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.

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.

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

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 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.

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.

No laughing matter

The current situation of the United States is obscene, insane, and incredible. If someone had pitched it for a thriller novel or film a few years ago, they would’ve been laughed out of whatever office their proposal made it to because fiction ought to be plausible. It isn’t plausible that a solipsistic buffoon and his retinue of petty crooks made it to the White House, but they did and there they are, wreaking more havoc than anyone would have imagined possible, from environmental laws to Iran nuclear deals. It is not plausible that the party in control of the federal government is for the most part a kleptomaniac criminal syndicate.

— Rebecca Solnit

Whatever your beliefs are, Solnit’s sharp writing will never let you down. Amafessionals like a race to the bottom.

The pointlessness of constant self-grading

The pointlessness of constant self-grading
  • Five-star ratings
  • Gallup polls
  • Followers and social media ‘clout’

We obsess with gauging the temperature of our present reputation. The numbers are public, ticking up or down like stock prices.

The internet is the grandest stage of them all where we endeavor to present our best self. We strive to prove our self-worth, using likes and follows to pepper our egos.

A reputation is never finished. There’s always one more person to attract and appease.

Yet, the perpetual chase of approval remains illusory. There is no need to install an elaborate series of checks and balances on fame’s usefulness.

Our mood, needless the temperament of others, is as fickle as the weather.

Vigorous grading is not good for the person, nor the whole.

Types of cognitive bias

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The race to the bottom begins when what you think you know, you know. I am once again reminded of this Seth Godin quotes from [easyazon_link identifier=”1591845335″ locale=”US” tag=”wells01-20″]All Marketers Are Liars[/easyazon_link]:

The best stories don’t teach people anything new. Instead, the best stories agree with what the audience already believes and makes the members of the audience feel smart and secure when reminded how right they were in the first place.

The stuff we want to hear sticks.

Confirmation bias and stereotyping are just the appetizers. Beware a blind spot, or better yet, the ostrich effect.

Biases are shortcuts. The truth never expires.

ORIGIN: The notion of cognitive biases was first introducted by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the early 1970s. Their research paper, ‘Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases‘ in the Science journal has provided the basis of almost all current theories of decision-making and heuristics. Professor Kahneman was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2002 after further developing the ideas and applying them to economics.

“Burning Man” wins photo of the year

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© Ronaldo Schemidt, Agence France-Presse

Venezuelan photographer Ronaldo Schemidt won World Press Photo of the Year for his image of the “Burning Man.”

The picture shows a fleeing José Víctor Salazar Balza engulfed in flames at an anti-government protest in Venezuela on May 3, 2017.

“It all took just a few seconds, so I didn’t know what I was shooting,” Schemidt told the British Journal of Photography. “I was moved by instinct, it was very quick. I didn’t stop shooting until I realized what was going on. There was somebody on fire running towards me.”

The photographer currently resides in Mexico where he shoots football matches and more recently covered the Mexico City earthquake aftermath. Check out more images on the Getty website.

 

Questioning the potency of graphic design

With the slogan “Slogans in nice typefaces won’t save the human races,” artist Tim Fishlock AKA Oddly Head sums up the growing powerlessness of the entire field of graphic design. #design #art #poster #banksy #graphic #illustration
Slogans (2017) by Oddly Head (aka Tim Fishlock)

Shepherd Fairey’s iconic “Hope” poster helped electrify the Obama campaign in 2008. Yet, it was Trump’s simplistic “Make America Great Again” red baseball hat that helped spread his message during the 2016 election. The fact that the cap looked undesigned was its greatest asset. Bad design makes an indelible impression too.

Evaluating the impact of graphic design

We are living in a surfeit of graphic design just as we are taking an excess of photos without giving careful attention to them. Writes Edwin Heathcote in the Financial Times:

“When there were fewer images, they could be more memorable. We are now awash with slogans and signs, hashtags and memes so that they burn brightly but fade quickly. Perhaps there can be too much graphic design.”

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Barak Obama Hope Poster by Shepherd Fairey

Like most of the Internet-based content, it gets created, consumed, and then promptly forgotten. With the slogan “Slogans in nice typefaces won’t save the human races,” artist Tim Fishlock AKA Oddly Head sums up the growing powerlessness of the entire field of graphic design. His poster features now at London’s Design Museum’s new show, aptly titled From Hope to Nope.

“We’re living in an epoch of demagoguery and debacle. As a result, there is a process of inner migration, an opting out of reality. As a species, we’re running 21st-century software on hardware that hasn’t been updated for 50,000 years and we’re not coping at all well. Have we ever been so vulnerable and so self-absorbed? Against this backdrop, my work is an investigation but also an admission of my own fallibility.”

There will always be new and old texts to rally around, perhaps none more potent than Britain’s “Keep Calm and Carry On.” But there’s just too much of the fodder in our daily feeds, particularly on visual-first mediums like Instagram and Pinterest. Time will tell if Shepherd Fairey’s gun control posters stick.

Ultimately, the durability of any political art and graffiti rests on the strength of the issue at hand.

Jazz as an instrument of global diplomacy 🎺

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Louis Armstrong playing for his wife Lucille in Egypt, 1959 (image via New York Times)

From 1954 to 1968, the United States sent jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington overseas to help stem the tide of communism. Writes the New York Times:

Jazz was the country’s “Secret Sonic Weapon” (as a 1955 headline in The New York Times put it) in another sense as well. The novelist Ralph Ellison called jazz an artistic counterpart to the American political system. The soloist can play anything he wants as long as he stays within the tempo and the chord changes — just as, in a democracy, the individual can say or do whatever he wants as long as he obeys the law. Willis Conover, whose jazz show on Voice of America radio went on the air in 1955 and soon attracted 100 million listeners, many of them behind the Iron Curtain, once said that people “love jazz because they love freedom.”

America continues its cultural hegemony by spreading its talons of soft power around the world. Some say globalization is disguised as Americanization, and that black culture is American culture. In an era of populists and fake news, it’s interesting to ponder which musicians (Kendrick Lamar?) would serve as proper ambassadors today.

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Jazz in Cairo (Louis Armstrong House Museum)

(h/t poastcards)

The space between our ears

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gif by mestrefungo

The space between our ears, where what we know or think we know contrasts the reality of what we should see.

We are the opposite of a child, turning a blind eye to the openness that foments growth. As adults, we stop asking why at the most fundamental level.

Stuck in a cobweb of exciting lies, unable to dust away the boredom of truth. Reality is too sober, but that’s also why it works. It keeps us grounded in the facts.