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Bernie Ziebart

The Engineering Perspective

The blog is a view of life, science, politics and education from an engineering perspective. As engineers, we are taught to view the world objectively. We can hope, believe and calculate a particular outcome, but natural laws are inflexible and pay no heed to who we are or what we believe. We must approach the objective dispassionately, while compensating for our own distorted perceptions. Balance is also a key element; balancing between the ideal and the pragmatic, balancing cost and functionality, balancing analysis with action, etc.

Scheduling routine critical self-analysis is the foundation to objectivity. If we do not fully understand and compensate for our own failures, tendencies, habits and skewed thought processes, we will not see the world as it is. Without a regular critical self-analysis we will see the world as we are and then fall prey to self-delusion.

Failure is a great teacher. When failure is coupled with perseverance, it produces the fruit of patience and humility. An engineer, fresh out of engineering school is typically set up for failure early and often. The failure breaks the new engineer of any ideas of self-importance, arrogance and book smarts. Only then can the new engineer be formed and molded into a productive element in the industry.


Thanks,
Bernie

The collapse of a civilization

Rome, Gibbon

There are two books that provide startling parallels to the American experiment; “The History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon and “The History of the Later Roman Empire”, by John Bury. Gibbon paints are great picture of the prominence and then fall of an empire.

Essentially, the Roman Empire decayed from within and a small push from the outside caused the whole thing to collapse. The elements of decay were:

  • Corruption in politics and business
  • Corruption in the court system (people routinely bribed judges and the judicial system)
  • Moral rot in the citizens  
  • Dependence on government
  • Economic bankruptcy (governmental and private)
  • Class system of people  (plebeians, slaves and patricians)
  • Citizens found that they could vote themselves money from the Treasury
  • A significant portion of the work force could no longer work because of drunkenness, lead poisoning or laziness.
  • Drought
  • Love of violence
  • Large portion of foreigners living in Rome, joined forces with the invading armies
  • Division between citizens and groups of citizens
  • People flaunting their ‘deviant’ behavior in the public square; bestiality, child molestation and other sexual perversions
  • Protected classes of people; Praetorian Guard  
  • Unemployment
  • Hyper-inflation
  • There were 26 emperors in a 49-year period, a signal of political instability
  • Defenseless
  • Slavery
  • No self-discipline (given to every excess imaginable)
  • Disappearance of the middle class
  • A consolidation of power by the emperors
  • Outsourced everything, including the defense of Rome
  • lack of procreation, decline of the traditional family unit
  • Christianity 

I don’t necessarily agree with all of Gibbon elements of decay; namely Christianity, but I agree with his overall thesis. 

Christianity

Regarding Christianity being a factor in the fall of Rome, Gibbon claims that Christians could be put into two camps in their contribution to the fall. He claims that Christians were either very pacifist and refused to defend the empire or they thought the empire was so corrupt that it deserved to fall and did nothing to defend Rome. “The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion. The sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age; but if superstition had not afforded a decent retreat, the same vices would have tempted the unworthy Romans to desert, from baser motives, the standard of the republic.”

John Bury disagreed with Gibbon’s contention that Christianity played a role in the Empire’s fall, “there is no reason to suppose that Christian teaching had the practical effect of making men less loyal to the Empire or less ready to defend it.”

Below are areas in which both Gibbon and Bury are in agreement.

Inflation

Rome began buying votes by handing out cheap food and entertainment, what came to be known as “bread and circuses.” But Rome didn’t have the money to do this and so they developed the ingenious plan of reducing the silver content of their silver coins, the denarius.

Although the denarius remained the backbone of the Roman economy from its introduction in 211 BC until it ceased to be normally minted in the middle of the third century, the purity of the coin decreased. The problem of debasement in the Roman economy appears to be pervasive and often paralleled the strength or weakness of the Empire. When introduced, the denarius contained nearly pure silver at a theoretical weight of approximately 4.5 grams. Nero, in 64 AD, reduced the silver content of the denarius to 3 grams.  By the time of Claudius II Gothicus (268-270 A.D.) the amount of silver in a silver denarius was only .02% and it was considered to be worthless.

Inflation was rampant and price controls were imposed in an attempt to stabilize the rate of inflation. Diocletian issued an Edict on Maximum Prices in 301, which attempted to establish the legal maximum prices that could be charged for goods and services. The attempt to establish maximum prices was an exercise in futility as maximum prices were impossible to enforce. Vendors either refused to sell items or bartered for other items of equal value.  

Decay of Morals

The Roman Empire was known to support pleasures of the body through prostitution and violence. Roman Emperors Caligula and Nero encouraged tens of thousands of prostitutes to occupy Rome by providing them with food and benefits. During PaxRomana there were 32,000 prostitutes in Rome.  These emperors were well known for having lavish parties where guests were allowed to eat and drink until they were sick and engage in orgies.

At the Coliseum, gladiators fought for sport and the poor were brought in to fight each other or face lions for no other reason than so the crowds could enjoy watching their deaths.

One contest after another was staged in the course of a single day. Should the ground become so soaked with blood that the coliseum was essentially a pool, it was covered over with a fresh layer of sand and the performances went on.

Failed business model

Rome grew in wealth and prestige utilizing two primary factors; ingenuity and conquest. Their ingenuity allowed them to build road, aqueducts, weapons and metal fabrications that were far superior to those of surrounding countries. Conquest was extremely lucrative in that much gold and treasures were brought back from the conquered regions. 

A great deal of gold and treasure were needed to maintain the spending habits in Rome. As the conquest diminished, Rome began taxing the citizens heavily to make up for the lack of looted treasure. Although Rome had ceased conquering new lands by the third century, the military expenditures grew rapidly. Additional troops were needed to defend the empire against the ever increasing raids by barbarians. This forced Rome to again increase the taxation. As a result, many citizens, especially the wealthy, left Rome in search of a lower cost of living. Eventually Rome was vacated with the exception of the military, those who lived on government handouts, politicians and those who served the politicians. 

Failed alliances

The Goths had been kept north of the Danube, but were being increasingly attacked and weakened by the Huns, and also were being attacked from the east by the Tartars. The Goths asked the Romans for help and the Emperor Valen negotiated a settlement with them. The Goths agreed to fight for and cooperate with Rome if they could seek refuge within the Empire, south of the Danube. There were 100,000 men, and including women and children, more than 200,000 refugees. They were required to give up their weapons, which distressed them since they were warriors, give some of their adults as slaves and their children were taken from them and placed with families throughout the Empire. After agreeing to all this, they were confined to camps where there was no food. The two Roman generals in charge were greedy and lined their pockets by taking bribes and selling something for nothing in return. The markets sold dogs and diseased meat for food.

Driven to desperation, the Goths rebelled and rode off to Syria.  Led by Aleric they gained strength, acquiring foodstuffs and weapons. The Goths attacked the Empire with great fury near Hadrianapolis, destroying about 2/3 of the Roman troops. 

Rome was forced then to create alliances with the Gauls and Huns to fight against the Goths. But then broke these alliances as well.  

Lead poisoning

Rome used a large amount of lead in their tools, pottery, utensils and water delivery. Roman women were noted for their use of cosmetics, which were laced with lead. Lead was also used as a contraceptive. 

Sickness and death caused by lead poisoning was rampant.  War and disease caused many regions to experience negative growth rates.

Scarcity of food

The farming was done on large estates that were owned by wealthy men who used slave labor. A small farmer who had to pay workmen could not produce goods as cheaply as the slave owner. Many small farmers could not compete with these low prices and lost or sold their farms. This not only undermined the citizen farmer, but also filled the cities with unemployed people. These people were not only a burden but also had little to do but cause trouble and contribute to an ever increasing crime rate.

Food became scarce because of drought, insects and other environmental calamities. But poor farming techniques also added to the scarcity. The wealthy land owners had no background in farming. And their slaves received no benefit from the harvest or lack of it and were unmotivated to change farming practices.   

By the third century most of the farm land was rendered useless. 

To cope with the lack of domestic production, the food had to be imported. At one time, the emperor was importing grain to feed more than 100,000 people in Rome alone. The trade imbalance became severe with most of the silver and gold leaving the empire in exchange for food.

The end

The decline of Rome started in 27 BC when Augustus Caesar declared himself Emperor and gave himself vast powers. Thus Rome, which was once ruled by its people, spiraled downward into the rule by power desperate tyrants. These tyrants were synonymous with arrogance, violence, decadence and insanity. The citizens grew to despise their rulers and resisted every mandate by their rulers.

Numerous factors, including the attacks by barbaric hordes, economic instability, environmental disasters, such as drought, corruption and moral decay all brought about an end to an empire that started as a Republic with people who were inventive, ingenious, self-disciplined and moral.

Shakespeare in “The Tragedy of Coriolanus” tackles the Fall of Rome. Rome was destined for ruin; it was attacked from without and decayed from within. Seemingly, even nature itself seemed to turn against Rome. Coriolanus is a principled and virtuous general who leads his army to attack and purge Rome of evil and thereby restore the order of all things. “Your dishonor,” he tells Brutus, “Mangles true judgment, and bereaves the state of that integrity which should become it.”  Coriolanus claims that Rome had violated nature, God and it’s fellow man and that God’s masterwork convulses in order to set things right again. However, Coriolanus was killed in an evil scheme by those who had benefited from corruption and as a result Rome couldn’t be saved from itself. 

I believe that God blesses a country that promotes moral principles and Biblical ideas for living. As the country degenerated into moral bankruptcy God removed his hand of blessing. All efforts during the third century to prolong the empire failed, not because they weren’t as smart as earlier generations, but because they lacked virtue God no longer blessed it. 

"The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident and removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious: and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long." Gibbon

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