Pardoned Journalists Return to U.S.

After an unprecedented face-to-face meeting with dictator Kim Jong Il in North Korea, former president Bill Clinton returned to the U.S. early Wednesday with two American journalists who had been held for months by the communist government. Clinton arrived at Burbank, California’s Bob Hope Airport via jet with Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were arrested March 17 along the Chinese-North Korean border and sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor for illegal entry and “hostile acts.” Some foreign policy analysts hoped that the surprise visit by Clinton could lower tensions in what has been an increasingly tumultuous relationship between the U.S. and North Korea over its nuclear program.

AAA Recognizes Gay Couples as ‘Married’ and a ‘Family’

The American Automobile Association (AAA) has begun offering “Family Memberships” to homosexual couples, recognizing the homosexual couple as being “married,” according to a homosexual activist organization in Florida. Thirty states have overwhelmingly voted to define marriage as being between one man and one woman. Yet AAA is treating homosexual couples as if they are married. The homosexual couples need only state that they are married to receive the family benefit. In the eyes of AAA two homosexuals living together constitute “marriage” and make a “family.” All they have to do to get the “family membership” benefits is to say “we are gay and married.”

Faith Groups more Likely to Attract Volunteers

Faith-based organizations attract more volunteers than any other type of organization, according to a survey by the Corporation for National and Community Service. More than one-third of the country’s almost 62 million volunteers served through religious organizations last year. “Religious organizations are a key source of potential volunteers for nonprofit organizations,” said Nicola Goren, the corporation’s chief executive officer. “Nonprofits looking to expand their reach and impact may find it beneficial to work more closely with religious organizations in their communities, especially in these tough economic times.” The Volunteering in America 2009 report released last week showed that adults over the age of 65 and youth who regularly attend religious services are more likely than general volunteers to serve in faith-based organizations. Also, youth from disadvantaged circumstances, who are least likely to volunteer, are most likely, when they do volunteer, to do so through their religious congregation. They are also much more likely to report that they are motivated to serve by their religious or spiritual beliefs.

More People Seek Concealed Weapons Permits

Gun owners are packing heat in record numbers, fearful of stricter gun control under the Obama administration and higher crime in a sour economy. Some states and counties report a surge in applications for concealed weapons permits since the November election. All states but Illinois and Wisconsin allow concealed weapons, but requirements differ. In the past, applicants tended to be middle-aged men, but recent applicants include grandmothers, older folks, young women, young men.

Number of Americans Taking Antidepressants Doubles

The number of Americans using antidepressants doubled in only a decade, while the number seeing psychiatrists continued to fall. About 10% of Americans — or 27 million people — were taking antidepressants in 2005, the last year for which data were available at the time the study was written. That’s about twice the number in 1996, according to the study of nearly 50,000 children and adults in today’s Archives of General Psychiatry. Yet the majority weren’t being treated for depression. Half of those taking antidepressants used them for back pain, nerve pain, fatigue, sleep difficulties or other problems, the study says. Among users of antidepressants, the percentage receiving psychotherapy fell from 31.5% to less than 20%, the study says. About 80% of patients were treated by doctors other than psychiatrists.

70% of U.S. Kids Lack Vitamin D

New research on vitamin D deficiency finds that 70% of U.S. children have below-normal levels of the key hormone, LiveScience reports. That raises their risk for bone and dental problems, diabetes, heart diseases, some cancers and possible brain impairment. Key factors include diet and more time spent indoors in front of the computer or TV. Doctors recommend more milk, fish, sun and supplements. Low levels were especially common in girls, African Americans, Mexican Americans, the obese, those who drank milk less than once a week, and those who spent more than four hours a day watching TV, playing videogames or using computers. Lighter skin is more efficient at producing vitamin D. So darker-skinned people produce less when exposed to sunlight.

Global Swine Flu Deaths Top 1,100

More than 1,100 people worldwide have died from swine flu since it emerged in Mexico and the U.S. in April, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization. As of July 31, the total number of victims killed by the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, stood at 1,154 — an increase of 338 since WHO’s previous update on July 27. The virus has spread around the world with unprecedented speed, spreading as widely in six weeks as common influenza viruses spread in the six months, according to WHO.

Court: U.S. High Schoolers should Speak English

An English language advocacy organization is praising the decision of a California appeals court, which upheld the right of the state to administer academic achievement tests and high school exit exams only in English. Last week, the First District Court of Appeals in San Francisco rejected arguments that English-only exams violate a federal requirement that limited-English-speaking students “shall be assessed in a valid and reliable manner.” Nearly 1.6 million students in California have limited command of the language. The appellate court’s three-to-zero ruling upholds a 2007 decision by a San Francisco judge, who also ruled against the bilingual-education groups and nine school districts that sued to overturn the state’s English-only testing methods.

‘Cash-for-Clunkers’ gets Credit as Car Sales Skyrocket in July

For months, automakers have predicted pent-up demand was brewing for cars as sales hit record-low numbers. And the government’s cash-for-clunkers program may have proved them right. July sales — coming in at 997,824 — didn’t quite reach the 1 million mark, a sales rate that used to be the norm but hasn’t been since August 2008. But it was the best rate of 2009, up 16% from June. Congress had allocated $1 billion to the trade-in program, officially called the Car Allowance Rebate System, or CARS. That money has run out, and President Obama has asked the Senate to put another $2 billion into CARS by Friday. The House already passed a bill adding money to it. The program’s fate hangs on whether the Senate will vote to extend more funds this week.

Post Office Looks to Close Hundreds of Offices

Facing staggering financial losses, the Postal Service is looking at closing nearly 1,000 offices across the country. The post office has been struggling with a sharp decline in mail volume as people and businesses switch to e-mail both for personal contact and bill paying. The agency is facing a nearly $7 billion potential loss this fiscal year despite a 2-cent increase in the price of stamps in May, cuts in staff and removal of collection boxes. Post officials sent a list of nearly 700 potential closing candidates to the independent Postal Regulatory Commission for review. More may be added. No changes are expected before the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30. There are 32,741 post offices across the county. Of those, the service launched a review of 3,200 for potential candidates for closing.

Mortgage Loan Modification Rates Low

JPMorgan Chase is helping one in five troubled homeowners eligible for a government-sponsored housing rescue, while Wells Fargo is reaching 6% of eligible borrowers, and Bank of America is aiding 4%, the U.S. Treasury Department said Tuesday In its first monthly progress report on the $50 billion loan modification program launched in March. Several loan servicing companies — including American Home Mortgage Servicing and PNC Financial Services Group— have yet to modify a single loan. Only 15% of homeowners eligible for the Obama administration’s program have been offered help so far. More than 400,000 offers have been extended to 2.7 million borrowers who are more than two months behind on their payments. More than 235,000 of those borrowers have enrolled in three-month trials.

Federal Tax Revenues Plummet

The recession is starving the government of tax revenue, just as the president and Congress are piling a major expansion of health care and other programs on the nation’s plate and struggling to find money to pay the tab. The numbers could hardly be more stark: Tax receipts are on pace to drop 18 percent this year, the biggest single-year decline since the Great Depression, while the federal deficit balloons to a record $1.8 trillion. Individual income tax receipts are down 22 percent from a year ago. Corporate income taxes are down 57 percent. Social Security tax receipts could drop for only the second time since 1940, and Medicare taxes are on pace to drop for only the third time ever. The national debt already exceeds $11 trillion. And bills just completed by the House would boost domestic agencies’ spending by 11 percent in 2010 and military spending by 4 percent.

  • Government finances are so out of whack that it’s become a time-bomb waiting to explode – and no one is trying to defuse the bomb

Economic News

Pending sales of previously owned homes rose at a faster-than-expected pace in June, a real estate trade group said Tuesday, more evidence the housing market was starting to claw out of a three-year slump. The National Association of Realtors said its Pending Home Sales Index, based on contracts signed in June, rose 3.6% to 94.6. It was the fifth straight month of advance and the first such streak in six years, the industry group said.

American consumers opened their wallets and pocketbooks a bit more in June, increasing their spending for the second straight month while saving a bit less, even as incomes fell sharply. Consumer spending is closely watched because it accounts for about 70% of total U.S. economic activity. The Commerce Department said Tuesday that consumers boosted their spending 0.4% in June. That comes after spending rose 0.1% in May.

Personal income fell 1.3% after rising by the same amount in May, when incomes were boosted by one-time payments from the Obama administration’s stimulus package. Personal savings rate fell to 4.6% in June, after jumping to 6.2% in May, which was the highest since February 1995. The rate dropped as low as 1% at times last year.

Australia Foils Terrorism Plot

Police foiled a suicide plot in Australia on Tuesday, arresting four men suspected of links to a Somali Islamic extremist group who were allegedly planning commando-style attacks on at least one army base. Some 400 officers from state and national security services took part in 19 pre-dawn raids on properties in Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, and arrested four men. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the plot was a “sober reminder” that terrorists are still a threat to Australia, which has drawn the ire of extremist groups for sending troops to join the U.S.-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Iran Ready to Build Nuclear Bomb

Iran already has the know-how to make and explode a nuclear warhead and awaits a go-ahead from its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to race its first bomb into production, according to a report in the U.K.’s Times Online. The Times bombshell credits Western intelligence sources for confirming the Israeli conclusion that Iran has reached the end of a multibillion-dollar, three-decade master plan to fashion a nuclear bomb. The device will be of a weight and bulk that would allow the weapon to be launched on Iran’s long-range Shehab-3 missiles. This represents Israel’s worst-case-scenario. It is estimated that it would take just six months to enrich enough uranium and another six months to assemble the warhead.

Afghanistan

A string of rockets slammed into Kabul at daybreak Tuesday in the first major attack on the relatively calm Afghan capital in the run-up to this month’s presidential election. Afghan officials said at least eight rockets hit the Afghan capital, one damaging a senior Interior Ministry official’s house near the U.S. Embassy. A suicide bomber also killed five people and wounded 18 in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, and a provincial governor escaped injury in an attack on his convoy.

Sudan Tribal Violence

Armed tribesmen attacked a fishing village in southeast Sudan where hundreds of displaced people were camped near a river, leaving at least 185 people dead, most of them women and children, in the worst violence in three months A flare-up of tribal clashes in south Sudan over cattle and territory has left more 1,000 people killed so far this year. The violence is separate from the six-year-old conflict between rebels and government forces in Darfur, the vast western region of Sudan.

Earthquakes

Several earthquakes Monday were centered in the waters of the Gulf of California about 150 miles south of Rocky Point. The U.S. Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Information Center said they ranged in size from magnitude 5.0 to 6.9. There were no reports of injuries or damage.

A magnitude-6.5 earthquake hit off Japan’s southern coast Wednesday, the country’s Meteorological Agency said. There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties. The quake hit at 9:18 am off the coast of Miyakojima, a southern island near Okinawa, at a depth of 18.6 miles. Miyakojima is located about 1,240 miles south of Tokyo.

Wildfires

Dozens of residents were evacuated Monday after a weekend lightning storm sparked multiple wildfires around Northern California. More than 600 firefighters were trying to protect 100 structures from the blazes in northeastern Shasta County. Crews also were fighting blazes in Lassen, Monterey and Tuolumne counties. As of Wednesday morning, the largest fire was a 7,634-acre blaze burning in Stanislaus National Forest in Tuolumne County, where three people were reported injured. More than 1,300 firefighters were battling that blaze. Southern California has another three wildfires burning, having consumed about 8,500 acres as of Wednesday morning.

Weather

A storm dumped a record 6.5 inches of rain during the Tuesday-morning commute here, spawning flash flooding that filled streets, stranded motorists and cut power to thousands. Emergency workers rescued nearly 200 people from the tops of cars and houses as waters rose too fast for them to escape. Floodwater poured into homes and basements and engulfed Louisville’s main public library, several area hospitals, horse barns at Churchill Downs and the University of Louisville campus, where some workers had to be rescued by boat.

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