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Pseudoscience, quackery, “magic”, and deceptive supernatural practices meant to defraud people (often including the practitioner…for our need to believe in things is deep and desperate indeed) are as old as humankind, but I doubt that many schools of augury are quite as outwardly preposterous as myomancy, divination by means of rats and mice.

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The Romans were into augury of every sort, but they seem to have had a particular fondness for myomancy, and Pliny the Elder refers to it directly several times in his histories (although, in the end, all that study of rat augury doesn’t seem to have kept him safe from unexpected volcanic eruptions).  Myomancy could be “practiced” by freeing rats or mice and seeing which way they fled, by watching the rodents navigate mazes/pictograms, or by simply observing their lives in the wild.

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This last “wild” myomancy was perhaps the most highly regarded, yet it was also the most rare and spontaneous.  Mice and rats were sometimes thought to scream out before a disaster…or to just run away before a calamity.   If rats suddenly fled a house or community, it was thought to be bad luck of the most astonishing sort. Likewise. if a huge number of rats or mice simply appeared, it betokened a coming war or illness.  If rodents were spotted gnawing clothing (or, worse, armor or military equipment) it was regarded as a sign of incipient defeat.

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Now, animals perhaps don’t have occult connections to the forces of fate and divinity, but they have extreme sensory acuity (or sometimes they have entire senses we lack!).  Modern scientists have noticed that animals, particularly rats and mice, can predict earthquakes or extreme weather events.  Rats and mice are sensitive to air changes which betoken fire, pollution, or anoxygenic conditions.  Additionally, if a bunch of rats suddenly appear seemingly out of nowhere it is a pretty dire sign that something has gone very wrong with some fundamental link in an ecosystem.  Famine or pestilence may indeed be on the way.  The link between rats and bubonic plague is direct and (now) well known.  If rats start stumbling out of the woodwork and dying, collect all of your strongest antibiotics and RUN.

So I started this post by belittling myomancy, which certainly sounds less august than reading the stars or speaking to the dead or what have you.  However, on closer examination, it seems like myomancy might provide some real and useful information, which other schools of augury lack entirely.  This is not because myomancy is magical, but instead because rats and mice are clever and sensitive and must stay hyper-alert to survive in a world of poisons, predators, giants, and catastrophes.  Pliny the Elder was one of the forefathers of the natural sciences–perhaps we can still learn some things from him (see more next week), so keep an eye out for mysterious rodent happenings.  You never know what they will tell you! If Pliny hadn’t gotten distracted by the giant mushroom cloud above Vesuvius, he probably would have noticed rats running the other way as fast as they could.

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Primates evolved in a forest habitat of many complex colors and shapes where a failure to properly judge depth perception meant painful injury or death.  Vision is therefore a paramount sense for monkeys, apes, tarsiers, lemurs, and lorises.  Primates are social animals.  After evolving highly acute sight and keen color vision, they then evolved to be the most colorful order of mammals.  As with cuttlefish and birds of paradise, primate colors carry all sorts of social cues.

 

We will talk about all of this more (although, to be frank, we have always been talking about it), but today we are concentrating on the color red, which is of enormous importance to most primates because it is involved in status relations and thus in mating. Red is an important color for primates!  For example, among mandrills, red coloration of the face correlates directly with a male’s alpha status: the redder the face the more exalted the mandrill.  Primatologists have found this pattern vividly true in many species of monkey (and to other very different creatures like octopuses and cardinals, where red holds similar dominance significance).  To quote a particularly eye-opening line from Wikipedia, “Red can also affect the perception of dominance by others, leading to significant differences in mortality, reproductive success and parental investment between individuals displaying red and those not.”

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Humans beings are primates.  I suspect that it is not news to you that red is heavily involved in our own status and sexual selection preferences (for the sake of chivalric euphemism I will hereafter say “romantic” preferences).  Although this is readily evident in the red dresses of supermodels, the flashy Ferraris of celebrities, and the power ties of senators, the subconscious sway it holds over our lives is more pervasive than you might realize.

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In studies where men rated the general attractiveness of photographs of women, the women wearing red were rated as more desirable, even when the experimenters stacked the deck with pictures of the same women in different colors.  The same sort so f experiments revealed similar preferences among women looking at pictures of men.  It might be speculated that this has something to do with blushing, blood flow and suchlike visible markers of fertility/interest (although when asked, men said that women in red were more attractive, and women said that men in red were more “dominant”).

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Wearing red uniforms has been linked with increased performance in competitions (particularly physical competitions such as sports). Controlled tests revealed that red conferred no physical advantage during non-competitive exercise, so the effect is purely one of perception among opponents, teammates, and referees. Referees and judges seemed to be a particular focus of the psychological effects we are discussing here, rating red-garbed performers much more highly/favorably than similar peers in other outfits.

One needs to pause and think of how much more frequently the hateful Boston Red Sox and the despicable Atlanta Falcons would be justly drubbed if they wore dun uniforms.

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All of this might seem like bad news for people without a great deal of red in their wardrobe or in their clubhouse lockers, but there is a counterposing effect too.  In studies which involved paying attention and focusing on achievement-type events like the SATs or IQ tests (or essay questions about the Byzantine empire), red proved to be a nuisance and a hindrance.  Exposure to red decreased performance during such events (although my source does not say what this constitutes…maybe the experimenters had a huge red flashing light or a ringing red phone or some such gimmick that would unequivocally mess up one’s GREs).

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If all of this sounds wrong or suspicious to you, I guess it is the middle of the 2018 World Cup.  According to primatologists, Russia, England, Belgium, and Serbia should all win in the quarterfinals (so as long as they are not wearing their white or yellow “beta” uniforms).  If that test seems too nonsensical for you, you could always put on a British naval uniform and walk down to the local bar.  I would be very curious to learn how your experiment goes, and I will tally up the results as soon as I finish ordering a few new shirts…

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Thanks for bearing with me during last week when I took a much-needed break from blogging. Sadly, it does not seem like misinformation, social manipulation, distortion, and outright fabrication took a break during Ferrebeekeeper’s absence…they are more popular than ever! So I have decided to get with the program and add a new topic much in keeping with this trend. Well I say “new”, but this subject is profoundly ancient and originated before cities or even agriculture. This ancient practice has always given people exactly what they want…often to their terrible detriment. If one is looking for chicanery, mendacity, wish fulfillment, and showmanship untethered from life’s hard truths (and a cursory look at bet-sellers, infomercials, politics, and society itself indicate that a lot of people want exactly that) then here is a subject I predict will suit perfectly: I am speaking of the ancient and manipulative art of PROPHECY!
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Consulting the Oracle (John William Waterhouse, 1884, oil on canvas)

A prophecy is a sort of supernatural prediction about what will happen in the future (or a pretense of access to some otherwise inaccessible truth). The trappings of prophecy are many—entrails, crystals, special numbers, magical talismans, star signs, geomancy, demons, ghosts, gods and goddesses, etcetera etcetera. I hardly need to tell you that empiricists have never found any statistically meaningful evidence that such things work beyond the level of general platitudes (discounting inside knowledge and deception). Yet magical predictions endure and flourish in all societies. From the rudest hunter gatherer tribe, to the greatest globe-spanning empire, this “magic” has been present. Throughout history, oracles, scryers, prophets, augers, diviners, and astrologers have proliferated like, well, like human wishes.
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So why am I writing about this? Why do we need to look again at (sigh) astronomy and “The Secret” [spits] and at the ridiculous chickens of Publius Claudius Pulcher? First of all, as Freud knew, our wishes reveal so much about us—they provide a true dark mirror where we can see who we are with terrible clarity if we have the courage to really look. If prophecy does not necessarily have empirical merit, it often possesses immense artistic value. The essential dramatic truth of literature or scripture is frequently revealed in augury. The witch of Endor, the Delphic oracle, John the Baptist, and the witches in Macbeth set the action going (while at the same time foreshadowing/explaining how things will ultimately work out).
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But beyond the artistic merit of oracular truth, augury is related to prediction—the ability to think abstractly about the future and to shape outcomes by making intelligent choices based of guesses. I said that prophecy predated cities or agriculture (a breezy claim for which I naturally have no written evidence…although there are plenty of artifacts that are probably scrying tools and enormous amounts of similar circumstantial evidence): perhaps prophecy was a necessary step on the way to those things. Without being able to imagine the future, there is no need for seed corn or brickyards. The seeds to real inquiry can often be found in fantasy inquiry. Looking back across the breadth of history we see how religion became philosophy; geomancy became geology; astrology graduated to astonomy; even psychics and physicists have something in common. So follow along in this new topic. I confidently predict you will be surprised and delighted (and even if I am wrong we will at least have learned something).
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I have been thinking a great deal about demographics lately—or rather I have been trying to do so. Humans are not very good at thinking about large numbers of people: there is a limit to how many individuals one can maintain meaningful social relationships with, and, beyond that (tiny) number, the world is a big collection of dangerous & greedy strangers.  Nevertheless it is worthwhile to contemplate some basics about population demographics because these numbers and trends have an astonishing power over the directions which human events take. One of the foremost questions historians ask about any given place during any era is “how many people lived there?” As soon as an answer is found (or approximated—since worthwhile demographic data is scarce throughout most of history) the historian then further wants to know how old the population was, how quickly it was replacing itself, who was doing what, where they came from, and what the gender ratio was.  It is useful to sometimes jump back to these basic queries when thinking about the world today (and planning for the world of tomorrow).

A few contemporary examples will quickly illustrate what I mean. China’s growing ascendancy in economic matters comes as a result of demographics.  China’s population is currently estimated to be 1,331,460,000, whereas the population of the US is estimated to be 307,006,550.  If every Chinese person were a quarter as productive as every American person, China would still be wealthier as a whole.  Knowing a nation’s population (especially in a rapidly developing world) means knowing its future.

Percentage of Population Aged 60 years or older in Asian Nations

Metrics other than sheer population numbers are useful to know as well.  In Japan, nearly a quarter of the population is older than 65—a statistic which is casting long grey shadows over the continued viability of its welfare state (and is raising concerns about Japan’s continued economic and political viability overall).  After decades of the one child policy, China is rapidly coming to face such a problem as well.  Economists and other theorists are openly wondering whether the Chinese can get rich before they are caught in an old age trap similar to the one Japan is in.

All of this is critical because the overall population keeps growing exponentially.  Japan and Europe might be curtailing their birthrates–and thereby diminishing their future economic and national clout–but the overall population keeps trending upwards. Such numbers mean power and wealth for nations and for the rich but they also mean greater struggle for resources for all of us, and, worst of all they mean greater devastation to the environment.

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As you are beginning to see, demographics are one of the few useful tools for meaningfully thinking about the future.  Technology changes, markets boom and bust, nations rise and fall, but the inexorable wave of births rolls on and forms the underlying context for these changes. Even forces which change the population numbers directly–migrations, wars, genocides, or plagues—become part of the larger story of demographics.

A second post on this topic will feature an overview of the different generational cohorts in the United States because, although in some ways we really live up to our motto “e pluribus unum”—out of many one–in other ways we are six (or 7) wildly different nations and the greatest divisions between us are not those of race or class or sex–but rather of age.

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