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2015-06-04
Doctor who?
A while back I had to interrupt someone giving me a list of symptoms and explain that I was not that kind of doctor. The woman was less than impressed by a doctorate in ancient history, and remarked in a disappointed tone 'So you are not a real doctor, then?'

At that point I could have explained in detail. The term 'doctor' comes from the Latin 'docere', meaning 'to teach', or 'cause to know'. There were doctors teaching in Medieval universities when medical work was being done by the people who also trimmed beards and pulled teeth. Today, French docteurs, German doktors and Italian dottores do not have to explain that they are not involved with the medical profession, because in their languages the word has not been hijacked by physicians. (Who answer to 'médecin', 'Arzt', and 'medico' respectively.)

Generally, on the rare occasions when one has to get all formal, it's easier to avoid getting confused with the pill-slingers by putting the qualification after the name rather than the initials at the front. (But not both; it's bad form to call oneself Dr X, Ph.D – that's a sort of titular double-dipping.)

However even post-name alphabetage can cause problems in my case, because I don't have a Ph.D . I have a D.Phil. This is the older title for the same degree which Oxford and some other universities still use, but the D.Phil. is almost unknown in the Americas. So at a conference in the States almost a decade ago a kindly gentleman asked if I was going to 'continue my studies' to the Ph.D level. I explained that my university was in the habit of qualifying Doctores Philosophiae in Literae Humaniores instead, and I may have explained this with unnecessary vehemence.

Like most male academics I generally get by with 'Mr' unless needing to reassure people that I know what I'm talking about in a professional capacity. Even that can cause problems. Credit card companies and their ilk insist on these things being precise, but hotels and shops tend to simply assume the 'Mr', so then there's the bother of explaining to a sceptical individual on the end of a phone line that both of me are the same person.

In time, one learns to roll with the punches. With the woman with whom I was conversing at the start of the this post, I commented that I was indeed a 'real' doctor, but the patient would have to be dead for at least 2000 years before I could be of any use.
 
2015-05-03
Spring around the Earth
Ahh... spring. That's when, in exchange for longer days and great scenery, I have to double up on my chores. It's still cold enough to have to chop firewood for the nights, but now the lawn needs mowing in the day as well. Then there's getting the kinks ironed out of the final chapters of the novel, finishing off my biography of Heracles, and getting teaching material up to date. I'm also negotiating two book contracts, and have promised some work to my colleagues over at UNRV. There may not be a lot of time left for floating around mountain lakes this summer.

It does not help that I've moved from winding my way through Aristotle's 'Politics' to fighting it out with Lucan's Latin in the 'Pharsalia'. Apart from anything else, deciphering Lucan's obscure mythological references make the thing a sort of classicist's crossword. Then something in the text needs researching further, and I zoom off on a tangent.

For example, there's a profession from antiquity I recently discovered; the pacer. Ever wondered how the Romans knew where to place their milestones? They hired a pacer, a man trained to take steps of exactly the same length. To give some idea of how well this worked, consider Eratosthenes, the man who measured the circumference of the earth. He did this by measuring the angle of the midsummer sun in Alexandria, and comparing it with shadows cast further south in Syene.

The difference in the angle represented seven degrees of curvature in the earth's surface. Therefore multiply the curvature into a full circle and do the same with the exact distance between Alexandria and Syene, and you get the actual circumference of the planet. However, to get the exact distance to Syene, someone had to pace it off, and do so accurately enough that even when the distance was extrapolated to the circumference of the planet the reading remained true.

In fact, he got the circumference of the Earth wrong by somewhere between 15% and 0.5% (depending which of the many different measurements called a 'stade' Eratosthenes actually used.) That's a tribute to the genius of Eratosthenes, but also to the skill of the man who so accurately counted out the 861,840 paces between Syene and Alexandria.
 
2015-04-04
I'm a lumberjack and it's ok

An academic colleague I haven’t seen for a while saw a pic on my Facebook page and remarked that I have 'nailed the lumbersexual look'. Since I had not the foggiest idea what she was talking about, I did what any lumbersexual would do, and did some research on the internet. Turns out that while living in a small town deep in the Monashee mountains, I'm nevertheless at the cutting edge of fashion.

According to the Guardian newspaper's Holly Baxter 'the lumbersexual is here, with his beard, plaid shirt, backpack and artfully scruffy hair'. Ah, thought I, rubbing my beard while looking at my plaid shirt and the backpack sitting in the corner. The only reason I don't have scruffy hair is because the little I have left is shaved to under a centimetre’s length for convenience. Further reading suggested that work boots and braces ('suspenders' if you are American) perfectly round out the lumbersexual's outfit. Check, and check.

But hold on … 'He is at the same time both aggressively attached to the traditionally masculine look and completely removed from the lifestyle that it advertises.' er, Removed? First off, the colleague who describes me as 'looking like a lumberjack' doesn't know that these days lumberjacks wear hard hats, ear protectors and florescent yellow nylon jackets. I do know that, because lumberjacks and logging trucks are everyday sights hereabouts.

The lumbersexual should own, but have no chance to use, a 'vintage Colorado hatchet'. Instead I have two hatchets and use both daily - a Truper hand maul for splitting firewood, and a Yardworks hatchet for cutting kindling. My neighbour once absent-mindedly let a bobcat indoors thinking it was the family pet, and a woman a few kilometers down the road was attacked by a cougar while she was watching TV in her lounge. Since I regularly chase bears out of the backyard and swat raccoons off the deck with a broom, I'd suggest that some people do have the lifestyle that goes with the look.

It's a plaid shirt, because good luck finding a woollen shirt hereabouts that isn't plaid. Wool is warm and waterproof in winter and mosquitoes bite right through cotton in summer. The trousers are denim because it is a 420km round trip to anywhere that sells anything that isn't denim (or cord), and non-denim trousers are called 'dress pants' – as in 'I can't help you stack that wood/butcher that deer/get your canoe off the garage roof, because I'm wearing dress pants'.

Ideally, my job should involve something like hunting wolves with a buck knife, instead of sitting at a computer researching and writing about Roman history. But if I dress for my job in a toga they'll laugh at me when I go grocery shopping down at the gulch in Trail.

(The Facebook pic has been removed, by the way.)
 
2015-03-03
Of Aristotle and Plato
As followers of my Facebook posts will be well aware, I've spent about a year slowly going through the 'Politics' of Aristotle. The neatness of the aphorisms and the perceptiveness of the observations make up for the pain of struggling with the actual Greek. However, the 'Politics' was not my first choice – my original plan was to read through the Republic of Plato. That plan was abandoned because, while I rather like the company of Aristotle, reading the 'Republic' makes me want to climb into its pages and give the characters a good kicking.

The joy of Aristotle is that he begins by taking people as they are, and believes that the objective of a society is that people might live happily within it. Aristotle also rejects the idea that all men are alike, and reckons circumstances produce different kinds of city and society which should each strive for happiness in their own way. Sure, he is sexist, nationalistic and elitist – in fact Aristotle would happily agree to all these charges, and defend the validity of his viewpoint while conceding that you might have a point as well. You can talk to Aristotle.

Now let's look at the opening plan of one of the characters in Plato.

'They should begin by expelling from the city all inhabitants who are more than ten years old. Then take possession of the children, who will be unaffected by the habits of their parents. These the rulers will train in their own habits and laws – by which I mean the habits and laws which we [philosophers] have given them'.

See what I mean? Kick, kick, kick. Later we hear how the simple-minded and disabled should be 'disappeared' from society and quietly disposed of. How the 'Guardians' should be entitled to censor news and lie to the people. How all men - apart from the high-minded Guardians - are evil by nature and inclination and must be controlled by constant surveillance and the threat of punishment. Who should these Guardians be? Well, the philosophers in Plato's discussion admit that it would fall on them to reluctantly assume the task for the greater good. Do you feel like kicking them yet?

While Plato and Aristotle are both looking for ideal societies, Plato seeks the perfect abstract, and Aristotle looks for the best that can be achieved in the real world. But that's not the only difference. Aristotle's ideas lead eventually to a liberal western-style democracy; Plato is a totalitarian nightmare.
 
2015-02-08
Whoosh! There goes February ...
Hmm. February is going to be a short month, both because of the lack of days and because of the over-sufficiency of things with which to fill those days. My blog updates are meant to be published before the Nones (fifth) of the month, and it's already approaching the Ides (13th). In my defence, ever since my return from the tender mercies of the hip rehabilitation people, I've been running around like a demented chicken trying to catch up with October and November. However, I learned during my days as a journalist that if you write in haste, the resultant text looks as if it was written in haste, and I pride myself on a polished product. So over the last month or so I've been unhastily spending every free minute writing the text of a course I'll soon be teaching, a paper on Archetypes in Greek Myth, revised early chapters of my novel and book proposals for a friendly publisher. The good news is that things are now pretty much up to date, although this tardy blog post remains as a sacrificial offering to the fact that there are only so many free minutes available.

There's also a book on the sacred Mysteries of Artemis at Ephesos which I'm reviewing. It's interesting to see how much attention historians are giving mystery cults at the moment. Mystery cults fascinated the ancients because they provided a personal connection to a deity through some re-enactment of that deity's life (in Ephesos the cult was related to the birth of Artemis). The cults fascinate modern scholars because the evidence is vague, scanty and ambiguous. We also get a lot of detail from hostile Christian sources, which is to some degree ironic as the ancients regarded Christianity itself as also being a mystery cult. Now the cults are fascinating me, and taking up time I don't have.

The result has been more digging through the topic than a simple book review might warrant. However, there's also the fact that I'm doing this review for my friends over at the UNRV website, and they have just sent me a magnificent map of the Roman empire to adorn my study wall. This map is both detailed and a work of art, and it certainly would merit the detailed research of my reciprocal review even if the subject were not so fascinating that I'm doing the research anyway. Meanwhile I have to revise the early chapters of the novel speedily (though not in haste) in order to clear enough post-it notes from the wall for there to be space to hang the map in the first place.
 

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