Focus on the Family Got Super Bowl Buzz It Wanted

One day after the evangelical group Focus on the Family aired its Super Bowl commercial — following a storm of controversy — it was clear on Monday that the group achieved its goal: a torrent of new attention for its website and its message in social media land. “Our website is crashing,” jokes Jim Daly, president and CEO of Focus on the Family. In fact, it would have crashed had the group not beefed up its servers in anticipation. After the ad aired, the site’s traffic ballooned to 40 times its normal volume — with 50,000 unique visitors and 500,000 hits. Between Dec. 1, 2009, and Monday at 3 a.m., Focus on the Family generated more Super Bowl advertising-related social-media conversations than any other advertiser. Before the ad aired, negative comments and sentiment far outweighed positive. By Monday at noon positive comments outnumbered negative ones by 53.4% to 47.6%

Baptists to Flood Texas with Bible CDs

The largest state Baptist group in the United States wants Jesus Christ’s message of hope heard in every home in Texas — all 9 million of them — within the next two months. The Baptist General Convention of Texas is promoting a multilingual, multimedia CD that allows people to listen to important biblical passages in their native languages. The CD includes a toll-free telephone number and six 2-minute video testimonies of black, white and Hispanic Texans sharing their personal stories. CDs are just an upgrade of communication methodology instead of giving them a tract or booklet.

Airport Scanners Stir Fears Over Security Lines

The government’s plan to install body scanners in dozens of airports could lengthen security lines and congest terminals, airline and airport officials warn. Scanners that look through passengers’ clothing to find hidden weapons are significantly larger than the metal detectors they will replace. And they take at least five times longer to scan a single passenger. Steve Lott of the International Air Transport Association, an airline group, said scanners “would lead to significant passenger delays at the checkpoint.” The Transportation Security Administration plans to install 950 scanners at airports in the next two years.

Republicans Cool to Obama Call for Health Talks

Republicans gave a chilly reception Monday to President Obama‘s invitation to discuss health care in a bipartisan, televised setting later this month, part of the White House effort to revive the stalled legislation. The House and Senate Republican leaders said Obama and his fellow Democrats must shelve their long-debated health care bill, which was on the verge of becoming law until the Republicans won a special Senate election in the state of Massachusetts last month. That deprived the Democrats of a 60-vote supermajority in the 100-member Senate that could overcome Republican delaying tactics. Republicans may have little incentive to cooperate with Obama on health care. They won the Massachusetts seat campaigning against Obama’s plans and hope to use the issue to score big gains in the November congressional elections.

Ø      Obama’s offer is merely a ploy to shift blame

New Federal Office for Global Warming

Amid the growing fight over the accuracy of climate data, President Obama is seeking to have the federal government put its imprimatur on the science by calling for the creation of a new federal office to study and report on global warming. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Service office would help federal agencies and businesses prepare for and cope with global changes. The NOAA Climate Service office, which requires requires congressional committee approval, has been under development for years. It will cull existing data and programs from various Commerce offices under one roof.

  • More government bureaucracy for a spurious cause, just what we need

U.S. Request for Foreign Fliers’ Data Meets Resistance

The government is pushing foreign countries and airlines to deliver personal and criminal information about people planning to fly into the U.S., but the efforts have met with resistance. The diplomatic push is part of the Obama administration’s effort to stop terrorists from getting on airplanes overseas. The Homeland Security Department is seeking better information about the 23 million people a year who fly to the U.S. from Europe, potentially including their phone numbers, frequent flier numbers and credit card numbers. Those details, which can link people to terrorists, are given to Homeland Security for some U.S.-bound passengers but not all. Airlines worry about the potential cost of revising reservation systems to make passenger information routinely available. Under a 2007 agreement with the European Union, Homeland Security has access to airline reservation records that show passenger information such as phone numbers. The department can see 19 categories of information for everyone flying to the U.S. from the European Union.

Alcohol Abuse Weighs Heavy on Army

The Army needs to double its staff of substance-abuse counselors to handle the soaring numbers of soldiers seeking alcohol treatment, said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army’s No. 2 officer. About 300 more counselors are needed to meet the demand, cut wait times and offer evening and weekend services. Last year, 9,199 soldiers enrolled in treatment after being diagnosed with alcohol problems, a 56% increase over 2003, when the Iraq war started. Substance abuse has been identified as an issue in many of the suicides, which reached 160 confirmed and suspected cases in 2009.

Fires Strike 2 More Texas Churches

A sheriff’s dispatcher says fires have struck two more rural east Texas churches, just hours after investigators announced that a blaze last week marked the eighth arson against a house of worship in the state this year. Fire struck a Baptist church near Tyler Monday night. Another hit a church about 3 miles away. There have been no reported injuries or arrests.

Medical Marijuana Big Business in California

In California alone, the medical-marijuana business could be worth as much as $2 billion, says Dale Gieringer, state coordinator for NORML, a marijuana advocacy group. Prices vary widely, but dispensaries have advertised an ounce of dried marijuana for $340 or more. Now, people from across the country come to learn how to legally grow, distribute and profit with pot, even though it remains illegal under federal law. About 7,000 people have taken classes at Oaksterdam, says Executive Chancellor Dale Sky Clare, who oversees all branches. There are waiting lists to enroll — 850 students started courses this semester, and more than 300 have signed up for next semester, she said.

Stimulus Funds for High-Speed Internet Access Tangled Up in Red Tape

The Obama administration knew that there’d be a lot of interest in the $7.2 billion for high-speed Internet projects it included in last year’s huge economic stimulus package. The goal was to quickly create tens of thousands of jobs and connect millions of poor and rural communities to broadband, a high-speed Internet technology that’s deemed essential for economic development, modern medicine and education. But officials had no idea that the demand for the cash would be so overwhelming. After nearly a year, only about 7% of the funds has been assigned to specific projects.

Trade Deficit Surged in December

The U.S. trade deficit surged to a larger-than-expected $40.18 billion in December, biggest trade gap in 12 months. The wider deficit reflected a rebounding economy that is pushing up demand for imports. The Commerce Department said the December deficit was 10.4% higher than November’s. In December, exports of goods and services rose for an eighth month, climbing 3.3% to $142.70 billion, reflecting strong gains in sales of commercial aircraft, industrial machinery and U.S.-made autos and auto parts. Imports were up 4.8% to $182.88 billion, led by a 14.8% surge in oil imports, which rose to the highest level since October 2008. For all 2009, the deficit totaled $380.66 billion, smallest trade gap in eight years, as the deep recession cut into imports.

  • Debt-induced pressures on the dollar continue to ramp up; the smallest trade gap in eight years was still a staggering $380 billion

Economic News

Serious delinquencies on prime jumbo mortgages rose again last month, nearing 10% the 32nd straight monthly increase. Jumbo mortgages are loans larger than Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac can finance. “Serious delinquencies” are payments at least 60 days late.

Employers are getting hit with a massive tax hike at a time when they can least afford it. Companies in at least 35 states will have to fork over more in unemployment insurance taxes this year. The median increase will be 27.5%. And employers in places such as Hawaii and Florida could see levies skyrocket more than ten-fold. The states are scrambling to restore their unemployment insurance trust funds, which cover claims.

Now that air travelers are warming to the idea of paying extra for service amenities, American Airlines is going to ask them to pay to stay warm in the air. Beginning May 1, coach passengers on American’s domestic flights that last more than two hours, as well as those on flights to Hawaii, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America, will have to pay $8 for a blanket and inflatable neck pillow.

State Farm, the nation’s largest auto insurer, says it alerted federal safety regulators in late 2007 about a rise in reports of unexpected acceleration in Toyota vehicles. Congressional investigators are looking into whether the government missed warning signs of problems with Toyota vehicles. The Japanese automaker has recalled millions of vehicles. Honda is adding 437,000 vehicles to a 15-month-old global recall for faulty air bags in the latest quality problem to hit a Japanese automaker.

Germany‘s multi-year reign as the world’s No. 1 exporter is officially over, with the crown formally passing to rising Asian power China after new figures showed that German exports slid by nearly a fifth in 2009, the biggest decline in 60 years. China’s runaway economy has shown growth and resilience amid the worldwide financial crisis.

Greece

A civil servants’ strike grounded flights and shut down public services across Greece on Wednesday, as labor unions mounted their first major challenge to austerity measures in the debt-plagued country. Air traffic controllers, customs and tax officials, hospital doctors and schoolteachers walked off the job for 24 hours to protest sweeping government spending cuts that will freeze salaries and new hiring, cut bonuses and stipends and increase the average retirement age by two years. Greece has come under intense pressure from its European Union partners to slash spending after it revealed a massive and previously undeclared budget shortfall last year that continues to rattle financial markets and the euro, the currency shared by 16 EU members. Wealthy European nations were moving closer toward swallowing a bitter pill Tuesday: rescuing Greece from its overspending before its debts drag down the euro and global markets.

Haiti

The second stage of Haiti’s medical emergency has begun, with diarrheal illnesses, acute respiratory infections and malnutrition beginning to claim lives by the dozen. And while the half-million people jammed into germ-breeding makeshift camps have so far been spared a contagious-disease outbreak, health officials fear epidemics. They are rushing to vaccinate 530,000 children against measles, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. Haiti’s government raised the death toll for the Jan. 12 earthquake to 230,000 on Tuesday. Some 300,000 people are injured.

Chaos, a lack of jobs and thousands of escaped prisoners could cause drug trafficking to jump in Haiti, where cocaine already flows through and into the United States, law enforcement officials say. The U.S. Justice Department says Haiti and the Dominican Republic are way stations for drugs coming to the USA from Latin America. The department says the number of drug planes landing in Haiti has been on the rise in recent years and may get worse in the earthquake‘s wake.

Geologists say beleaguered Haiti may still be waiting for the other shoe to drop, seismologically speaking. Analysis of high-resolution radar images shows that only half of the Enriquillo fault ruptured in the Jan. 12 quake that devastated the island nation’s capital. The western portion of the fault segment ruptured, but the eastern segment did not. That means half the energy locked up in the ground under Port au Prince has yet to be released.

Iran

Iran’s state TV says the country started enriching its uranium to a higher 20% level from 3.5%, over the objections of the international community. Uranium has to be enriched to fuel nuclear power plants. Enriching uranium to 90% creates material for atomic bombs. France and the U.S. said Monday Iran’s action left no choice but to push harder for a fourth set of U.N. Security Council sanctions to punish Iran’s nuclear defiance. Russia, which has close ties to Iran and has opposed new sanctions, appeared to edge closer to Washington’s position, saying the new enrichment plans show the suspicions about Iran’s intentions are well-founded.

Afghanistan

Avalanches roared down a mountain pass north of Kabul, Afghanistan‘s capital, killing at least 157 people and leaving hundreds more stranded in their vehicles on snow-blocked roads, officials said Tuesday. Another 70 people were injured and transported to hospitals as the military and police continued rescue efforts to dig out those trapped in the snow, an Afghan Defense Ministry statement said. Some 1,500 people were rescued, it said.

Pakistan

Pakistan’s interior minister and a senior intelligence official say the country’s Taliban chief has died. The officials did not provide details of how or when Hakimullah Mehsud died. But it was the first time Pakistani authorities have categorically said the militant chief is dead. Rumors of Mehsud’s death have swirled for weeks, after a spate of U.S. missiles hit his stronghold in Pakistan’s northwest in mid-January.

  • The Taliban hardly miss a beat when their leaders fall, with many others ready to step up.

A suicide car bomber has attacked a tribal police patrol in northwestern Pakistan, killing 10 policemen. The attacker rammed his car into a vehicle carrying the police Wednesday on a main highway in the Khyber tribal area near the Afghan border. Another 15 people were injured in the attack.

China

China found 170 tons of tainted milk powder that was repackaged. The discovery has punched a major hole in China‘s promises to overhaul its food safety system. Officials say they’ve found yet another case where large amounts of tainted milk powder from the country’s 2008 scandal that should have been destroyed were instead repackaged. China ordered tens of thousands of milk products laced with an industrial chemical burned or buried after more than 300,000 children were sickened and at least six died from the contamination. But, crucially, the government did not carry out the eradication itself, and this month an emergency crackdown has made it clear that tons of compromised products are still on the market.

India

Compass Direct News reports that Karnataka state recorded the highest number of anti-Christian attacks in India last year, and it is keeping pace this year. Christians in Karnataka are being attacked “at rapid regularity” and “with near impunity,” said Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. Much of the violence occurs under the vigilante pretext of rounding up Christians supposedly involved in “forcible” or “fraudulent” conversion efforts. On Feb. 1 in Thagadur village, Kodagu district, Hindu extremists dragged 11 Christians – including four women – from their homes and colluded with police to arrest them on such false charges. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that all of the Christians were tortured at the Siddapur police station to pressure them to admit to the charges. Police denied torturing the Christians but seem to erroneously believe that laws against fraudulent conversion apply to any kind of proclamation of faith.

Cambodia

According to End Child Prostitution, Abuse and Trafficking (ECPAT), as many as one-third of all sex workers in Cambodia are children. Government entities, including the U.S. State Department, are pressuring countries like Cambodia to do more to stop the modern-day slavery epidemic. “Worldwide, 12.3 million is a baseline number that everybody agrees that there are at least that many people in forced labor, and that’s far too many,” said Ambassador-at-Large Luis CdeBaca, who leads the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Earthquakes

An magnitude-4.3 earthquake  struck Illinois early Wednesday about 48 miles west northwest of Chicago, the U.S. Geological Survey reported. There were no immediate reports of injury or damage from the quake, which hit around 5 a.m. ET. The quake hit around the towns of Sycamore and Virgil, rattling residents out of bed and producing a foot-long crack in one kitchen wall.

Weather

Blizzard warnings spanned the Mid-Atlantic early Wednesday as the second major snowstorm in less than a week barreled into the region, leaving more than 10 inches of new snow in the Washington area before dawn and threatening a similar whiteout for New York City. The storm started in the Midwest, where it was blamed for three traffic accident deaths in Michigan on Tuesday. Plows have been rolling around the clock for days in the nation’s capital, Philadelphia and Baltimore after a total of nearly 3 feet of snow had accumulated in some areas.

New York, which managed to avoid last week’s blizzard, was not so lucky Wednesday. Flakes were coming down fast during the morning commute, and the National Weather Service issued blizzard warnings and predicted 10 to 16 inches of snowfall. Thousands remained without power from the last storm in parts of western Pennsylvania, Maryland and other areas. Utilities said deep snow was hindering some crews trying to fix damaged power lines. About 230,000 federal workers in Washington have been off since Friday afternoon, when the first storm began.

On the West Coast, where the National Weather Service predicted up to 1.5 inches of rain could cause mudslides in areas affected by wildfires last year, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies went door-to-door with evacuation orders for 541 hillside homes

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