Ben Hur

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

The 1959 film version Ben Hur cost MGM $15 million to make — in 1959 dollars, over $100 million in today’s money — won a record 11 Oscars, sold ninety-eight million tickets in the United States, and was the only Hollywood movie to make the Vatican’s official list of approved religious films — and thus enjoyed nowhere near the success of the 1880 novel:

Since its first publication, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ has never been out of print. It outsold every book except the Bible until Gone With the Wind came out in 1936, and resurged to the top of the list again in the 1960s. By 1900 it had been printed in thirty-six English-language editions and translated into twenty others, including Indonesian and Braille.

Victorians who swore off novels because of their immoral influence eagerly picked up Ben-Hur — were even encouraged to by their pastors. It became required reading in grade schools across the United States.

For those who considered theater sinful, the spectacle of the Broadway version lured them in for twenty-one years, not to mention the touring show that required four entire trains to transport all the scenery and livestock. More than twenty million people saw Ben-Hur on stage between 1899 and 1920, complete with live horses running on hidden treadmills to recreate the chariot race. One reverend from San Francisco, who had never attended a play, was finally tempted into seeing the much-hyped production. He described the experience as both “delightful and disappointing,” noting the clunky stagecraft and stilted acting. Yet he was won over enough to declare that he would return to the theater again.

The book made Lew Wallace a celebrity, sought out for speaking engagements, political endorsements, and newspaper interviews.

Wallace was an interesting character himself:

“I would not give a tuppence for the American who has not at least tried to do one of three things,” Wallace told a New York Times reporter in 1893. “That person lacks the true American spirit who has not tried to paint a picture, write a book, or get out a patent on something.” Or, he added, “tried to play some musical instrument. There you have the genius of the true American in those four — art, literature, invention, music.”

Not coincidentally, Lew Wallace himself excelled at all four. Besides being a Civil War hero, the governor of New Mexico, and later the ambassador to Turkey, the Indiana native made and played his own violins, sketched and painted with skill, and held eight patents for various inventions, including a retractable reel hidden inside a fishing rod handle. But it was in literature that Wallace truly made his mark. He is the only novelist honored in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol. With a life full of distinctions, none of Wallace’s accomplishments made such an impression as his novel Ben-Hur.

Uncorrected Evidence 39

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

Reality, as the faithful know it, has torn itself asunder, Mencius Moldbug asserts, as demonstrated by something innocuously called Uncorrected Evidence 39:

Briefly, reality as the faithful know it has torn itself asunder. All trust in authority is shattered. The Donation of Constantine is a medieval forgery; the Pope is a woman; the Archmonk, in the Tomb of Buddha’s Thumb, has found a dried-up gibbon toe. Otherwise, nothing is wrong at all. Your garbage will still be picked up tomorrow morning.

But the Institute of Physics, which is only the national physics society of the country that invented physics, has submitted its public comment to Parliament’s CRU inquiry — posted as Uncorrected Evidence 39. Which starts like this:

1. The Institute is concerned that, unless the disclosed e-mails are proved to be forgeries or adaptations, worrying implications arise for the integrity of scientific research in this field and for the credibility of the scientific method as practised in this context.

Wow! (And note that no one has claimed that the emails are forged.) If you are unfamiliar with bureaucratic prose, this is extremely strong language. Basically, the IOP is demanding heads. And not just a professor or two, but the entire field.
[...]
Therefore, UE39 poses an immediate practical problem to the entire journalism industry. At least as presently constituted, it is not constitutionally equipped for any of the following tasks: (a) arguing with physicists about physics; (b) agreeing that Rush Limbaugh was right; (c) embarking on a savage, McCarthy-style purge of climate science; or (d) ignoring matters entirely.
[...]
The University and the Press are power junkies. They rule. They know it. Ceasing to rule, they must cease to exist: this is history’s law. And their rule is a consequence of their legitimacy, which is a consequence of their perceived infallibility — or, to be more precise, their tendency to converge automatically on the truth.

Why America Needs Religion

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

Guenter Lewy, author of Why America Needs Religion, is not religious; he’s an atheist who is sympathetic to traditional religion. Peter Taylor, who reviews Why America Needs Religion, is not religious either; he’s also an atheist who is sympathetic to traditional religion. Taylor opens his review with this summary:

I had lunch this past Tuesday with a militant atheist friend, and it left me in a sour mood. Please forgive me for painting with a broad brush. Theoretically, there is no reason why atheists can’t teach morality and socialize children well. However, in practice, Christians have been taking this problem seriously for ~2000 years. In contrast, atheists have shown up late to the game, and too often with a cavalier attitude.

The short version: regardless of whatever you may think of Mormon theology, statistically, they’re doing something right.

Human intelligence is like the human eye, Taylor reminds us:

There are blind spots. Religion, when it’s working correctly, orients the mind’s eye so that the blind spot points in a direction that doesn’t matter very much. Atheism doesn’t cure blindness, it merely allows the blind spot to be oriented in whatever direction is currently fashionable.

Legalize Dud Drugs

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

We should legalize dud drugs, Robin Hanson says, citing John Bradbury:

According to Engber['s article], Human Growth Hormone (HGH or GH) has little to no performance enhancing-benefits.… I have the benefit of working down the hall from several exercise physiologists. I forwarded [his] article to my colleague, John McLester.… “Oh yeah, I agree with [Engber]. This isn’t even controversial in exercise physiology.… There is no evidence of [benefit from bigger muscles]. It seems that the muscle that is developed is abnormal and not mature. I’ll point you to some studies (see below).…

Bradbury adds this interpretation:

The illegality of growth hormone actually promotes its use in sports.… The banning of a drug by anti-doping authorities sends a loud and incorrect signal that it works.… Therefore, I believe that legalizing growth hormone is needed to send the signal that it doesn’t work, largely to undo the widespread common belief that growth hormone does improve performance.… Think of the powerful effect it would have if MLB pulled growth hormone off its banned list. I can’t imagine a more powerful signal of a drug’s lack of potency as a performance enhancer. If we are going to be paternalists, let’s be effective paternalists.

Commenter Violet immediately made the point I was going to make:

Lots of non-performance incrementing drugs are banned in sports like e.g. finasteride. Another example would be Clomifene (which is used for recovery from anabolic steroids and block effects of estrogen).

It is quite widely known that HGH alone or in very large doses does not help performance (and may actually decrease it). However it may make training with anabolic agents more effective.

Making the Whole Nation Averse to Labour

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

The strength of a nation can decline as its wealth rises:

Never, perhaps, was the decline of a nation’s strength coincident with the increase of its wealth (using “wealth” not in its primary sense of “weal” or “wellbeing,” but in its now usual sense of “riches”) more signally exemplified than in the case of Athens. As the power of Athens extended, and brought tribute from her subject States, the Athenians thus obtained the means of living without labour, and of amusing themselves with poets, painters, sculptors, and orators.

The same thing happens, indeed, more or less in the case of every State, as its revenue becomes great. Those who enjoy its revenues become rich, and can afford to devote themselves wholly to amusement. But the result, when those who, in the capacity of sovereign, divide the revenue among them constitute the whole nation, as at Athens, has the effect of making the whole nation averse to labour, and, it would seem, also averse to danger.

To use the illustration of Socrates, they are crammed with ports, and docks, and fortifications, and revenues, till they are in a state of bloated repletion, and are neither so healthy nor so strong as when they had no foreign revenues, and a small town so unfortified that they considered it indefensible against the host of the Persians. The result, according to the testimony of Plato, who had the best means of being well-informed on the matter, was to make the Athenians idlers and cowards.

How Big Was It?

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

The people of the village of Quenuir, in Chile, have a saying about the 1960 earthquake:

El maremoto fue tan grande que hasta los muertos sacó de sus tumbas. “The tsunami was so big that it even took the dead from their graves.”

The tsunami that followed the 1960 Chile earthquake killed 105 people from Quenuir — a quarter of the village’s population. In addition to this loss of the living, Quenuir lost many of its dead. The village cemetery was located on sandy ground that the tsunami washed away. Debris from the cemetery came to rest more than 3 miles upriver. There, just outside La Pasada, Tulio Ruiz found crosses and a full casket.

Expect Many Waves

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

We often hear stories of a tsunami wiping out a beach, but anyone near the beach should expect many waves:

Just after 10 p.m. on May 22, 1960, seismologist Jerry Eaton and four companions assembled at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on the Island of Hawai’i. Gathering cameras, notebooks, flashlights, and steel measuring tapes, they piled into a Ford station wagon for the 30-mile ride down to Hilo. There they hoped to measure the 1960 Chilean tsunami, which was expected to arrive at about midnight.

The men had good reason to measure this tsunami. Hawai’i had been struck in the past by deadly tsunamis, including ones from Chile in 1837 and 1877 and one from the Aleutian Islands in 1946 that in Hilo alone killed 98 people. Measurements of past tsunamis are commonly used to help identify areas at risk from future tsunamis. Measurements had been made in Hawaii of Aleutian tsunamis, but little was known about the heights of tsunamis from Chile.

In Hilo, Mr. Eaton and his companions stopped to clear their plans with the police and then drove to the Wailuku River Bridge, on the shore of Hilo Bay. They knew that the 1946 Aleutian tsunami had destroyed the bridge there. The men set up an observation post on the new bridge and began measuring the water level beneath it. Just in case, they also planned their own evacuation route, a short sprint to high ground.

Just after midnight, the water under the bridge rose to 4 feet above normal-the first wave of the tsunami had arrived. At 12:46 a.m., the second wave washed under the bridge at a level 9 feet above normal. By 1:00 a.m., the water beneath the bridge had dropped to 7 feet below normal. Mr. Eaton recalls that they then heard an ominous noise, a faint rumble like a distant train, that came from the darkness far out in Hilo Bay. Two minutes later, they began to see the source of the noise, a pale wall of tumbling water, caught in the dim lights of Hilo. The wave grew in height as it moved steadily toward the city, and the noise became deafening.


By 1:04 a.m., the men on the bridge realized that they should run the few hundred feet to high ground. Turning around, they watched the 20-foot-high, nearly vertical front of the wave hit the bridge, and water splashed high into the air. After this wave had passed and they thought it was safe, Mr. Eaton and his companions returned to the bridge and continued to record the water level during several more waves of the tsunami.

More than a Little Shaking

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

Fifty years ago, José Argomedo, then 22 years old, was living on a farm outside Maullín, Chile, when he heard that the Cold War might turn hot:

Early in May 1960, the big news was the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union — a Soviet missile had downed an American spy plane. On May 18, the Soviet leader, Nikita Khruschev, suggested treating the United States like a cat that had stolen cream. “Wouldn’t it be better,” he said, “to take the American aggressors by the scruff of the neck also and give them a little shaking?”

A few days later, on the afternoon of May 22, while out riding his horse, Mr. Argomedo felt more than a little shaking. As the ground beneath him shook hard for several minutes, he was forced to get off his horse. Mr. Argomedo thought the Cold War had turned hot. However, like everyone else in the area of Maullín, Quenuir, and La Pasada, he was actually living through a magnitude 9.5 earthquake, the largest ever measured.

Mr. Argomedo was on high ground during the hours that followed the earthquake. However, many other residents of the area were not, and 122 were killed by the ensuing tsunami.

Thoughts on Commercials

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

Steve Sailer has been watching the Winter Olympics and has some thoughts on commercials:

Speaking of commercials, why don’t advertisers make slight variants of their commercials to keep people from completely zoning out the 73rd time they’ve seen it? They shoot way more footage than they use, so why not whip up alternative versions to keep viewers awake during the Olympics?

Here’s an easy way to keep siblings competitively engaged: shoot three or four different punchlines and then make one slight variation in each version’s set-up shots. That way, somebody who is paying close attention will be able to achieve dominance over the rest of his family by accurately predicting the punchline. It will drive his siblings crazy, so they will also study the commercials looking for clues so they can beat him to the punchline.

Also, advertising agencies keep missing the sweet spot between too boring and too interesting that you don’t notice what brand is being advertised. A lot of prestige ads that run on the Olympics are so expensive, so filled with show-offy scenes from around the world that you often lose the thread before they finally flash the sponsor’s logo for 0.8 seconds at the end. I’m sure those kind of ads win awards — nobody loves to give awards to each other more than advertising people — but are they really effective at selling whatever sponsor that’s revealed at the very end? Especially when the stylistic theme of countless commercials is exactly the same: Despite, or perhaps because of, global diversity, everybody on Earth loves us.
[...]
Instead, why not borrow a trick from cable networks that keep a small logo up on a lower corner of the screen? Hey, this show is on the Discovery Channel! I’ll have to try to remember that. Similarly, put the sponsor’s logo in the corner throughout the commercial. Your ad won’t win any awards and your ad agency might get sanctioned by the Advertising Council for violating the professional ethics of the advertising business by being overly attentive to the client’s interests instead of to your own sense of creative self-expression, but, so what?

Space: The Final Frontier of Profit?

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

I would not rush to call space the final frontier of profit:

Companies and investors are realizing that everything we hold of value — metals, minerals, energy and real estate — are in near-infinite quantities in space. As space transportation and operations become more affordable, what was once seen as a wasteland will become the next gold rush. Alaska serves as an excellent analogy. Once thought of as “Seward’s Folly” (Secretary of State William Seward was criticized for overpaying the sum of $7.2 million to the Russians for the territory in 1867), Alaska has since become a billion-dollar economy.

The same will hold true for space. For example, there are millions of asteroids of different sizes and composition flying throughout space. One category, known as S-type, is composed of iron, magnesium silicates and a variety of other metals, including cobalt and platinum. An average half-kilometer S-type asteroid is worth more than $20 trillion.

An average half-kilometer S-type asteroid is worth more than $20 trillion? An average half-kilometer S-type asteroid, if it’s a 500-meter-diameter sphere, is 65 million cubic meters in volume and, at 3000 kg/m3, 2×1011 kg in mass — 200 million metric tons. So a “valuable” asteroid is worth $100,000 per metric ton. That’s 200 times the value of slate here on earth — which doesn’t seem like it would justify the freight costs.

Earthquake Magnitude

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

Last night’s 8.8-magnitude earthquake was much, much bigger than the 7.0-magnitude quake that hit Haiti recently. If you remember your 8th-grade science, the Richter scale is not a linear scale — it’s a log10 scale — so an 8.8-magnitude quake is not 1.26 times as big as a 7.0 quake — it’s 63 times as big.

Of course, that depends on our definition of big. The Richter scale measures amplitude. In terms of total energy released though, each point on the Richter scale implies not just a factor of 10, but a factor of 31.6 — so the recent Chilean quake released 500 times the energy of the Haiti quake.

By the way, we don’t actually use the Richter scale for such large earthquakes; we use its successor, the less colorfully named moment magnitude scale.

Even fairly light earthquakes (magnitude 4.6 or higher) can be detected by seismographs from around the world; thousands occur per year. Major earthquakes (magnitude 7.0 or higher) are rare, but not that rare; about 18 occur per year. Great earthquakes (magnitude 8.0 or higher) are not nearly as rare as you might think; on average, one occurs per year.

The largest recorded earthquake was the Great Chilean Earthquake of May 22, 1960 which had a magnitude of 9.5 — and which occurred not far from last night’s quake.

Idlers, Cowards, and Gossips

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

The poison of the orators worked rapidly on Athenian democracy:

Pericles first introduced the practice of paying the Athenians for attending at the public assemblies, and hearing him harangue. Plato, by the mouth of Socrates in his dialogue the “Gorgias,” thus describes the consequences of this measure: “I hear it said,” says Socrates, “that Pericles made the Athenians idlers, and cowards, and gossips, and covetous; being the first who established the system of wages.” The Athenian sovereign multitude found it far pleasanter to be paid for listening to Pericles than to earn an honest subsistence by any sort of labour; and they also found it very far pleasanter to hire foreign mercenaries to fight their battles than to fight those battles themselves; in fact, without going farther than the evidence of those very orators, the public orations of Demosthenes afford abundant proof that, in his time, the Athenian government had fallen into a condition of hopeless imbecility.

The Last Four Minutes of Air France Flight 447

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Investigators have pieced together the last four minutes of Air France Flight 447:

Air France flight 447 had been in the air for three hours and 40 minutes since taking off from Rio de Janeiro on the evening of May 31, 2009. Strong turbulence had been shaking the plane for half an hour, and all but the hardiest frequent flyers were awake.
Suddenly the gauge indicating the external temperature rose by several degrees, even though the plane was flying at an altitude of 11 kilometers (36,000 feet) and it hadn’t got any warmer outside. The false reading was caused by thick ice crystals forming on the sensor on the outside of the plane. These crystals had the effect of insulating the detector. It now appears that this is when things started going disastrously wrong.


Flying through thunderclouds over the Atlantic, more and more ice was hurled at the aircraft. In the process, it knocked out other, far more important, sensors: the pencil-shaped airspeed gauges known as pitot tubes.

One alarm after another lit up the cockpit monitors. One after another, the autopilot, the automatic engine control system, and the flight computers shut themselves off. “It was like the plane was having a stroke,” says Gérard Arnoux, the head of the French pilots union SPAF.

The final minutes of flight AF 447 had begun. Four minutes after the airspeed indicator failed, the plane plunged into the ocean, killing all 228 people on board.

A Gallant and Well-Exercised Militia

Friday, February 26th, 2010

At one point, Athens had a gallant and well-exercised militia:

The Athenian system of military training was never, at its best time, to be compared for excellence to the Spartan. Yet the result at Marathon, and on many other occasions, proved that in its earlier and better days, the Athenian armed force well deserved the description of a “gallant and well-exercised militia.” The fact, too, of such a citizen as Socrates serving repeatedly as a private soldier, proves that then the soldier-citizen system was effectually carried out.

At the siege of Potidaea, Socrates won the prize of valour, but voluntarily yielded it to his pupil Alcibiades. Alcibiades himself confessed that he owed his life to Socrates; and that in a certain action, where he was severely wounded, Socrates alone prevented both his person and his arms from falling into the hands of the enemy. At the battle of Delium, during the Peloponnesian war, where the Athenians were defeated by the Boeotians, Socrates also behaved with the greatest bravery; and it is said that he saved the life of Xenophon, who had fallen from his horse: Strabo says he carried him several furlongs, till he was out of danger. After the battle, as Socrates was retiring with Laches and Alcibiades, he told them that he had just received an admonition not to follow the road that most of their men had taken. They who continued in that road were pursued by the enemy’s cavalry, who, coming up with them, killed many on the spot, and took the others prisoners; while Socrates, who had taken another route, arrived safe at Athens with those who accompanied him.

The division of labour had not then reached that point when philosophers and politicians could sit in whole skins at home, and with a “dastardly spurt of the pen,” or as dastardly a wag of the tongue, send their brethren forth to battles, the dangers of which they did not share.

But if the time for such division of labour had not then actually come, it was fast coming, and was very near at hand. The poison of the orators was rapidly doing its work upon the Athenian democracy; and we have the testimony of Plato for the fatal effect it produced during the course of one generation.

Between Sea Vessels and Cargo Planes

Friday, February 26th, 2010

The US Navy is mulling the return of airships, because they fit a niche within the wide gap between sea vessels and cargo planes:

But the time premium you pay for airship travel buys you several advantages: airships are highly fuel-efficient for a ton-mile; as long as they avoid storms, they endure few stresses in flight, affording them extremely long service lives; they can be scaled up to a very, very large size at low cost compared to airplanes.

Hat tip to John Noonan — who dismisses the whole idea:

Led Zepplin will make a comeback before military zepplins ever do.