likely be cleared up soon, but you might want to take a different route to your Rhody Parade party.