Sunday Reader January 18, 2009  

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Astronomy
Unusual Light Pillars Over Latvia



In the Shadow of Saturn



Largest Moon of 2009 Over the Alps



Economy
U.S. mortgage meltdown linked to 2005 bankruptcy law
Before Congress passed the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, households could erase their unsecured debts by filing for Chapter 7 liquidation. That freed up income that distressed homeowners could use to make mortgage payments.

The new law, however, forced better-off households seeking bankruptcy protection to file under Chapter 13. That chapter requires homeowners to continue paying their unsecured lenders.

In other words, say the Fed researchers, cash-strapped homeowners who might have saved their homes by filing Chapter 7 are now much more likely to face foreclosure.


Games
Dawn of War II beta coming January 21
The release date for Dawn of War II, the sequel to the excellent Warhammer-themed RTS developed by Relic, is slowly approaching, with the game expected to hit store shelves in late February. Relic has announced that excited players will soon have a chance to test-drive the game prior to the release with the official beta.

A new year brings with it more bad video game legislation
Meanwhile, over in New York, Wright's bill seems to be banking on the concept that video games that contain profanity or racism can adversely affect youngsters. The goal of the law is to, "[prohibit] the sale to minors of certain rated video games containing a rating that reflects content of various degrees of profanity, racist stereotypes or derogatory language, and/or actions toward a specific group of persons."

Government
Atheism and the Pledge
Saying “under Allah” would seem to imply that a certain view of God, the Muslim one, was more right, and that all others were less right. This American Christians could never tolerate. And so on and so forth. Once you start thinking in collectivist terms, there’s no end to the petty exclusion games you can play. That’s why it’s better not to have a pledge at all.

The words “under God” also have a history to them. They were added during the McCarthy era in part to indicate that atheists are not true Americans. What’s humdrum compulsory unity to everyone else is actually your declaration that I, Jason Kuznicki, am not a proper citizen. That’s what you’re really saying, every time you take the Pledge.


International
Afghan Girls, Scarred by Acid, Defy Terror, Embracing School
“My parents told me to keep coming to school even if I am killed,” said Shamsia, 17, in a moment after class. Shamsia’s mother, like nearly all of the adult women in the area, is unable to read or write. “The people who did this to me don’t want women to be educated. They want us to be stupid things.”

In the five years since the Mirwais School for Girls was built here by the Japanese government, it appears to have set off something of a social revolution. Even as the Taliban tighten their noose around Kandahar, the girls flock to the school each morning. Many of them walk more than two miles from their mud-brick houses up in the hills.


Nonbelieving Literati
Lying
Is justice a lie? Are we lying to ourselves when we think that there exists a true notion of justice? Mercy, charity, morality -- are these lies? If so, then they are lies which make all our lives better and happier and more worthwhile, and my commitment to the truth must be hampered by my love and respect for such notions. But perhaps they are not lies. Perhaps we can say that morality and charity and justice exist because we believe in them. They are ideas, and ideas exist only in the human mind as a matter of course.

Of Myths and Mailmen
Reading The Postman gave me a new appreciation for the potential benefits of myths. Given my history with religious mythologies, I’ve been very suspicious of myths since my enlightenment and have been leery of considering the possibility that humanist myths may serve useful purposes. My shifting thoughts about this issue are nascent and require much more development, but I think I’m ready to start thinking about the matter now.

NL: The Postman
Still, the ideas that Brin is exploring are still valid. The short-term predictions didn't come true and the militias aren't quite the force they used to be pre-Waco, but the ambiance of this shattered world is authentic. Feudal serfdom, male dominance, warring bandit chiefs - all the enemies of Civilization - they could certainly emerge. (Once, decades ago, I read a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, which one I can't recall, that had a line in it I'll paraphrase: When survival came to sharing, the British queued up - and survived.) So the question Brin is asking here is: What is it in America that supports Civilization, and what fights it - and how can we best harness the former to defeat the latter?

The Post-apocalyptic-man
Given that all it would take to trigger an (entirely non-biblical) Armageddon is one fundaloony with their finger on a big red button (and the “Palin 2012” stickers, whilst ironic, are also pretty scary), it might behove us to give some thought to the possibility of post-holocaust survival. Step up, David Brin’s The Postman, which places its hero in the middle of an apocalyptic America where technology is all but dead and the population have been reduced to medieval squalor. What useful lessons can we glean from Gordon’s experience in this blasted landscape?

Philosophy
On the Morality of: Patriotism
The existence of countries aids moral progress in another way: it makes it possible to advance one step at a time. At this point in human history, if we were to try to unite the human race under one banner, the sure result would be either crippling stagnation or brutal autocracy. No other kind of government would be able to accommodate (or, in the case of autocracy, to trample over) the impossibly broad and complex range of desires and concerns among different groups of people. Having separate countries allows some issues to be tabled so that we can focus on the rest. (For an example of what happens when you try to take everyone's wants into account at once, consider the United Nations, which is well-intentioned but mired in diplomatic gridlock on virtually every issue of importance.) As well, it limits the power of despots and demagogues, however successful they may be at home, by creating boundaries beyond which they hold no sway.

Born of Amalek
I understand a siege upon their old enemy. We killed them often to preserve our place in this land. But I am wise enough to know–since this time they even kill our animals–that this is no war for land or resource. They kill from hate. They break every potshard, shaped with the loving hands of mothers and wives and inscribed with the thoughtful knife of the archivist. A swift motion breaks each pot, and the memories are gone. Our mark upon this land will be severed forever.

Religion
The Insecurity of Religious Faith
One would think that if their particular Faith was supportable by commonsense evidence, they would not need daily or weekly meetings to reinforce that Faith. They wouldn’t need a pastor, minister or priest, nor a religious hierarchy setting up rules and commandments designed to keep them in line. The existence of their god(s), and the Faith they placed in them, would be obvious. If their god(s) existed, there would be hard evidence of that fact. They wouldn’t need to be herded as if flocks of sheep, to use a Christian metaphor. Certainly, I have no need to attend weekly meetings of the Sun church to maintain my belief that it will rise tomorrow. The evidence all around me is there for the picking.

Science
Chemical replicators
Now you might be saying, "But these are designed enzymes, created by a couple of intelligent scientists!" Not quite. They started with a very rough sequence, one that inefficiently catalyzed an A + B → E sort of reaction, but that not only worked slowly, but also produced faulty products that eventually killed the reaction after a few cycles. Then they tweaked it to form a minus-strand enzyme, and then they subjected both the plus and minus strand forms to — natural selection! They made copies with mutagenic PCR (so they had a range of random variants), ran it through several cycles of in vitro selection for more efficient forms, and ended up with two RNA enzymes that were good at building copies of each other.

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