The link between rainfall and the duration of Roman emperors

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There’s an interesting piece in The Economist about the link between rainfall and the rise and fall of Roman emperors.

One such lesson is how drought affected the stability of the Roman empire 1,500 years ago. In a new paper published in Economics Letters, Cornelius Christian of Brock University and Liam Elbourne of St Francis Xavier University identify a strong association between rainfall patterns and the duration in power of Roman emperors. The academics hypothesise that lower precipitation reduced crop yields, leading to food shortages and eventually starvation for soldiers stationed at the empire’s frontiers. As a result, troops were more likely to stage mutinies and assassinate their emperor.

The data, collected from oak tree rings, shows hungry troops peaking in revolts around The Gordian dynasty from 235 AD to 285. Invasions and the economic plight brought on by droughts were also contributors.

The academics combine data on assassinations—some 25 emperors were assassinated, roughly one-fifth of the total—with precipitation data collected from rainfall-sensitive oak-tree rings across the Roman frontier in France and eastern Germany.

Today’s natural disasters in California, Greece, and Japan due to heatwaves may not lead to overthrows, but they don’t augur well either.

It might be easy to dismiss the lessons from 1,500 years ago. Ancient Rome had little ability to store grain for long periods or irrigate crops. Yet, to this day, dictators rely on an obedient army to retain power. And more broadly, it has been long established that adverse weather causes economic shocks that lead to unrest, and even to civil war.

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Looking ahead, seeing behind

Stuck in the moment, nostalgic for the past.

How do people run life at a dizzying pace while also wanting society to replicate the 1950s? 

Technology facilitates progress yet turns back the clock on thinking. Mobile phones allow anyone with an account to amplify misinformation and weaken the willpower to do good. Even the inactive can recharge into fully blown acolytes.

Reality TV is phony, but it can become all too real with astonishing rapidity.  It turns amateurs into professionals, laymen into experts. Evil spreads by way of stupidity, invading human brains the way viruses enter human bodies.

Instead, what we need are more ideas that redirect the running memes in our head and compel us to emerge from our cocoons. The bubble has already popped.

The world we inhabit is the one we think we make.

Like science, it is worth questioning everything that tries to demand certainty. Stuck in a state of ripeness, we are always opening up without ever falling behind.

Coping with the cesspool of news

There’s a certain smugness people get in ignoring the news. Congratulations, you have no idea what’s going on! But I like to stay informed. I’d prefer Walden with Wi-Fi. 

While most of the stories are flotsam, sometimes that one little insight can make the biggest impact on your train of thought.

The trick is to stay informed without being overly consumed. News hoarding is not a sport. No one needs the full details of a celebrity wedding. You might as well go catch some flies!

All you need to know about some events is that they come and go. And they all get archived. As a preventative, you can let your mind jettison the glut of all future reporting related to that event to the bin.

Ignore what is unnecessary

If you tried to digest everything, your brain would explode. Analysis begets paralysis. Instead, you should be deliberate in what it is you want to feed your neurons. Voluntary attention captures what’s necessary and ignores the rest.

The internet’s algorithms and 24/7 news beg for attention. No matter how many attention-seeking missiles it launches, don’t poke back. Instead, observe, read and listen lightly as coping mechanisms in building immunity against propaganda.

Dipping in and out, buoyancy remains uninvolved without feeling uninvolved.

The script, the story

How many of us are just acting our way through life, adapting to different settings like chameleons?

Situational elasticity lends its hand to the collaborative truth, that people inject each other with signaling serum. We try to demonstrate to others ‘this is who I am and this what I do.’

All life is a stage, not just the internet, with many reaping the psychological benefits of expectation, even children. Studies show that pretending to be Batman helps kids persevere.

We should follow the route that builds up the most confidence. We just can’t expect a return on a relationship should we switch off and reside to impulsiveness.

The edited self is known to slip.

Identifying what matters

The brain is an empty void. It waits to remember until we give things meaning. Otherwise, it clings to the instincts of the amagdyla for its main sensory perception.

Thankfully, our brains are large processors. It knows that survival depends on exchanging information with others. Information is quid pro quo.

But the problem with oral communication is all the selling. Through rhetoric and persuasion, one can rise to have incredible influence. This is, unfortunately, how we got the Kardashians. We make stupid people famous.

Modern life narrows down our perceptions. Praising others, let alone mimicking them, makes us blind to our own self-worth.

The thrill of knowing is internal. It reminds us that we are more interesting than the role society gives us. Nothing means anything if we can’t float with nature and find the question.

Trent Reznor on musicians addressing politics

I was doing press with somebody in the mid-90s, and they made an argument that stayed with me: that I have influence, and that it’s my job to call out whatever needs to be called out, because there are people who feel the same way but need someone to articulate it. And I think about that today, because it seemed like it was a lot easier to just keep your mouth shut and let it go back then. You don’t hear a lot from the Taylor Swifts of the world, and top-tier, needle-moving cultural youth, because they are concerned about their brand, their demographic and their success and career and whatnot.

Read Trent Reznor Thinks Artists Should Speak Out

Variations on a human theme


We’re all variations on a human theme, containing multitudes.

Some of the variations are more versatile than others. The brain’s wiring is more amenable to uncertainty than chasing exactitude.

The rare breeds prefer to keep the ball in the air, playing the piano with no end in sight. Time is constant, and so is their search of novelty.

But every person is their own ‘CEO of Me, Inc,’ for which the fractions of uniqueness are the great equalizer.

Difference is always celebrated. The theme, yet, remains immutable. That is until the cyborgs take their course.

We are a plastic society

We have become a plastic society, with celebrities (not leaders) running the world stage and ‘geniuses‘ creating culture.

While social media gives everyone a microphone, it also permits mediocrity to rise up to the professional level. When these influencers take public responsibility, they can further colonize large parts of our mind. To echo Hannah Arendt on the rise of totalitarianism, evil spreads like a fungus.

But we have a choice: we can stem the tide or turn a blind eye and do nothing.

The history books always prompt its students to ask why no one ever did anything to stop such cruelty.

And now we know why.

The oppression of speed

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gif via @Waywardteacup

According to German critical theorist Hartmut Rosa, accelerated technological developments have driven the acceleration in the pace of change in social institutions.

Noticeable acceleration began more than two centuries ago, during the Industrial Revolution. But this acceleration has itself accelerated. Guided by neither logical objectives nor agreed-upon rationale, propelled by its own momentum, and encountering little resistance, acceleration seems to have begotten more acceleration, for the sake of acceleration.

To Rosa, this acceleration eerily mimics the criteria of a totalitarian power: 1) it exerts pressure on the wills and actions of subjects; 2) it is inescapable; 3) it is all-pervasive; and 4) it is hard or almost impossible to criticize and fight.

Read To be more creative, embrace the art of doing nothing

The fate of click-bait

At the heart of the web’s self-destruction is contagious media: crazy cat pics and the entire Buzzfeedification of the internet.

Every site, even reputable ones, raced to the bottom because celebrity sideboob and stupid human and pet tricks drove clicks.

Writes Tim Wu in The Attention Merchants:

“Contagious media is the kind of media you immediately want to share with all your friends. This requires that you take pleasure in consuming the media but also pleasure in the social process of passing it on.”

“Contagious media is a form of pop conceptual art” in which “the idea is the machine that makes the art (LeWitt, 1967) and the idea is interesting to ordinary people.”

The clickbait craziness spawned an albatross of more ridiculous news, some of it fake news. As Zeynep Tufekci says in her TED Talk, “We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads.”

And now we’re living with the repercussions of confused algorithms and companies like Facebook and Twitter avoiding responsibility.

A cartoon by @lisarothstein. #TNYcartoons

A post shared by The New Yorker Cartoons (@newyorkercartoons) on

 

We are psychologically vulnerable to social media games. If we want stupid, we’ll get stupid. And anything that requires some thought and effort will fade away.

Photos by Jesco Denzel

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I’m sure you’ve seen Angela Merkel’s brilliant staredown at Donald Trump across the interweb. The photo was taken by German government photographer Jesco Denzel, who also won World Press Photo of the year in 2017 for the image in Lagos.

Extraordinary eye for timing and composition.

Stuck in our own heads

Inattentive, we let the details slip right through our heads.

We are in a state of continuous partial attention, whipped around by facts, fake news, hyperbole, and reality.

The foreign invaders monopolize our “private” profiles and manipulate the entire public sphere into tribes that all think and see alike.

We turn a blind eye to the pleasant rhythm of dissent while also marching to the beat of our own drum.

To stop admiring our own words and lookalikes, and to start interrogating our own ideas.

Slow media in, Zombie scrolling out

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via giphy

The tranquil flood of information died after CNN introduced the 24-hour news cycle. But the internet brushed on a new type of disorder onto the information canvass that prevents us from thinking straight.

We consumed mindlessly, eating more than we could chew. Our brains got overloaded, dulled out, memories stymied by Google and images that told us everything we needed to know.

The good news is that while no one reads anymore, those who do are choosing quality over crap. Premium content is back because it’s trustworthy, well-written, detailed, and shareable.

Of course, the non-traditional sources are there like me. I blog to step back from the chaos and to absorb its connections. I refuse to let the Kardashians and other buffoonery colonize my brain. Blogging is like self-medication, but you can easily do it with a private journal or spending five still minutes reflecting on the day behind or ahead.

The Pilgrims didn’t have to deal with attention seeking missiles, misinformation, and click-baiting darts. Otherwise, they might have stayed home assuming the worst. Now offers the chance to dance with the intrusions by putting novelty aside and embracing the imagination for periods at a time.

“We think we understand the rules when we become adults but what we really experience is a narrowing of the imagination.” — David Lynch

Less news equals more news, squashing stimuli along the way.