What was the Star?

Friday, 24 December 2004, 16:50 | Category : Stargazing
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Other than the Virgin Birth, perhaps the most significant aspect of the Christmas story is the Star of Bethlehem. For many Christians, it’s enough to simply believe there was a magical event in the skies. But there is nothing about the story to deny the possibility that this was a natural event, one that was perhaps interpreted by some as having supernatural meaning. And if you look at astronomical happenings in the period around 3-2 BC, there are several possibilities. Maybe the most likely concerns the planets Jupiter and Venus. From August 3BC through the winter and spring of 2BC, Jupiter (known as the King planet) had danced with the star Regulus (as it was known by the Romans, meaning “Regal”), or Sharu as it was known to the Babylonians, meaning “King”. Because of the way the outer planets (Mars out to Pluto) move in relation to the Earth, at certain times these planets will appear to move slowly backwards through the sky over a period of several weeks, then move forward again. So over a period of several months, Jupiter caught up to Regulus, passed it, appeared to turn around and pass it going the other way, the passed it again, each time passing very close to the star, and even appearing to merge with it. It would have followed this with a conjunction (conjunction is the apparent meeting of two astronomical objects) with the planet Venus (known as the Mother planet) on June 17, 2BC, also very near the star Regulus, and visible primarily in the Middle East.

Stop for a moment and think about how bright Venus often appears in the morning or evening sky. It shines with a clear, white light, and is the brightest object in the sky except for the Sun and Moon. Jupiter is generally the next brightest object (after Venus). These two appearing to merge would have created an extremely bright evening star, and given that the astrologers (or magi) of the time constantly read the skies for portents of the future, it is easy to imagine this being interpreted as the birth of a king, and it’s position in the sky would have steered those in the area we know as Iraq and Iran towards the west. I’m not saying this was definitely the Star of Bethlehem. There were other possible astronomical events in the period from about 6BC until 1 or 2 AD that could also qualify. I’m just pointing out that there were things happening around this time that were fairly rare, and would certainly have been noticed by those who watched the skies. And so I leave you with a simple Merry Christmas, Peace, Goodwill to men and women everywhere.

It’s Cold!

Friday, 24 December 2004, 10:12 | Category : Weather
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It’s 9:30 Friday morning, and it’s 24F outside. It’s been cold for a couple of days now, since the temperature plunged from 55F to 35F in 30 minutes late Wednesday afternoon. Since it went below 32F around 7PM Wednesday night, it hasn’t gotten above freezing. OK, I know some of you live in northern states like Illinois and Wisconsin and Utah and Canada, and you guys have cold weather all the time, like from September until June. That’s your problem. I can’t help that. Here’s the deal – it’s cold here! And in Mississippi, that creates a bit of a problem. See, we really don’t know what to do about it. We have this vague idea we should put on a coat. For most of us, that coat is something akin to a lined windbreaker. So we do that, and we’re still cold. Some of us even think a hat should be involved, but for most Mississippians, a hat means a baseball cap with ‘Mississippi State’ or ‘Ole Miss’ written on the front, or maybe “John Deere”. And so we put that on, and we’re still cold. And I’m talking about temperatures of 40 degrees! So, when the temperature goes below freezing, and stays there, the result is a sort of weather anarchy. And two things happen: you go wrap rags around your outdoor water faucet, because mama called and asked if you had done that, and then you go to the grocery store and buy lots of food. It’s like a funeral, when Southerners don’t know exactly what they should do, they start cooking. We may freeze, but the people who find us will eat well. Beyond that, we’re pretty much at a loss. We stop doing anything outside, other than racing to our cars if we do have to go somewhere. We turn the heater up and huddle under blankets, like survivors of some Ice Age catastrophe. And we wonder why anybody in their right mind would live north of Memphis.

Free Trade. Free? Maybe Not. Good? Maybe Not.

Tuesday, 21 December 2004, 16:29 | Category : Politics
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Dave’s reacting to an article by Matt Yglesias (the link for which, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be working) about free trade. Dave’s pointing out a few problems with free trade, and they’re good points. I’ve gone back and forth about free trade – if it can really be done better and cheaper elsewhere, maybe we should let that happen and move on to something we can do better ourselves. But how good is that for our society? Nations are nations because of borders. Not just physical borders, but boundaries that define many different aspects of a political or economic entity. Immigration laws are one type of boundary, an attempt to define a nation in terms of citizenship and residency. The legal system is another such boundary, borders defined in law that establish a set of behaviors that must occur within the physical borders of a nation. Trade laws and regulations are another such boundary. In a sense, these are part of the legal system, but in a larger sense, they represent economic borders, an abstract geography within which business is transacted according to certain rules. Free trade is then equivalent to an open immigration policy, where you are handing over a portion of your sovereignty to another political entity. I have to note here that free trade as I’m using the term may not be, and probably isn’t, as unfettered a concept as that actually envisioned by free trade advocates. But in moving towards free trade, as we did with NAFTA, we give up a degree of control over our economy. I’m not saying that is necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to be considered alongside the computation of profits and losses and jobs and tariffs. If South Transylvania is producing most of the wokkawidgets we use, replacing our own wokkawidget manufacturers, then we’ve abrogated any say on whether environmental standards related to wokkawidget manufacturing are followed. If we don’t want iron ore from Yakkabokkastan used in wokkawidget manufacturing, because the Yakkabokkastan is ruled by a non-benevolent despot who puts moldy rice in his subject’s oatmeal, we don’t really have any control over whether South Transylvania uses Yakkabokka iron ore, unless we have some sort of punitive response in place regarding imports, which, of course, wouldn’t be free trade. So free trade isn’t really free. It just doesn’t always have a calculable cost.

Just Say “Merry Christmas”, OK?

Sunday, 19 December 2004, 21:01 | Category : Other Stuff
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I hate to argue with Kevin Drum, but this is something that I’ve been thinking about lately. And I’m not trying to make this out to be a strident attack on Christianity, like some are doing. But it seems like more and more, businesses and organizations are using “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays”, and almost straining to avoid saying “Merry Christmas”. Are we, as a society, really so committed to making this into a bland winter break? Yes, Christmas has been over-commercialized. and yes, the Santa Claus Christmas has become almost a separate-but-equal counterpart to the Bethlehem Christmas. But at the root of both is the story of the birth of a little child, an event that, whether or not you choose to ascribe to the beliefs that arose from that birth, has at least partially determined the course of Western civilization since. And so we’re left with the spectacle of schools banning religious songs and references from school plays, and towns banning Nativity scenes from Christmas displays. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in the separation of church and state. But if you’re going to observe Christmas, you can’t do it without admitting there is a religious aspect to the occasion. Yes, I know that the date of Christmas was probably chosen to coincide with the date of pagan mid-winter holidays. But if you want to claim some “a priori” justification, there’s still a religious element. And I wonder if some of those so offended by the inclusion of Christian symbols would be similarly offended by Druidic symbols. It does seem sometimes that the only religious displays that bother people are Christian in nature.

For me, it’s pretty simple – if you choose to celebrate Christmas, then part of what you celebrate is the cultural acceptance of the Christian myth – and by myth, I mean John Ruskin’s definition: “A myth, in its simplest definition, is a story with a meaning attached to it other than it seems to have at first; and the fact that it has such a meaning is generally marked by some of its circumstances being extraordinary, or, in the common use of the word, unnatural.” Without the story of a Jewish boy being born in a small village two millennia ago, there would be no holiday as we know it. That’s the one reality of Christmas Day.

In Which Harry Rants About Hummer H1s, H2s, and the SUT

Friday, 17 December 2004, 11:41 | Category : Other Stuff
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Mark at The Bemusement Park notes an unflattering review of the new Hummer SUT.

I hate the Hummers, H1, H2, SUT. They, to me, represent everything that is worst about contemporary American values – big, heavy, wasteful, inefficient, of poor quality, and as I’ve said before, something that only an American ad marketer could convince an American consumer to buy. I watched the other day as a woman driving, not a Hummer but a weight-class contender SUV, tried to dock her rolling behemoth in a mall parking lot. She couldn’t maneuver the thing well enough to go straight in to the parkingspace, so she went back and forth, back and forth, trying to get the angle down so she could open her door and get out. Meanwhile, carswere stacked up in both directions, and eventually the traffic back-up extended into the cross lanes in the lot. It took her something on the order of 5 minutes to get parked. And the resulting angular position left the car beside her blocked in unless they were willing to scrape their car against her. At that point, I realized the solution – we should require a separate license to drive a vehicle over a certain size and weight. Maybe not a commercial license, but a certified license that required a driving and maneuver test in one of these. And there should be no tax subsidy for these beasts!!

I hate these things.