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Earthquakes, hurricanes, and providence

A spire atop the Washington National Cathedral shows damage following an earthquake along the eastern United States, August 23, 2011 (Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed)Is God angry at the East Coast? As you know, a magnitude-5.8 earthquake rocked the region on Tuesday, sending tremors as far south as North Carolina, as far north as Buffalo and Boston, and as far west as Detroit. Now the area is preparing for Hurricane Irene, a storm with the capacity to produce six to ten inches of rain, lashing the region with damaging wind gusts and heavy surf.

What is going on? Jonathan Turley, a legal scholar at George Washington University, noted tongue-in-cheek that the earthquake's epicenter was in the district of Republican Congressman Eric Cantor, who has tried to cut the budget of the United States Geological Service. With Irene approaching, Turley is worried since Cantor also defended cuts to the National Weather Service budget.

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Amish photos and ancient bacteria

Amish family riding in a traditional Amish buggy in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Credit: Utente:TheCadExpert via en.wikipedia.org)Two disparate news items caught my eye today. The first is a bill signed by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn that provides for state identification cards without photographs. Why provide an I.D. card without an identifying photo?

It turns out the state has a large Amish population. The Amish consider posing for photographs to be an act of pride. They allow non-Amish to photograph their homes, farms, and buggies, but these do not help much on an I.D. card. Now the state will issue them an identification document without a photo. Some suggest creating a non-public data base in the future using fingerprints rather than photos.

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Did 9/11 make us more religious?

Tribute of Light memorial September 11, 2004 (Credit: Derek Jensen via en.wikipedia.org)"9/11 traced new spiritual lines," according to an article on this morning's USA Today website. Is America a more spiritual nation as a result of the worst terrorist attack in our history? Yes and no, it seems.

On the positive: the religious have apparently become more religious. A Pew Research poll in December 2001 found that those who said they prayed or worshiped more after 9/11 were people who were already the most religious. Denominational leaders have begun new efforts at interfaith dialogue, seeking to lessen religious tensions.

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The future of the Middle East

Israeli security officers patrol at a roadblock near Tzihor junction, about 60km (37 miles) north of the Red Sea resort o Eilat, August 18, 2011 (Credit: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun)A five-month-old uprising in Syria has led to calls by the United States and other nations for President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Thousands of Syrians took to the streets last Friday; at least four protesters were reportedly killed by security forces.

If you were to throw darts at a map of the Middle East, every country you would hit is in turmoil this morning. Israel is dealing with fallout from last Thursday's attacks which killed six Israeli tourists and a soldier. On Israel's southwest border, Hamas is in the news as a result of these attacks. Its official charter, ratified in 1988, calls for the destruction of Israel and raising "the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine."

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Replacing your brain

This image can be found all over the web by searching for images using the search phrase: xray of Homer Simpson brainThis headline caught my eye today: "IBM produces first 'brain chips.'" The company claims that it has developed a microprocessor which comes closer than ever to recreating the emotion, perception, sensation, and cognition of our brains.

The problem with artificial intelligence has been that it cannot replicate our ability to learn by creating new synaptic connections between brain cells. A machine cannot solder and break its electrical tracks. IBM claims that its new processor comes close, however, by paying more and less "attention" to signals based on their relevance to existing and new tasks. Skeptics are cautious, arguing that true cognition requires a level of consciousness unavailable through mere adaptation.

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