Driving the conversation: The east coast of the United States is bracing itself for a pounding from Hurricane Irene, expected to hit on Saturday. North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut have all declared a state of emergency.

While the dangers to residents are worrisome, some commentators are wondering whether the economic damage wrought by the hurricane might make for its most devastating impact. Oil prices have already risen on the news that refinery closures could disrupt supply on the east coast.

New York Times statistician Nate Silver raised the possibility that Irene could be a “multi-billion dollar catastrophe.”

Apart from the inevitable loss of life in the most densely populated part of the country, history suggests that the economic damage could run into the tens of billions of dollars, depending on the severity of the storm and how close it comes to the city. Unlikely but theoretically plausible scenarios could have the damage entering the realm of the costliest natural disasters of all time, and perhaps being large enough to have a materially negative effect on the nation’s gross domestic product.

Reuters economist James Pethokoukis even wonders if Irene could be the catalyst for a double dip recession.

Introspection #fail: New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller drew fire yesterday for an unintentionally ironic column that called for probing questions about the religious faith of presidential candidates. Some Republican contenders, he wrote, adhere to “fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity” and “belong to churches that are mysterious or suspect to many Americans.”

The irony of the column was of course lost on Keller: he was describing to a T the radical church to which Barack Obama belonged prior to the 2008 campaign – the one where Rev. Jeremiah Wright preached his anti-American, anti-Semitic sermons, which Keller’s paper did not see fit to cover until six months after they became public.

In case you were unaware: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad generally couches his bloodthirsty hatred of Israel in more ambiguous language (“wipe Israel off the map,” for instance). In an interview with a Lebanese television station on Thursday, he dropped any pretense, and stated his intentions explicitly: “Iran believes that whoever is for humanity should also be for eradicating the Zionist regime (Israel) as symbol of suppression and discrimination,” Ahmadinejad said.

Heads to ‘explode,’ says Cheney: Former Vice President Dick Cheney promised that his memoir, which will be released Tuesday, will have “heads exploding all over Washington.” In the book, titled In My Times, Cheney reveals that he kept a resignation letter in his desk in case his health precluded him from doing his job (Cheney has suffered five heart attacks).

The new heliocentrism: In the latest issue of Nature magazine, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known by its French acronym CERN, published a study which concludes that “climate models will need to be substantially revised.” The key finding, according to the UK Register:

…it provides support for a “heliocentric” rather than “anthropogenic” approach to climate change: the sun plays a large role in modulating the quantity of cosmic rays reaching the upper atmosphere of the Earth.