Archive for January, 2012

Signs of the Times (1/30/12)

January 30, 2012

Church-Burning Video Used to Promote Atheist Event at Ft. Bragg

Atheists are using a music video that celebrates the burning of churches and synagogues to promote an upcoming atheist-themed festival at Fort Bragg. “Rock Beyond Belief” is scheduled to be held on the parade field at Fort Bragg in March. The event was created in part as a response to a Billy Graham Evangelistic Association event that was held last year. There will be a number of bands performing – the most famous of which is Aiden. They are featured in a video on the “Rocky Beyond Belief” website that includes images of burning churches and bloody crosses. The website labels the song as the “atheist anthem.” Among the lyrics: “Love how they burn your synagogues, love how they torch your holy books.”

  • If Christians were to use violent images to promote their events the hue and cry would be deafening. In this case, most silence. How about applying the new hate speech statutes?

Catholics Blast Federal Birth Control Mandate

From Maine to Phoenix to southern Louisiana, Catholic churches across the USA this weekend echoed with scorn for a new federal rule requiring faith-based employers to include birth control and other reproductive services in their health care coverage. Dozens of priests took the rare step of reading letters from the pulpit urging parishioners to reach out to Washington and oppose the rule, enacted this month. The rule requires nearly all employers to provide their employees access to health insurance that covers artificial contraception, sterilization services and the “morning after” birth control pill. The mandate exempts churches but applies to Catholic universities, Catholic-based charities and to groups affiliated with Methodists, Baptists and other denominations.

  • It is unconscionable for the federal government to impose its secular immorality on faith-based organizations, but such is the ongoing war to marginalize Christianity

Former Obama Faith Adviser Glad Religion is Dying

Shaun Casey, the religious affairs adviser to President Obama during his 2008 campaign, said this week at a panel discussion on “God and Politics” that the demise of religious society in America was a good thing, CNSNews.com reports. “I, frankly, am glad American civil religion is dying,” said Casey, an associate professor of Christian ethics at D.C.’s Wesley Theological Seminary. “But it does raise the practical question, what does bind us together in some way as a country? We need some substitute for that and I don’t think we’ve found it yet.” Casey was hired by Obama’s campaign in June 2008 to “focus on outreach to evangelical voters,” although he had been informally advising the campaign for a year prior.

  • Faith advisor advocating demise of faith? Shows what Obama really believes.

St. Louis Honors Iraq War Veterans

Thousands of people braved a cold January wind Saturday in St. Louis to honor their Iraq War veterans. The parade, borne out of a simple conversation between two St. Louis friends a month ago, was the first big welcome-home in the U.S. for veterans of the war since the last troops were withdrawn from Iraq in December. About 600 veterans, many dressed in camouflage, walked along downtown streets lined with rows of people clapping and holding signs with messages including “Welcome Home” and “Thanks to our Service Men and Women.” Some of the war-tested troops wiped away tears as they acknowledged the support from a crowd that organizers estimated reached 100,000 people.

Mortgage Deal Draws Detractors from All Sides

A draft settlement between states and mortgage companies that would let the nation’s biggest banks pay out billions to compensate for a raft of foreclosures has public interest groups across the political spectrum hopping mad over a deal they say was forged behind closed doors and is being strong-armed by the Obama administration. The draft proposal, which was sent to state officials Monday for approval, is supposed to overhaul the mortgage industry and help homeowners. In it, the country’s five largest mortgage lenders offer to pay out as much as $25 billion to cover new terms for homeowners driven out by foreclosure. But people who lost their homes are unlikely to get them back or see much financial benefit from the deal. Liberals complain that the federal government is letting the banks off the hook for a foreclosure crisis that critics say could’ve been avoided had the banks been more upstanding about their deals. Conservatives claim the administration is trying to fast track a deal that amounts to extortion of banks that followed federal government rules to expand access to loans.

New Federal Crime Unit to Investigate Mortgage Fraud

The U.S. government dispatched 55 prosecutors, FBI agents and analysts Friday to a new financial crimes enforcement unit focusing on home mortgage abuses that fueled the 2008 economic collapse. For the first time since the crisis, federal investigators will be joined by state law enforcement officials as part of a working group that, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said, would launch the “broadest, deepest investigation into what blew up the economy.” The unit is expected to plunge deeper into the causes of “massive market failures” that continue to harm homeowners, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said. Residential mortgage-backed securities are the huge investment packages of what turned out to be near-worthless mortgages that bankrupted many investors and contributed to the nation’s 2008 financial crisis.

Occupy Oakland Protest Turns Ugly

About 400 people were arrested Saturday during a chaotic day of Occupy protests that saw demonstrators break into City Hall and burn an American flag, as police earlier fired tear gas and bean bags to disperse hundreds of people after some threw rocks and bottles and tore down fencing outside a nearby convention center. Riot police fought running skirmishes with anti-Wall Street protesters, firing tear gas and bean bag in clashes that injured three officers and at least one demonstrator.  Dozens of police officers remained on guard outside City Hall around midnight following the most turbulent day of protests since November, when Oakland police forcefully dismantled an Occupy encampment. An exasperated Mayor Jean Quan said, “People in the community and people in the Occupy movement have to stop making excuses for this behavior.”

Feds to Enforce No-Camping Rules at Occupy D.C. Sites

Combining research with citizen science, the project uses photos and actual ladybugs submitted by people across the country to map where certain ladybug species are found, study differences between them and breed them. Regulations ban camping on U.S. parklands, but the Park Service has not enforced the prohibition at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza since protesters arrived in October. Round-the-clock vigils are allowed, however, to protect First Amendment rights. Occupiers will have to remove tents, bedding, storage containers and all fire-making materials or risk citation or arrest. The Park Service today distributed fliers detailing the no-camping rules. One protester at McPherson Square told The Washington Post that some occupiers may choose to be arrested.

Unions, Occupiers Protest at Super Bowl Village

A mix of union members and Occupy protesters from across Indiana marched through Super Bowl Village on Saturday in opposition to the state’s proposed right-to-work legislation. About 75 marchers weaved through packed crowds at the pre-game street fair in downtown Indianapolis in the first of what could be several such protests before the big game Feb. 5 at Lucas Oil Stadium. Saturday was the second straight day of right-to-work protests in the Super Bowl Village. Organizers of the march say the protests will likely continue if Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signs the divisive bill into law this week. Supporters of the legislation, mostly Republicans, insist the measure helps create a pro-business climate that attracts employers and increases jobs. Opponents say the measure only leads to lower wages and poorer quality jobs.

Tax Evaders in Greece, Spain and Italy Beware

In Greece, tax officials fly helicopters over residential areas to spot swimming pools of the alleged poor. In Italy, inspectors raid elite ski resorts to catch the down-and-out in their Ferraris. In Spain, taxmen snoop about homes rented to sun-seeking vacationers — then visit the owners who neglected to report the income. Evading taxes is almost a national pastime in European nations such as Greece, Spain and Italy, and for years their governments largely looked the other way. Many people admit they cheat, and EU officials blame part of the economic mess on a culture of tax evasion in debtor nations that has cost billions in revenue that could be used to shore up their finances. But that is changing abruptly.

Greece is pushing back with a “naming and shaming” campaign. This week, the Greek Economics Ministry published the names of 4,151 individuals who owe a total of more than $19 billion in taxes including a famous singer, a professional basketball player and a former newspaper publisher. In Italy, where one out of four pay no taxes, the focus is on tax evasion by the super-rich. Tax evasion ran rampant under the leadership of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi who was also a tax dodger and who once famously said that evasion of high taxes was a God-given “right.” One of his successor’s first actions has been to clamp down on “the pretend poor,” as Italian media have dubbed the super-rich tax evaders. In Spain, officials also declared “an open season” on tax evasion. They have capped cash transactions at $1,300 and are cracking down on tax havens. Spain has taken hundreds of tax evaders to court, and tax police have caught about 200,000 individuals who had not declared income from rental properties.

California Passes Auto Emission, Hybrid Rules

California air regulators have unanimously passed sweeping auto emission standards that include a mandate to have 1.4 million electric and hybrid vehicles on state roads by 2025. The California Air Resources Board on Friday adopted the new rules, which require that one-in-seven of new cars sold in the state in 2025 be an electric or other zero-emission vehicle. The plan also mandated a 75-percent reduction in smog-forming pollutants by 2025, and a 34 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over roughly the same time. Automakers worked with the board and federal regulators on the greenhouse gas mandates in an effort to create one national standard for those pollutants. California’s auto emissions standards are often more strict than federal ones. Currently 14 other states have adopted them.

President Obama Says He Makes Mistakes 24/7?

The commander-in-chief acknowledged that he second guesses himself constantly on the job during an interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer last Thursday night. “I make a mistake, you know, every hour, every day,” he said. As Obama heats up his election-year rhetoric, he’s compiling an expanding list of Bush-like malapropisms. For example, in attempting to rebut claims that he’s stoking the fires of class-warfare, he said, “Nobody envies rich people,” Obama told a House Democratic retreat in Cambridge, Md. “Everybody wants to be rich.”

  • While amusing, these and other “misspoken” items highlight Obama’s tendency to speak out of both sides of his mouth to win approval, regardless of the truth. He simply cannot be trusted.

Economic News

Europe’s crippling debt crisis dominated the world’s foremost gathering of business and political leaders, but for the first time the growing inequality between the planet’s haves and have-nots became an issue, thanks largely to the Arab Spring uprisings, the “Occupy” movement and other protests around the globe. The mood at the end of the five-day meeting in Davos was somber and more than 2,500 VIPs headed home Sunday concerned about what lies ahead in 2012. There were no answers to the widening inequality gap, but there was a mounting realization that economic growth must include the poor, that job creation is critical, and that affordable food, housing, health care and education need to part of any solution.

Many EU nations say they want Germany to do more to bolster an emergency fund to back bailouts of heavy debtor nations such as Greece, Italy and Spain. Germans are not in the mood to hand out more money. “It doesn’t make sense if we keep promising more money but don’t address the causes of the crisis,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. As European leaders meet Monday in Brussels to forge a closer fiscal union as a way to ease the European debt crisis, doubts are growing over the effectiveness of the agreement.

Fitch downgraded the sovereign credit ratings of Belgium, Cyprus, Italy, Slovenia and Spain on Friday, indicating there was a 1-in-2 chance of further cuts in the next two years. In a statement, the ratings agency said the affected countries were vulnerable in the near-term to monetary and financial shocks.

Gasoline prices could be edge higher this spring, thanks to the bankruptcy of a European refiner, the industry’s latest casualty. The U.S. east coast already sees the threat of a temporary spike in gasoline to $4 or more per gallon for the summer driving season and could pay some of the highest prices in the nation, due to the shutdown of refining capacity in that market. Over the last several years, the refining industry has shut down about 1 million barrels per day of refining capacity aimed at the east coast. The bankruptcy filing last week by Swiss-based Petroplus, which operated five refineries or 4% of European capacity, adds another uncertainty.

Low cattle supplies in 2012 are expected to drive up beef prices for the second year in a row, stretching consumers still coping with high unemployment and only modest wage increases. The Agriculture Department reported Friday there were about 91 million head of cattle in the U.S. on Jan. 1, down 2% from a year ago and the lowest level since 1952. Retail beef prices, now near record levels, will likely rise 4% to 5% this year following a 10% increase in 2011.

Middle East

After a series of meetings in Amman, Jordan, as organized by the Quartet for Middle East Peace (the U.S., UN, EU and Russia), the Palestinians have declared the peace proposals dead on arrival. They are especially upset because Israel continues to maintain that Jerusalem is the capital city of the Jewish state and will remain under Israeli control. The Jerusalem Prayer Team notes, “This is crucial to the spiritual battle taking place. Satan wants the Holy City. He declared in Isaiah 14 that he would rule the world from the ‘sides of the north’—an ancient reference to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. The Holy City must not be divided. It is critical to Israel’s survival…it is critical to God’s prophetic plan for the world…and we need to be doing everything we can to support the Jewish people and defend the city of Jerusalem.”

The Pentagon is rushing to send a large floating base for commando teams to the Middle East as tensions rise with Iran, al-Qaeda in Yemen and Somali pirates, among other threats. In response to requests from U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, the Navy is converting an aging warship it had planned to decommission into a makeshift staging base for the commandos. Unofficially dubbed a “mothership,” the floating base could accommodate smaller high-speed boats and helicopters commonly used by Navy SEALs, procurement documents show.

Afghanistan

France and Afghanistan agree NATO should speed up by a year its timetable for handing all combat operations to Afghan forces in 2013, President Nicolas Sarkozy said Friday, raising new questions about the unity of the Western military alliance. Sarkozy also announced a faster-track exit for France, the fourth-largest contributor of troops in Afghanistan — marking a distinct break from previous plans to adhere to the U.S. goal of withdrawing combat forces by the end of 2014. The proposal comes a week after four unarmed French troops were killed by an Afghan soldier described as a Taliban infiltrator.

Syria

Syrian troops stormed rebellious areas near the capital Sunday, shelling neighborhoods that have fallen under the control of army dissidents and clashing with fighters. At least 62 people were killed in violence nationwide Violence had surged once again in Syria on Friday, with government forces using heavy artillery to bombard several towns, while the United Nations debated a resolution on ways to end the bloodshed, intensifying the diplomatic pressure on Damascus. A military crackdown that ebbed when an Arab League monitoring team began its work in the country more than a month ago resumed this week with heightened force. The Arab League halted its observer mission to Syria on Saturday, sharply criticizing the regime of President Bashar Assad for escalating violence in recent days that has killed at least 80 people across the country.

The rising bloodshed has added urgency to new attempts by Arab and Western countries to find a resolution to the 10 months of violence that has killed at least 5,400 people as Assad seeks to crush persistent protests demanding an end to his rule. But the initiatives continue to face two major obstacles: Damascus’ rejection of an Arab peace plan which it says impinges on its sovereignty, and Russia’s willingness to use its U.N. Security Council veto to protect Syria from sanctions.

Iraq

A suicide car bomber struck a Shiite funeral procession Saturday, killing 33 people as suspected al-Qaida militants stepped up apparent efforts to provoke a counterattack by Shiite militias on Sunnis that could pave the way toward open sectarian warfare now that U.S. troops have left Iraq. The powerful Friday blast — the second deadliest attack in Iraq this month — set nearby stores and cars ablaze. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Zafaraniyah in southwestern Baghdad. But the bombing resembled previous attacks by al-Qaida in Iraq.

Iran

A U.N. nuclear team arrived in Tehran early Sunday for a mission expected to focus on Iran’s alleged attempt to develop nuclear weapons. In unusually blunt comments ahead of his arrival in Tehran, Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts urged Iran to work with his mission on probing the allegations about Iran’s alleged attempts to develop nuclear weapons, reflecting the importance the IAEA is attaching to the issue. Tehran has refused to discuss the alleged weapons experiments for three years, saying they are based on “fabricated documents” provided by a “few arrogant countries.”

Russia

Thousands of cars flying white ribbons or white balloons circled central Moscow on Sunday in a show of protest against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The cars jammed the inner lanes all along the nearly 10-mile Garden Ring, which has as many as 16 lanes of traffic at its widest points. More protesters stood along the side of the road waving white ribbons and flags as the vehicles passed. White ribbons became an opposition symbol during protests that broke out after a fraud-tainted Dec. 4 parliamentary election won by Putin’s party. Putin is running in a March 4 presidential election to reclaim the post he held from 2000 to 2008. He is expected to win, but is under pressure to show he can win fairly.

Nigeria

A U.S. citizen kidnapped by gunmen in Nigeria’s oil-rich southern delta has been freed after a week in captivity, the U.S. Embassy said Friday. The man had been released after being kidnapped in Warri in Delta state on Jan. 20. The embassy declined to offer any other details, citing privacy rules. It was not immediately clear whether a ransom had been paid to secure his release, though many companies working in the region carry kidnap insurance and simply pay a negotiated price to see their employees freed.

Sudan

Militants apparently captured 29 Chinese workers after attacking a remote worksite in a volatile region of Sudan, and Sudanese forces were increasing security for Chinese projects and personnel there. China has close political and economic relations with Sudan, especially in the energy sector. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing said the militants attacked Saturday and Sudanese forces launched a rescue mission Sunday in coordination with the Chinese embassy in Khartoum. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army is a guerrilla force loyal to the southern movement and hail from a minority ethnic group now in control of much of South Sudan, which became the world’s newest country only six months ago in a breakaway from Sudan. An estimated 3,000 people have been killed and over 100,000 displaced in the ethnic violence that has engulfed South Sudan’s Jonglei state. Entire villages have been burnt to the ground.

Earthquakes

An earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.3 has struck on the coast of central Peru. The quake was recorded at 11 minutes after midnight, nine miles from the city of Ica, which was badly damaged by a major 8.0 earthquake in August 2007 and also suffered damage in a quake last October. Monday’s quake was at a depth of 24.4 miles USGS maps showed the epicenter exactly on the Pacific Ocean coastline. Civil defense officials reported nearly 100 injuries.

Weather

Sequels to the northern lights, like last week’s polar sky shows, are likely headed for Earth on a once-a-month basis for the next year or two, solar physicists say. A strong solar storm grazed Earth’s magnetic field last week, delivering beautiful auroral lights to the polar skies. The S3-class storm, on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scale that rises from S1 to S5, represents the opening salvo in the coming peak of outbursts over the next year or so. The current cycle was slow in getting cranked up, but appears headed for its normal peak in 2013, part of an 11-year cycle that has been documented by astronomers for centuries. Where the sun’s magnetic field becomes tangled, cooler sunspots result, some a mere 5,000 degrees. Those sunspots are draped by strong magnetic fields that spit out solar storms, outbursts of charged particles and radiation shot into space.

The supposed ‘consensus’ on man-made global warming is facing an inconvenient challenge after the release of new temperature data showing the planet has not warmed for the past 15 years. Based on readings from more than 30,000 measuring stations, the data was issued last week without fanfare by the Met Office and the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit. It confirms that the rising trend in world temperatures ended in 1997. The figures suggest that we could even be heading for a mini ice age to rival the 70-year temperature drop that saw frost fairs held on the Thames in the 17th Century. Climate scientists told the U.K.’s Daily Mail on Sunday that, after emitting unusually high levels of energy throughout the 20th Century, the sun is now heading towards a ‘grand minimum’ in its output, threatening cold summers, bitter winters and a shortening of the season available for growing food.

  • Climatologists and economists are proving that predicting the weather and world finances are woefully inexact sciences

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Signs of the Times (1/27/12)

January 27, 2012

An Entire Christian Library in the Palm of Your Hand

Bible League International and the Digital Bible Society are partnering to create thumbnail-sized chips containing an entire seminary library and distribute them to Christians in countries where possessing unapproved religious materials can result in punishment or death, such as Saudi Arabia and China, the Religion News Service reports. “It’s like a miniature Christian bookstore,” said Robert Frank, global CEO of Bible League International. Each chip includes a library’s worth of multiple versions of the Bible, Bible commentaries, Bible studies, Christian books, movies and worship music, and leaves no traces on the computer of its use, unlike the trails left by accessing websites. They are available in Arabic, Farsi, Mandarin and other languages in areas where Christians are persecuted. “Pastors in these countries want to be trained, but they have no seminaries,” said Melany Ethridge of the Bible League.

Survey Reveals ‘Cultural Divide’ Between White House, Churchgoing Americans

The annual Spiritual State of the Nation survey by Truth in Action Ministries of more than 6,800 evangelical Americans found deep disagreement with the Obama administration’s policies and an overwhelming mistrust of the president, according to TIAM’s John Aman. Just 2 percent of respondents said they trusted President Obama, and only 9 percent trusted the government to keep the nation safe. Ninety-eight percent opposed giving taxpayer dollars to Planned Parenthood, 99 percent opposed same-sex marriage, 85 percent opposed allowing open homosexuals to serve in the U.S. military, and 95 percent favored a federal amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Jerry Newcombe, co-host of Truth That Transforms said: “This survey reveals a gaping cultural divide between our current White House and ordinary church-going Americans who embrace biblical morality and want traditional values reflected in our nation’s laws. It’s no wonder that so many in the Christian community deeply mistrust the president.”

World Economic Forum Chairman Declares Capitalism Outdated

The World Economic Forum is holding its annual meeting this week with 1,600 economic and political leaders attending, including forty heads of state. On the night before the conference began, Forum founder and chairman Klaus Schwab said, “We are in an era of pro­found change that urgently requires new ways of thinking instead of more business-as-usual… cap­i­talism in its cur­rent form, has no place in the world around us. He further describes the cap­i­talist system as “out­dated and crumbling.”

  • The New World Order folks are socialist elites who do not want the masses to have the opportunity to acquire wealth and, therefore, see free-market capitalism as a threat to their ongoing control

Canada an Economic Role Model?

Canada faced up to its debt problem in the 1990s when both the Liberal and Conservative parties agreed to cut government spending by $7 for every dollar in tax increases. Canada’s debt burden has fallen from 67% of gross domestic product (the U.S. is currently just over 1005) to 29% without ruining the job market. With less debt, Canada was not as affected by the global recession as the U.S. was. Its dollar had been worth less than 70 cents of ours a decade ago, but has climbed back to even par.

  • Are our leaders blind or just plain obtuse? Neither. They are socialists.

Obama, Brewer Have Tense Exchange in Arizona

President Obama and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer had what was described as an intense encounter on the tarmac after the president arrived in the Grand Canyon state on Wednesday. Brewer greeted the president as he arrived off Air Force One. “He immediately took umbrage with my book, ‘Scorpions for Breakfast,’ and was somewhat disgruntled by the way he was portrayed,” Brewer later told Fox News in an interview with Greta Van Susteren. “He’s very thin-skinned.” Reporters who witnessed the exchange described that the two spoke “intensely” and chatted longer than the typical meet and greet on the runway, with Brewer jabbing her finger angrily at Obama. Obama walked away from her while they were still talking. The encounter sent “Jan Brewer” to No. 8 on Twitter’s trending topics in the U.S. and online sales of Brewer’s book “Scorpions for Breakfast” exploded.

Gov. Jan Brewer on Thursday evening made public a copy of the letter she handed President Barack Obama during their high-profile encounter a day earlier. The one-page letter was written in cursive script on Executive Office stationery. The letter touches on job creation, the state’s budget, and Brewer mentions visiting the border. “You’ve arrived in a state at the forefront of America’s recovery — and her future,” she wrote. “We both love this great country, but we fundamentally disagree on how to best make America grow and prosper once again. I’d love an opportunity to share with you how we’ve been able to turn Arizona around with hard choices that turned out to be the right ones. And, of course, my offer to visit the border — and buy lunch — still stands.”

  • Perhaps Obama should listen to Brewer, since Arizona is leading the way with a budget surplus for 2012

New Pentagon Plan: More Drones & Special Ops, Less Traditional Forces

The Pentagon plans to expand its global network of drones and special-operations bases in a fundamental realignment meant to project U.S. power, even as it cuts back conventional forces. The plan unveiled by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Thursday calls for a 30% increase in the U.S. fleet of armed unmanned aircraft in the coming years. It also foresees the deployment of more special-operations teams at a growing number of small “lily pad” bases across the globe where they can mentor local allies and launch missions. The utility of such tools was evident on Wednesday after an elite team—including members of Navy SEAL Team Six, the unit that killed Osama bin Laden—parachuted into Somalia and freed an American woman and Danish man held hostage for months. The shift follows the U.S. troop pullout from Iraq in December, and comes alongside the gradual U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, where a troop-intensive strategy is giving way to an emphasis on small, secret operations in place of larger wars.

  • In the age of global terrorism, this is a necessary adjustment in tactics

Program Reducing Numbers of Homeless Vets

In what the administration calls an unprecedented effort, the Housing, Veterans Affairs and Labor departments and a network of federally funded community service agencies are working together to move every homeless veteran into permanent housing by 2015. The population of homeless vets fell 12% last year — from about 76,000 in 2010 to 67,000, according to a federally sponsored annual count of homeless people, including vets, taken on a single night in January 2011. This year’s count is under way and the results will be available later this year. According to the Congressional Research Service, homeless veterans numbered nearly 196,000 in fiscal 2006. Advocates say the homeless vet population is always undercounted. About 1.5 million veterans are at risk of ending up on the streets because of poverty and other problems, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. HUD statistics show the program has distributed nearly housing 38,000 vouchers to the most vulnerable homeless vets over the past four years. Administration officials are optimistic the number of homeless vets will continue to decline, but funding for that effort is already being cut.

Mass Transit Ridership Increasing

Mass transit ridership is up nationally, and experts don’t know why. The increasing ridership reflects a national trend that is forcing transit planners to rethink basic assumptions about the reasons people either ride buses and trains or stop using them. For decades, transit agencies saw that in recessions, people rode less because they had less money and fewer jobs. But something else has happened during this economic downturn. But a recent survey of riders, and what Ketcherside has gleaned from customer comments, suggests one answer: People are more willing to use transit. The American Public Transportation Association agrees, saying changing demographics, shifting habits and technological innovations are steering more people onto buses and trains.

Lunches to Have More Veggies, Fruits

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Wednesday unveiled new nutrition standards that will require schools to add more fruits and vegetables to lunch while gradually reducing the amount of sodium and trans fat. The rules also set calorie limits for the millions of meals served annually through the National School Lunch Program. The changes, which will be phased in over three years beginning July 1, are the first major revisions the agency has made to the federal lunch program in more than 15 years. The switch is part of a national focus on childhood obesity and the associated risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.

Gates Injects $750M in Troubled Global Fund

Bill Gates rode to the rescue of a beleaguered health fund Thursday by pledging $750 million to fight three of world’s killer diseases. The Microsoft founder says the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s donation to the Geneva-based Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria comes on top of $650 million it contributed to the fund over the past decade. Gates said his pledge at the World Economic Forum — a magnet for the world’s business elite — is meant to encourage other potential donors.

Economic News

The nation’s economy grew at a 2.8% annual rate the last three months of 2011, falling short of expectations as spending by consumers, businesses and governments came in below economists’ projections. Adjusted for inflation, the economy grew just 1.7% last year, almost half of 2010’s 3% growth. Americans spent more on cars and trucks, and companies built up their stockpiles. But growth in the October-December quarter was held back by the biggest annual government spending cuts in four decades.

The Federal Reserve, declaring that the economy would need help for years to come, said Wednesday it would extend by 18 months the period that it plans to hold down interest rates in an effort to spur growth. The economy expanded “moderately” in recent weeks, the Fed said in a statement released after a two-day meeting of its policy-making committee, but jobs were still scarce, the housing sector remained deeply depressed and Europe’s flirtation with crisis could undermine the nascent domestic recovery.

The number of people seeking unemployment benefits rose last week to a seasonally adjusted 377,000, after a nearly four-year low the previous week. Applications have trended downward over the past few months. The average has fallen about 9% since Oct. 1. The four week average, a less volatile measure, is down to 377,500, a level that could sustain moderate improvement in the jobs market.

Orders to factories for long-lasting manufactured goods increased by 3% in December after businesses stepped up spending on machinery and other capital goods. The second straight monthly gain offered more evidence that the economy has begun the new year with some momentum.

Egypt

Egypt appears to be back at square one. Hundreds of thousands of protesters who took to the streets across Egypt on Wednesday demanding more freedoms and justice, which they say have not followed the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak. In Tahrir Square, the center of revolutionary protests a year ago, members of the long-banned but now politically ascendant Muslim Brotherhood blared religious songs and chants of “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”). A dozen large marches organized by secular groups converged on Tahrir from various parts of the city, chanting “Down with military rule!” and filling boulevards. The “non-Islamists” swarmed into the downtown plaza before sunset, jam-packing it to outnumber the Islamists.

Several foreign civil rights workers in Egypt, including six Americans, are not being allowed to leave the country while officials decide whether to charge them for their work with democracy activists. The workers, who include Sam LaHood, director of the International Republican Institute’s Egypt program and son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, work for democracy organizations that provide training on setting up political parties, civil rights groups and elections. Egyptian police raided the offices of 10 foreign civil rights organizations last month, including three U.S. organizations. Police seized computers, files and cash.

Iran

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Iran is ready for new nuclear talks with the West. The Iranian president’s comments come as the United States and Europe have begun tightening sanctions against Iran in an attempt to convince it to halt uranium enrichment, which they worry could lead to weapons-grade material.. Ahmadinejad’s remarks follow other indications that Tehran is ready to a new round of talks with the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany. The last round of talks was held in Turkey last January, but the negotiations ended with no resolution.

  • Iran only ‘talks’ as a means of stalling. They remain fixated on producing nuclear weapons.

Syria

A “terrifying massacre” in the restive Syrian city of Homs has killed more than 30 people, including small children, in a barrage of mortar fire and attacks by armed forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, activists said Friday. Videos posted online from activists showed the bodies of children wrapped in plastic bags lined up next to each other. The Syrian uprising began last March with largely peaceful anti-government protests, but it has grown increasingly militarized in recent months as frustrated regime opponents and army defectors arm themselves and fight back against government forces. Syria has a volatile sectarian divide, making civil unrest one of the most dire scenarios. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

Afghanistan

A suicide car bomber targeting a NATO-sponsored reconstruction team killed four Afghan civilians, including a child, and wounded 31 on Thursday in southern Afghanistan. Three civilian international members of the aid team — two men and one woman — were among the wounded. The bomber detonated his explosives-laden vehicle Thursday morning as a convoy of a NATO Provincial Reconstruction Team passed by in Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province.

Attacks with makeshift bombs hit a record high of more than 16,000 in Afghanistan in the past year. The number of improvised explosive devices that were cleared or detonated rose to 16,554 from 15,225, an increase of 9% over 2010. Insurgent reliance on IEDs as their No. 1 weapon meant a rise in concussions and severe wounds to U.S. servicemembers who have been operating on foot to root out Taliban fighters in remote areas. Civilians were increasingly becoming the main victims.

Iraq

A suicide bomber detonated an explosives-packed car near a funeral procession in southeastern Baghdad on Friday, killing at least 28 people. The predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Zafaraniyah, where mourners had gathered for the funeral of a person killed the day before. Another 61 people were wounded in the attack. Iraqi officials say insurgents also bombed a house belonging to two policemen and their families in central Iraq, killing 10 people inside it. The house where the two policemen brothers lived was leveled when insurgents planted bombs around it. Both policemen and two children under one years of age were among the dead. At least 200 people have been killed in a wave of attacks by suspected insurgents since the beginning of the year, raising concerns that the surge in violence and an escalating political crisis might deteriorate into a civil war, just weeks after the U.S. military withdrawal.

Earthquakes

An earthquake with preliminary 5.2-magnitude shook Greece’s southern Aegean Sea islands Friday, the second in two days. Civil protection officials said no damage to buildings was reported, but two people were slightly injured trying to flee their homes on the island of Crete. The undersea earthquake occurred at 3:33 a.m. Friday about 46 kilometers southwest of the popular tourist resort island of Santorini, and 247 kilometers south southeast of the Greek capital, Athens. A 5.3 magnitude earthquake hit the same area on Thursday morning, causing no damage or injuries.

Weather

Heavy rain and powerful winds that spawned several tornadoes have swept across Texas, forcing drivers to abandon cars on flooded roads but not dropping enough water to make up for the state’s historic drought. Storms pounded Dallas and Fort Worth overnight Wednesday. Record rainfall drenched the Austin area, which last summer suffered the most devastating wildfires in Texas history. Tornadoes touched down near Austin, San Antonio and Houston, damaging homes and businesses. No injuries were reported.

The National Weather Service has now documented paths of destruction from at least 10 tornadoes in the outbreak of storms across central Alabama early Monday. Tornadoes struck in Perry and Chilton counties, including an EF-2 tornado that left a nearly 40-mile path of damage. That twister destroyed the sanctuary of the historic Ephesus Church. It also tore apart trees in the Talladega National Forest, toppled a radio tower and damaged homes and businesses just north of downtown Maplesville.

It is now safe to plant new species in many parts of the nation, according to a new government map released Wednesday showing new growing guidelines for the first time in decades. A gradual northward warming trend makes it possible to plant trees and other perennials that would have perished in colder zones. Pennsylvania’s growing zone was considered risky for southern magnolias, according to the old government map dating to 1990. But the new map, based on updated weather statistics from 1996 to 2005, puts Pennsylvania, like much of the Northeast, in a warmer growing zone.

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Signs of the Times (1/25/12)

January 25, 2012

Strongest Solar Storm Since 2005 Hitting Earth

The sun is bombarding Earth with radiation from the biggest solar storm in more than six years with more to come from the fast-moving eruption. The solar flare occurred at about 11 p.m. EST Sunday and will hit Earth with three different effects at three different times. The radiation is mostly a concern for satellite disruptions and astronauts in space. It can cause communication problems for polar-traveling airplanes. It’s the plasma that causes much of the noticeable problems on Earth, such as electrical grid outages. In 1989, a solar storm caused a massive blackout in Quebec. But this coronal mass ejection seems likely to be only moderate, with just a chance of becoming strong. The worst of the storm is likely to go north of Earth.

Supreme Court Rules Warrants Needed for GPS Tracking

In a major decision on privacy in the digital age, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that police need a warrant before attaching a GPS device to a person’s car. The case ensures that police cannot use the Global Positioning System to continuously track a suspect before presenting sufficient grounds and obtaining a warrant from a judge. The ruling, which marked the justices’ first-ever review of GPS tracking, was unanimous. The justices divided, however, on how the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures applies to such high-tech tracking. Five justices suggested in concurring statements that a warrant might similarly be needed for prolonged surveillance through smartphones or other devices with GPS capabilities.

Are National IDs Coming to U.S.?

National IDs for voting, or proving citizenship, is an idea that is being floated in the United States to crack down on voter fraud, illegal immigration and foreign terrorists. Proponents, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, say it is an efficient way to verify identities and prevent crime. Opponents, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, describe it as an invasion of privacy. Minority advocacy groups have even alleged that the cards would frighten minorities going to the polls. The free photo ID issued by the Mexican Federal Electoral Institute had become the accepted way to prove one’s identity — and is a one-card way to open a bank account, board an airplane and buy beer. Mexico has not seen many problems with its card, and national identity cards have been issued for years in France, Poland, Singapore, Brazil, to prove citizenship.

  • We know from Revelation that there will eventually be global IDs that will become the “mark of the beast.” The justifications will seem reasonable, but the implementation will be onerous.

Obama’s State of the Union Address Highlights Partisan Divide

While President Barack Obama may have referred to “investments” in his State of the Union address, what he was actually calling for higher taxes and more spending. President Obama’s populist-flavored State of the Union Address on Monday night and the harsh reaction of Republican leaders to it reflect more than Washington’s typical partisan divide. Their sharply divergent views about the causes of the country’s problems and the solutions to them are part of the most fundamental debate in a generation or more, perhaps even since the New Deal era, over what the government can and should do at a time of economic pain. That deep disagreement isn’t likely to be narrowed before November. The gulf between the two sides and the capital’s partisan vitriol undercut the traditional role of the State of the Union — that is, as an account of the legislative priorities the president will pursue this year. Instead, with limited prospects of major legislation passing, the speech and the reaction were election-year arguments that each side hopes will persuade voters to endorse its view of the world.

  • The choice is clear: more debt and more socialism or a return to true capitalism and Biblical morality

Obama Calls for Offshore Oil Drilling and Clean Energy

In a broad appeal to U.S. voters, President Obama said Tuesday he will open more than 75% of potential offshore oil and gas resources to exploration and, at the same time, produce enough clean energy on public land to power three million homes. During his State of the Union address, Obama said the nation is rapidly boosting its oil production but, with just 2% of the world’s oil reserves, it needs to look at other energy sources. He said he will “take every possible action to safely develop” natural gas while requiring companies that drill on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use. His comments on energy, a lengthy part of his speech, were aimed to deflect criticism he received last week from many Republicans for rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried oil sands from Alberta, Canada to Gulf Coast refineries.

  • Obama has proven to be big on promises in an election year, but to fall well short on delivery

Arizona Strikes Back: State Investigates Feds over Gun-Running

Arizona’s state legislature will open its own investigation into the Obama administration’s disgraced gun-running program, known as “Fast and Furious,” the speaker of the state House said Friday. Speaker Andy Tobin created the committee, and charged it with looking at whether the program broke any state laws — raising the possibility of state penalties against those responsible for the operation. It’s a turnaround from the rest of the immigration issue, where the federal government has sued to block the state’s own set of laws. Fast and Furious was a straw-purchase program run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The goal was to try to trace guns sold in Arizona shops and then trafficked across the Mexican border, where they landed in the hands of drug cartels. As part of the operation, however, agents let the guns “walk” — meaning they lost track of them. At least two of the guns ended up at the scene where Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in a shootout with Mexican bandits along a smuggling corridor in Arizona.

Arizona Proposes Elective Bible Course for High Schools

Arizona’s public and charter high-school students soon could earn credit for learning about the influence of the Old Testament on art or how biblical references are found throughout literature. A state lawmaker has proposed legislation that would make Arizona the sixth state in the nation to allow school systems to offer a high-school elective course on the Bible. Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas already have laws allowing such classes. Arizona law doesn’t ban the use of the Bible, or any other religious document, as part of a public-school class curriculum as long as it is for academic purposes and does not involve sectarian ideas or religious devotion. But state Rep. Terri Proud, a Republican from Tucson, Ariz., said teachers and school districts still are often afraid to even discuss religion in their classrooms. “There is this false perception that separation of church means absolutely no religion in school, that the Bible is not allowed,” Proud said. “That is absolutely not true.”

Shake & Bake Meth Filling Hospitals with Burn Patients

A crude new method of making methamphetamine poses a risk even to Americans who never get anywhere near the drug: It is filling hospitals with thousands of uninsured burn patients requiring millions of dollars in advanced treatment — a burden so costly that it’s contributing to the closure of some burn units. So-called shake-and-bake meth is produced by combining raw, unstable ingredients in a 2-liter soda bottle. But if the person mixing the noxious brew makes the slightest error, such as removing the cap too soon or accidentally perforating the plastic, the concoction can explode, searing flesh and causing permanent disfigurement, blindness or even death. Up to a third of patients in some burn units were hurt while making meth, and most were uninsured. The average treatment costs $6,000 per day. And the average meth patient’s hospital stay costs $130,000 — 60% more than other burn patients.

Seniors Working Past Retirement Age

Experts say Baby Boomers are starting to work past conventional retirement age, a trend fueled by an uncertain economy, improved health in older life and an understanding that staying engaged leads to a better sense of well-being. The percentage of people who work and people who want to work has increased markedly in both the 65-and-older and 75-and-older groups. For 2011, the participation rate for 65 and older was 17.9% compared with 10.8% in 1985. For 75 and older, the rate jumped from 4.3% in 1990 to 7.5% in 2011. An April Gallup survey had similar findings:18% said they would work full-time, and a third of those said it was because they wanted to, not because they would have to; and 63% said they would work part-time.

Economic News

After rounds of plant closures as the economy headed into recession — and some automakers headed into bankruptcy court — a resurgent auto industry is helping lead the way out with a hiring surge of an estimated 60,000 jobs this year. Total jobs at all U.S. auto plants and parts factories will rise 10% to about 650,000 this year, says the Center for Automotive Research, and hit 756,800 by 2015. That’s up from about 550,000 in the depths of the recent recession, but still well below more than a million a decade ago.

Apple nudged out oil giant Exxon Mobil early Wednesday to become the most valuable publicly-traded company in the world. The company’s stock surged 8% at the open to $454.44 a share, one day after Apple reported the best quarterly results in history for a tech company. That spike pushed the company’s market value to $418 billion. Apple’s stellar quarter included a 73% jump in sales to $46.3 billion, a tech industry record. The company said its fiscal first-quarter profit more than doubled from a year earlier, rising to $13 billion

A modestly growing number of Americans are moving out of state to get a job, a development that could cut unemployment and better match workers with positions. In a Manpower survey, 26% of U.S. workers said the recession made them more willing to move, vs. 19% who were less willing. Obstacles to mobility (such as homes that won’t sell) still exist, but they’re slightly less daunting.

Job discrimination complaints in the United States rose to an all-time high last year, led by an increase in bias charges based on religion and national origin. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received nearly 100,000 charges of discrimination during the 2011 fiscal year, the most in its 46-year history. Charges of religious discrimination jumped by 9.5 percent, the largest increase of any category. Claims of bias based on ancestry or country of origin rose 5 percent.

Somalia

U.S. Navy SEALs parachuted into Somalia under cover of darkness early Wednesday and crept up to an outdoor camp where American Jessica Buchanan and Dane Poul man were being held hostage. Soon, nine kidnappers were dead and both hostages were freed. President Obama authorized the mission two days earlier, and minutes after he gave his State of the Union address to Congress he was on the phone with the American’s father to tell him his daughter was safe. The raid caught the guards as they were sleeping after having chewed the narcotic leaf qat for much of the evening. New intelligence emerged last week that Buchanan’s health was “deteriorating rapidly,” so Obama directed his security team to develop a rescue plan.

India

In northeastern India, people are bravely turning to Christ in ever-increasing numbers. They are doing so in spite of strict laws that frequently make it a crime to convert from Hinduism to Christianity, and in the face of radical Hindu mobs that have engaged in massive, brutal killings, and torture in the villages of Christian converts. Akbar Digal, a pastor in a small Indian village in the state of Orissa, was one of their many victims. In the night he heard mobs approaching and went from home to home, waking and warning members of his church, helping them flee into the forest. He was caught by the anti-Christian mob, dragged down a dirt road, hacked to death with axes, and then burned.

  • “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:10

Egypt

With Islamists comprising the overwhelming majority of its lawmakers, the parliament elected in Egypt’s first legislative vote after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster nearly a year ago held its inaugural session on Monday. The convening of the new parliament is a significant benchmark in the timetable provided by the generals who took over from Mubarak for the handover of power to a civilian administration. It is also a step forward for Islamist groups on the road to becoming the strongest political force in the nations that experienced Arab Spring revolts. Islamists dominated elections first in Tunisia and then in Egypt, and Libya’s Islamists are also expected to do well in parliamentary voting later this year. But the revolution that brought hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to Tahrir Square has not brought prosperity and has yet to end worries about government oppression.

Tens of thousands of Egyptians rallied Wednesday to mark the first anniversary of the country’s 2011 uprising, with liberals and Islamists gathering on different sides of Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a reflection of the deep political divides that emerged in the year since the downfall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak. Egypt’s joblessness is rising, and tourism, a major source of foreign income, has declined drastically. The economy is hobbled by state controls that still benefit the politically favored, according to the Index of Economic Freedom. Democratic changes that brought the first free and fair elections in decades have handed control of parliament to Islamist parties that want Egypt governed by some form of religious law. Egypt’s military, which has been running the country, has yet to surrender all political power or revoke abusive Mubarak-era laws. Egypt’s military ruler on Tuesday decreed a partial lifting of the nation’s hated emergency laws, while saying the draconian measures would still apply to crimes committed by “thugs.”

Syria

Syria on Monday rejected the Arab League’s wide-ranging new plan to end the country’s 10-month crisis, saying the League’s call for a national unity government in two months is a clear violation of Syrian sovereignty. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people poured into the streets in a suburb outside the capital, Damascus, to mourn 11 residents who were either shot dead by security forces or killed in clashes between army defectors and troops a day earlier. Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem on Tuesday signaled the crackdown will continue, saying in Damascus that the government will take any steps necessary to defend against chaos. Activists, meanwhile, reported more violence nationwide Tuesday, with more than 15 people killed and possibly many more.

Iraq

Iraqi officials said a leader of a Sunni militia that turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and sided with the U.S. troops to fight the militants has been killed in Baghdad. Mullah Nadhum al-Jubouri died in a drive-by shooting in western Baghdad on Tuesday. Before joining the pro-government group known as Awakening Councils, al-Jubouri fought Americans alongside al-Qaeda militants.

A wave of car bombings hit the Iraq capital on Tuesday, killing 14 people and wounding more than 70 as violence surges in the country amid an escalating political crisis a month after the U.S. military withdrawal. t least 170 people have died in attacks since the beginning of the year, many of them Shiite pilgrims attending religious commemorations. Suspected Sunni insurgents have frequently targeted Shiite communities and Iraqi security forces to undermine public confidence in the Shiite-dominated government.

Romania

Romania’s prime minister on Tuesday used a national holiday to call for unity as thousands of protesters angry at the government’s failure to reverse falling living standards turned their ire toward state media. The government has been battling to contain 12 days of demonstrations fueled by frustration pent up since the country’s troubled transition to democracy after its 1989 revolution. President Traian Basescu accused opposition figures and the press of indulging in what he called “the joy of destruction,” and of undermining and ignoring his government’s achievements.

Weather

A landslide struck villages in mountainous central Papua New Guinea, and local media reported Wednesday that 40 bodies have been recovered and 20 people are still missing. The landslide completely covered two villages while people slept where heavy rains have been falling.

Nine months after powerful tornadoes plowed across Alabama and killed 238 people, the state again is looking for victims and assessing damage, this time from rare January tornadoes that killed two and left scores more injured. The heaviest damage from the storm system, which moved across northern Alabama on Sunday night and Monday morning, was in Jefferson County near Birmingham.

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Signs of the Times (1/23/12)

January 23, 2012

Annual March for Life Grows

Today’s March for Life marks the 39th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States, and one pro-lifer says the annual event continues to gather support. Tens of thousands of people are in the nation’s capital for the solemn march to the Supreme Court building, where the decision was handed down January 22, 1973. An estimated 54 million unborn babies have been killed in the womb in the U.S. alone since the legalization of abortion in 1973.

Bryan Kemper, who serves as youth outreach director for Priests for Life, points out that the country is entering its 40th year of legalized abortion. But each year has brought a noticeable increase in the number of young people participating in the March for Life, he notes. “Even someone from Planned Parenthood noticed that and wrote an article about that,” Kemper reports. “They were blown away by how many young people [are engaged in this movement]. And this year, the pro-abortion movement needs to stand up and take notice because this generation is pro-life, and they are going to be the generation that will end abortion.”

American Voters Not Influenced by Candidates’ Faith

A national survey from LifeWay Research, a Nashville-based Christian research agency, finds a candidate’s religious life is not a major motivating factor for five in six voters. According to a survey of 2,000 Americans, conducted last fall, LifeWay Research President Ed Stetzer says: “It appears most Americans will be more concerned with a candidate’s policies than his Prophet.” However, Lifeway found that those who call themselves born-again or fundamentalist Christians were almost twice as likely to choose candidates based on their faith. The most overtly religious candidates of the GOP pack, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, have crashed out of the race.

  • The secularization of America is almost complete, with evangelicals outnumbered and highly marginalized

Congress Shelves Anti-Piracy Bills

The controversial anti-piracy legislation that fueled a wide-scale Internet protest earlier this week is on life support as Senate and House leaders retreated Friday and called for a compromise. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was postponing a vote set for Tuesday “in light of recent events.” House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who introduced the House version known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), also called for a delay. Large and small Internet companies, including Google and Facebook, say current laws are sufficient and that the proposed legislation will lead to censorship and kill the entrepreneurial spirit that fuels technology innovation.

Human Trafficking a Growing Crime in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, human trafficking has become the second fastest growing criminal industry in the U.S.— just behind drug trafficking — with children accounting for roughly half of all victims. Of the 2,515 cases under investigation in the U.S. in 2010, more than 1,000 involved children. And those are only the ones we know of. Too often, authorities say, victims stay silent out of fear, so no one knows they exist. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center estimates it’s a $32 billion industry, with half coming from industrialized countries.

Over the last decade, numerous human trafficking cases have been prosecuted in Michigan. The court dockets detail the horror stories: Children being sold for sex at truck stops, servants held in captivity and forced to clean for free, and women forced into the sex industry, forfeiting their earnings.

Homeland Security Is Reading and Recording Every Keystroke

The Department of Homeland Security’s National Operations Center (NOC) released its Publicly Available Social Media Monitoring and Situational Awareness Initiative and in that report the intelligence-gathering arm of the DHS, the Office of Operations Coordination and Planning (OPS) gives itself permission to “gather, store, analyze, and disseminate” data on millions of users of social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) and business networking sites (Linkedin). The report defines the target audience as anyone who may use “traditional and/or social media in real time to keep their audience situationally aware and informed.” Prior to this new initiative, operative guidelines instructed NOC to collect data only “under authorization set forth by the written code,” whereas these new provisions permit agents of the NOC to track the online movements and postings of every level of writer or commentator from Brian Williams to nearly anonymous bloggers. This unconstitutional, unwarranted search of private information is designed by DHS “to provide situational awareness and establish a common operating picture” of target audiences.

  • Big Brother is marshalling its resources and gathering information for future crackdowns on free speech under the guise of preventing “hate” crimes

Ominous Cyberweapons on Horizon

Stuxnet, a piece of malicious computer code called a “worm,” brought Iran’s Bushehr power plant to its knees almost a year ago. The worm – a type of damaging code like a virus – also was suspected of halting Iran’s plans to enrich uranium by damaging the computer controls of the uranium enrichment centrifuges. Cybersecurity specialists worry about the worm because Stuxnet made the transition from the virtual digital world into the real world. Stuxnet was the first cyberweapon designed to cause physical damage to an industrial piece of equipment. And now there are members of a new class of cyberweapon that have the capability to reprogram industrial control systems that run electrical generating plants, oil refineries, and gas pipelines and other parts of the national infrastructure.

The final goal would be to manipulate the physical equipment operated by the industrial control system so the equipment acted in a manner contrary to its intended purpose. The most obvious results could be sabotage, industrial espionage, or cyberwarfare. Evidence is coming to light that Stuxnet and its close cousin, Duqu, could be just the tip of the iceberg in the cyberweapon development process. Stuxnet and Duqu appear to be the first products of a larger cybersecurity weapons program with code that can be modified easily by an individual user with intermediate skills.

Oceans Turning Acidic

Man-made pollution is acidifying the world’s oceans at unprecedented rates and is threatening corals and other sea life, an international team of researchers report Monday. Scientists have found that human-caused carbon dioxide emissions, from the burning of fossil fuels in the last 100 to 200 years, have already raised ocean acidity far beyond the range of natural variations. Based on computer modeling and observations, they say these emissions, which increase water acidity by reacting with saltwater, may significantly reduce the calcification rate of marine organisms such as corals and mollusks. “In some regions, the man-made rate of change in ocean acidity since the Industrial Revolution is hundred times greater than the natural rate of change between the Last Glacial Maximum and pre-industrial times,” the report notes.

Economic News

Home sales in December reached the highest pace in nearly a year. The gain coincided with other signs that the troubled U.S. housing market improved at the end of 2011. Analysts caution that sales remain historically low and it will take years for the home market to return to full health. Still, the third straight monthly sales increase was encouraging. And economists noted that conditions are in place for further gains this year.

Some 98,000 federal workers, including those in Congress, the postal service, military and the executive branch, owed $1.3 billion in back taxes in 2010. According to IRS statistics, about 4 percent — or 684 employees — of the 18,000 congressional staffers, are in arrears, owing $10.6 million. Civilian employees of the Defense Department were the worst with some 25,000 owing $225 million.

Orange juice prices rose the daily limit on Friday and near a record high, and were up 7 percent in the options market, amid speculation the United States may ban Brazilian juice imports which had used an illegal fungicide.

Nigeria

Coordinated attacks claimed by a radical Islamist sect killed at least 143 people in north Nigeria’s largest city, a hospital official said Saturday. Soldiers and police officers swarmed over streets Saturday in Kano, a city of more than 9 million people that remains an important political and religious hub in Nigeria’s Muslim north. Gun shots could be heard near a state police command in the city, remnants of a wide-ranging attack launched by the sect known as Boko Haram. Attackers targeted five police buildings, two immigration offices and the local headquarters of the State Security Service, Nigeria’s secret police.

Assailants kidnapped a U.S. citizen leaving a bank in Nigeria’s oil-rich southern delta Friday, the first such attack targeting foreigners in the restive region for several months. Investigators believe the assailants trailed the man to the bank and waited outside before kidnapping him. Kidnappers later made contact with authorities and demanded a $333,000 ransom. The attack occurred where foreign firms have pumped oil out of the country for more than 50 years. Despite the billions flowing into Nigeria’s government, many in the delta remain desperately poor, living in polluted waters without access to proper medical care, education or work.

Somalia

Gunmen kidnapped an American man in the northern Somali town of Galkayo on Saturday, officials said. The gunmen surrounded the man’s car shortly after the man left the airport, then forced the American into another vehicle. The kidnapped man is an American engineer who came to Somalia to carry out an evaluation for building a deep water port in the town of Hobyo. The gunmen severely beat the foreigner’s Somali companion when he begged them not to take the man. In October, gunmen kidnapped an American woman and a Danish man working for the Danish Demining Group from the same town. They are still being held. Kidnapping for ransom has become increasingly common in Somalia over the past five years. Currently, at least four aid workers, a French military official, a British tourist taken from Kenya and hundreds of sailors, are being held captive.

  • The end-time spirit of lawlessness is spreading rapidly across the globe

Egypt

Final results on Saturday showed that Islamist parties won nearly three-quarters of the seats in parliament in Egypt’s first elections since the ouster of authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak. The Islamist domination of Egypt’s parliament has worried liberals and even some conservatives about the religious tone of the new legislature, which will be tasked with forming a committee to write a new constitution. Overseeing the process will be the country’s Mubarak-era military generals, who are still in charge. A coalition led by the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood won 47 percent, or 235 seats in the 498-seat parliament. The ultraconservative Al-Nour Party was second with 25 percent, or 125 seats.

Syria

The Arab League observer’s mission in Syria has been extended for another month, officials from the 22-member organization said on Sunday. The League decided to add more members to the mission and provide them with more resources. The U.N. will further train the observers. Many in Syria’s opposition movement have complained that the observers have failed to curb the bloodshed in the country as the regime cracks down on a 10-month-old uprising against it.

A string of explosions struck a police truck transporting prisoners in a tense area of northwestern Syria on Saturday, killing at least 14 people, state media and an opposition group said. Government troops also battled defectors in the north in fighting that left 10 people dead. The 10-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad has turned increasingly militarized and chaotic in recent months as more frustrated regime opponents and army defectors arm themselves and fight back against government forces.

Libya

Hundreds of angry protesters on Saturday stormed the transitional government’s headquarters in the eastern city of Benghazi, carting off computers, chairs, and desks while the country’s interim leader was still holed up in the building. Libyans have grown increasingly frustrated with the pace and direction of reforms in the country more than three months after the end of the civil war that ousted longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The head of Libya’s transitional government suspended delegates from Benghazi, the city that kicked off the movement that toppled Gadhafi last year. The move follows protests in Benghazi accusing the body of corruption and not moving fast enough on reform. The body’s deputy head, Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga, resigned in protest over the suspensions. Another delegate, Fathi Baja, called the move “illegitimate.” It shows the splits plaguing Libya’s new regime. Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council, said he had appointed a council of religious leaders to investigate corruption charges.

Iraq

Iraq’s Shiite-led government cracked down harshly on dissent during the past year of Arab Spring uprisings, turning the country into a “budding police state” as autocratic regimes crumbled elsewhere in the region, an international rights groups said Sunday. Security forces abuse protesters, harass journalists, torture detainees and intimidate activists, Human Rights Watch said. “Iraq is quickly slipping back into authoritarianism,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for the New York-based group.

Iran

The European Union adopted an oil embargo Monday against Iran and a freeze of the assets of the country’s central bank, part of sanctions meant to pressure the country to resume talks on its nuclear program. Diplomats said the measures, which were adopted in Brussels by the EU’s 27 foreign ministers, include an immediate embargo on new contracts for crude oil and petroleum products, while existing contracts will be allowed to run until July. EU diplomats are calling the measure part of a twin track approach toward Iran: increase sanctions to discourage what they suspect is Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons but emphasize at the same time the international community’s willingness to talk.

Pakistan

A suspected U.S. drone fired missiles at a house and a vehicle in northwestern Pakistan on Monday, Pakistani intelligence officials said, killing four alleged militants in an attack that could signal the program is picking up steam after strained relations halted strikes late last year. The U.S. held off on carrying out drone attacks in Pakistan for nearly two months after American airstrikes accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two posts along the Afghan border on Nov. 26. The deaths outraged Pakistan, which retaliated by closing its border crossings to supplies meant for NATO troops in Afghanistan and kicking the U.S. out of a base used by American drones. Monday’s strike in North Waziristan’s Deegan village was the third since the attacks resumed.

Yemen

President Ali Abdullah Saleh left Yemen’s capital Sunday for medical treatment in New York City but vowed to return to lead his party and apologized “for any failure that occurred” during his 33- year rule. Saleh gathered top political, military and security officials and announced promotion of Yemeni Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to the rank of marshal. In November, Saleh signed a power transfer deal but had balked at actually leaving. Thousands of Yemeni protesters took to the streets of the capital, Sanaa, on Sunday, calling for the parliament to reverse its decision to pass a law granting Saleh immunity.

Earthquakes

A magnitude-5.0 earthquake has struck Hawaii. The U.S. Geological Survey says the quake struck near Kae’na Point in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island at 4:36 p.m. Sunday, at a depth of five miles. It was immediately followed by several aftershocks, the largest of them a magnitude-3.0 about 10 minutes after the original quake. There were no immediate reports of damages or injuries.

Wildfires

The wildfire that destroyed 29 homes near Reno is contained. Thousands of evacuees are back home. And the family of the woman found dead says there’s no point in prosecuting the remorseful man who accidentally started it. An elderly man discarding fireplace ashes accidentally touched off the brush fire that raged south of Reno, destroying 29 homes and forcing thousands of people to flee the flames. Fueled by 82 mph wind gusts, the blaze burned nearly 3,200 acres and forced the evacuation of up to 10,000 people Thursday. On Friday, the “extremely remorseful” man voluntarily admitted his role in improperly disposing of the ashes at his home.

Weather

Two people were killed in the Birmingham, Ala., area as storms pounded the South and Midwest, prompting tornado warnings in a handful of states early Monday. Some roads are impassable, there are a number of county roads where debris and trees are widespread, with damage to many homes.

Tens of thousands of Pacific Northwest residents endured a chilly weekend after a powerful storm brought snow and ice and left a tangle of fallen trees and damaged power lines. Several Oregon counties saw their worst flooding in more than a decade. Nearly 230,000 customers were without power late Friday night in Western Washington. Several warming shelters have been opened in the area to aid people whose homes are without heat.

The PGA Humana Challenge golf tournament in La Quinta, CA, in the Palm Springs area, suspended play midway through the third round Saturday after high winds caused damage on all three courses, toppling trees, blowing balls off the greens and knocking a scoreboard into a lake.

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Signs of the Times (1/20/12)

January 20, 2012

Adult Stem Cells Save Man’s Life

Thanks to adult stem cell research, a Baltimore cancer patient now has a new trachea. The 30-year-old man was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor in his windpipe. “They tried chemotherapy and radiation, but they just couldn’t get rid of this tumor,” Dr. David Prentice of the Family Research Council  reports. “They couldn’t take it out because they had nothing to put back in in terms of his windpipe, and it was slowly going to choke him to death.” But Christopher Lyles found Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, an Italian who is a visiting professor at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. Macchiarini had developed a technique using the patient’s own bone marrow adult stem cells to build new tissue and save many lives. In this case, adult stem cells were used on a sort of scaffold. “The cells started to grow. They realized they were supposed to be windpipe because that was the position they were in his chest,” Dr. Prentice explains. “They grew a whole new windpipe for him.”

  • The case adds to the more than 70 different ways in which adult stem cells have successfully been used in a medical treatment. Meanwhile, research using human embryos has produced no usable results.

Nearly 60 Percent of Young People Leaving the Church

A recent study by the Barna Group found that almost 60 percent of Christian young people ages 15 to 29 have distanced themselves from active involvement in church, CBN News reports. David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, says a few reasons behind the mass exodus include young people finding churches “shallow,” feeling that God is missing from services, and feeling that church is not a safe place to express doubts. He added that in many cases, churches have failed to equip young people to live “in but not of” the world. “[Young people] tell us that … Christianity has become so hip, so watered-down, so about entertainment — and they’re looking for something of more substance,” Kinnaman said. However, not all is lost: Kinnaman said this has led some young people to begin attending more traditional, conservative churches. “They want to feel that their faith matters, that they’re learning the truth of Scripture,” he said.

NYC’s 40 Percent Abortion Rate Highest in the U.S.

According to a recent report released by the local health department, the abortion rate in New York City is more than double the national average, CBN News reports. Statistics show that 40 percent of all pregnancies in the city end in abortion, the highest rate in the United States. More than 83,000 abortions were performed in 2010, down 1 percent from 2009. The report showed that the abortion rate was highest in the African-American community, with 60 percent of all pregnancies ending in abortion, and that pregnant teenagers had abortions 63 percent of the time.

Pro-Life Activists Call for Support of ‘Sanctity of Human Life Sunday’

This Sunday, January 22, is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, and pro-life activists are calling for national support. In a Jan. 13, 1984 proclamation, then-president Ronald Reagan designated the third Sunday of January as “National Sanctity of Human Life Day,” a date chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in America. In the now almost 40 years since Roe v. Wade, the Guttmacher Institute estimates that more than 50 million abortions have taken place in the U.S. Christian singer, author and pro-life activist Rebecca St. James is calling on Americans this Sunday to remember the pro-life cause and the mission of crisis pregnancy centers, who every day “empower women to choose life,” she said. Recent statistics show Americans are increasingly supporting the pro-life agenda, she added, and emphasized the need to let their voices and funding make a difference.

Obama Rejects Keystone Pipeline from Canada to Texas

President Obama’s rejection Wednesday of rapid approval of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas triggered Republican and business community objections but also signs from Obama and the pipeline company that the issue was far from over. Obama said House Republicans forced his decision by including a provision in last month’s legislation for a short-term extension to the payroll tax cut that required him to either issue a permit to allow the 1,700-mile pipeline to be built or explain why it was not in the national interest by Feb. 21. Obama said he rejected the permit application now based on the State Department’s recommendation, which concluded there wasn’t enough time to vet alternate pipeline routes. Obama was putting politics ahead of jobs and the nation’s energy security by rejecting the pipeline now, Republicans and oil industry leaders said. TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder, said the company would reapply for permitting and asked for the application to be processed in time to get the pipeline online by 2014.

Under Obama, Oil, Gas Production on Federal Lands Down 40%

A new Heritage Foundation report on energy production reveals that oil and gas production on federal land, over which President Obama and his appointees have jurisdiction, is down 40 percent. In Obama’s announcement this week torpedoing plans for the Keystone XL pipeline, Obama claimed under his administration “domestic oil and natural gas production is up.” But the Heritage Foundation’s report on “The Foundry” shows that the House Natural Resources Committee unveiled figures showing under Obama, there were the fewest onshore oil and gas leases issued since 1984. Overall energy production increases are coming from private projects on private lands – and those are the driving force behind the hottest spots in the American economy right now – North Dakota with a 3.4 percent unemployment rate, Alaska with its perennially low unemployment and Texas, which has by the numbers created more jobs in recent years than the rest of the country.

House Passes Symbolic Rejection of Debt Hike

The GOP-controlled House on Wednesday kicked off another session with a protest vote against raising the government’s borrowing cap by $1.2 trillion, but the maneuver amounted to political theater under a process stacked on purpose in President Obama’s favor. The nearly party-line 239-176 vote puts the House on record against Obama’s use of unprecedented authority — awarded to him through a mechanism devised by the Senate’s top Republican — to unilaterally raise the so-called debt limit unless Congress can muster the votes to block him. The Senate is sure to kill the measure next week, and Obama’s veto power serves as a final guarantee that the increase will go through as intended and that the nation won’t face another debt crisis like last summer.

  • The political machinations over the debt crisis have grown ludicrous at best

Support for Anti-Piracy Bills Wanes

Bowing to the power of the Internet, several key lawmakers withdrew support for anti-piracy legislation after a 24-hour blackout by thousands of websites Wednesday, likely quashing any chance the bills would pass in their current form. Members of Congress faced a barrage of concerned and sometimes angry calls and e-mails from constituents made aware of the protests when they sat down at their computers Wednesday. Thousands of websites — ranging from Wikipedia, Moveon.org and Reddit to small sites and individual blogs — went dark Wednesday, urging their users to call or e-mail their lawmaker representatives’ offices and tweet en masse against the twin bills. The legislation — the Stop Online Piracy Act (a House bill commonly called SOPA) and the Protect IP Act in the Senate (called PIPA) — would allow U.S. attorneys general and copyright holders to enforce punitive actions against websites selling counterfeit goods or violating intellectual property rights.

U.K Occupy Camp Must be Removed

An Occupy London protest camp that has sprawled outside the city’s St. Paul’s Cathedral for three months must be removed, a British judge ruled Wednesday. High Court Judge Keith Lindblom backed local authorities who are trying to evict the protest against capitalist excess, inspired by New York’s Occupy Wall Street movement. It has been encamped outside the 300-year-old church since mid-October. The City of London Corporation, successfully argued that the right to protest does not justify a semi-permanent campsite affecting the rights of worshippers, businesses and tourists.

Business/Consumer Debt Down, Government Up

Debt as a percentage of the U.S. economy totaled 279% in the second quarter of last year, far below Japan’s 512% and the U.K.’s 507%, and on par with Germany and Australia. While U.S. federal debt rose through the recession, companies and consumers have deleveraged briskly. Household debt, the biggest part of U.S. debt, fell by $584 billion, or 4% — two-thirds of which is due to defaults on home loans and other debt — to $13.2 trillion. financial firms’ debt fell from $8 trillion to $6.1 trillion — equal to 2000 levels as a percentage of GDP— though half the drop can be traced to the demise of Wall Street firms such as Lehman Bros. Corporations are already at healthy debt levels.

Economic News

Weekly unemployment benefit applications sank 50,000 to 352,000 for the week ended Jan. 14, the lowest level of claims since April 2008. The Labor Department says the 50,000 decline is the biggest drop in the seasonally adjusted figure in more than six years. The four-week average, which smooths out fluctuations, dropped to 379,000. That’s the second-lowest such figure in more than three years. When weekly applications fall consistently below 375,000, it usually signals that hiring is strong enough to push down the unemployment rate.

Consumer prices were unchanged last month, the latest sign that inflation remains tame. Lower gas prices offset rising costs for food, medical care and housing. The consumer price index was flat in December for the second straight month. Excluding volatile food and energy costs, so-called “core” prices rose 0.1%.

The Commerce Department says builders started just 606,900 homes in 2011. That’s up slightly from 587,000 in 2010 and 554,000 in 2009 — the worst year on records dating back 50 years. In a healthy market, economists say, about 1.2 million homes are started each year.

Middle East

The Jerusalem Post reported on Thursday that the IDF has received intelligence that the Iranian backed Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah, which controls Lebanon, has taken advantage of the chaos in neighboring Syria to acquire stocks of highly sophisticated military equipment, including highly accurate air-defense and long-range surface-to-surface missiles. IDF chief of the general staff, Lt. General Benny Gantz warned of the proliferation of advanced weapons to terrorist groups during his address at the NATO summit in Brussels on Wednesday.

Sources from the Palestinian Islamist terror militia Hamas and the even more violent Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group have announced that they are in negotiations to merge into one faction. “An in-depth dialogue has actually begun, both internally and externally, with the aim of uniting,” PIJ spokesman Daud Shihab told AFP, adding that previous attempts to merge the groups have failed but that the current effort is being conducted at the highest levels of leadership in the two groups, including the leaders being held in Israeli jails. The talks have caused a stir among observers of Palestinian politics, which are still in flux due to the ongoing efforts of Hamas to form a unity government with the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, despite warnings from Israel and the West that such a move would mean the end of cooperation and financial support.

Syria

A former Arab League observer sent to monitor an end to government violence against democracy protesters said that Syrian officials tried to intimidate him and his colleagues and that only military aid to the rebels will end the conflict. “Right now, the country is poised for ultimate civil war.” Rather than rely on sanctions, the U.S. and other countries should arm Syrian rebel forces to stop the kinds of slayings he witnessed, Malek said. U.S. officials have uncovered an effort by Iran to help mask its oil exports and evade an American and European embargo, in a potent new sign of Tehran’s campaign to bolster Syrian President Bashar al Assad

Syria’s powerful allies in Russia vowed Wednesday to block any Western attempts to intervene militarily in Syria as Damascus fights off an increasingly chaotic 10-month-old revolt against President Bashar Assad. The support came as Assad was showing fresh confidence that he can ride out the uprising with the help of a small — but influential — set of friends in Russia, China and Iran. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned the West against encouraging anti-government uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, insisting that such attitudes could lead to “a very big war that will cause suffering not only to countries in the region, but also to states far beyond its boundaries.”

  • These are just the set of conspirators Ezekiel 38-39 warns against in the latter days

Afghanistan

The Obama administration is moving ahead with plans for negotiating with the Taliban, confident that talks offer the best chance to end the 10-year-old war in Afghanistan. But the military worries things are moving too fast, and intelligence agencies offered a gloomy prognosis in their latest Afghanistan report. The diplomatic, military and intelligence branches of the U.S. government differ over the value of talks with the Taliban or whether now is the right time to so publicly shift focus away from the ongoing military campaign that primarily targets Taliban insurgents. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and some uniformed military leaders have recently sounded some of the strongest notes of caution. The latest Afghan National Intelligence Estimate warns that the Taliban will grow stronger, using the talks to gain credibility and run out the clock until U.S. troops depart Afghanistan, while continuing to fight for more territory.

France is suspending all training operations for Afghan troops and threatening to pull its entire force out of Afghanistan early after an Afghan soldier shot and killed four French soldiers Friday. The attack was among the most deadly for French forces in the 10 years they have been serving in the international force in Afghanistan. French President Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed the death, which brings to 82 the number of French troops killed in the Afghan campaign. A big part of the French role recently has been training Afghan troops ahead of an expected pullout of the around 4,000 French troops currently there in 2014.

A suicide attacker blew himself up at an entrance to Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan Thursday. At least six civilians died in the explosion. The attacker, who was on foot, tried to get close to the gate of the massive air base, which is used by U.S.-led coalition forces, and detonated his explosives. It was the second suicide bombing in as many days in the southern Afghan province, which is the birthplace of the Taliban insurgency.

Pakistan

The US State Department is reporting today that a request to allow Special Envoy Marc Grossman to visit Pakistan has been turned down by the Pakistani government, citing the “prevailing situation” in the nation. The exact “why” of this rejection has been the subject of considerable speculation, with some suggesting the move is a function of the strained relationship between the US and Pakistan since the November attack on Pakistani military bases by US warplanes. But some officials suggest it might be more a function of the deteriorating internal political situation than the long-standing gripes with the U.S.

  • Nuclear-armed, terrorist-riddled Pakistan is coming apart at the seams and bodes major future trouble

Laos

Seven Christian leaders who were detained and tortured for nearly a month in southern Laos have been released, but concerns remain about the confiscation of church buildings in the area, according to International Christian Concern. The Christians, who were arrested for violating their village’s local traditional customs and spirit beliefs because of their Christian faith practices, were held in wooden stocks, sometimes combined with exposure to red fire ants as a form of torture, and forced to pay steep fines, said Sirikoon Prasertsee, director of the Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom. While pleased the church leaders were released, Prasertsee said he remained concerned about churches being confiscated nearby. Authorities have barred Christians from entering two church buildings in Savannakhet province, and 23 others are at risk of government seizure. The Christian minority in Laos is generally viewed as a threat to the communist government, although officials repeatedly deny human rights abuses against minorities.

Earthquakes

Iran’s state TV says the number of people injured by a Thursday earthquake of moderate strength affecting the northeastern city of Neyshabour has increased to around 230. Many residents of the city camped out overnight in subzero weather in streets and parks, fearing further tremors. Since Thursday afternoon’s magnitude 5.5 earthquake, some 75 aftershocks have jolted the city of 220,000 about 550 miles northeast of the capital Tehran.

Wildfires

A raging wildfire pushed by high winds raced across a tinder-dry landscape south of Reno on Thursday, destroying an undetermined number of homes and other buildings as firefighters raced to save property in harm’s way. Winds from an approaching storm fanned an explosive fire, forcing the closure of U.S. 395 south of Reno and prompting Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval to declare a state of emergency in response to the rare winter blaze. The Washoe Drive Fire burned more than 3,700 acres and was zero percent contained Thursday night No injuries were reported, and the fire’s cause was not known late Thursday.

Weather

A strong La Niña lowered the world’s average temperature last year to its second-coolest reading of the 2000s, federal scientists announced Thursday. The release of the two primary climate data sets both show the Earth as warmer than average, but not as warm as recent years have been. The climate center reported that the globe had its 11th-warmest year on record.

A monster Pacific Northwest storm coated Washington with freezing rain on Thursday and brought much of the state to a standstill as the Seattle airport temporarily shut down, tens of thousands of people lost power and hundreds of cars slid off roads a day after the region was hit with a major snowfall. The storm claimed at least one life — a child whose body was pulled from an Oregon creek where a car was swept away from a grocery store parking lot. Freezing rain and ice pellets caused numerous accidents in the Seattle area, where drivers are mostly inexperienced with driving in snow or ice. The last widespread freezing rain in Seattle was in December 1996. Authorities are also worried about flooding in the coming days as temperatures warm up. The intense winter storm was just the first in an onslaught of powerful storms forecast to hammer the northwest into next week.

Avalanches have killed at least 29 people in Afghanistan’s mountainous northeast as rescuers struggled to reach the worst-hit areas cut off by heavy snows. At least 40 more people have been injured in a series of avalanches since Monday in Badakhshan province. Roads outside the provincial capital of Faizabad are blocked by at least 6 feet of snow.

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Signs of the Times (1/18/12)

January 18, 2012

Iranian Pastor Again Refuses to Deny Christ in Exchange for Freedom

Iran has once again asked imprisoned Christian pastor Yousef Nadarkhani to renounce his faith and accept the Islamic prophet Muhammad as his savior with the promise of securing his release, but Nadarkhani has refused, the Christian Post reports. “The latest attempt to pressure Pastor Yousef to acknowledge Muhammad as a messenger of God violates both the Iranian constitution and various principles of international law, to which Iran is obliged to uphold,” said Tiffany Barrans, international legal director at the American Center for Law and Justice. Iran has received international criticism for violating international civil and political rights laws in Ndarkhani’s case, which is still awaiting a verdict from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Experts Disagree on Reach of Anti-Piracy Bills

Supporters and opponents of anti-piracy legislation stepped up their fight this week ahead of key votes in Congress next week that could dramatically alter the Internet. The legislation — two similar bills pending in the House and Senate — would empower the Department of Justice and copyright holders to shut down websites that violate intellectual property or sell counterfeit goods. A range of U.S. businesses and their trade groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pharmaceutical and media companies and publishers, say it would lead to more jobs and revenues and promote consumer safety. Opponents, including large and small Internet companies and First Amendment advocates, argue that it would stifle innovation and lead to censorship. SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, is the House bill and the U.S. Senate has a similar bill pending, the Protect IP Act, called PIPA. Wikipedia and Google went “dark” Wednesday in protest.

  • The New World Order folks would love to impose greater restraints on free speech

U.S. Economic Freedom Isn’t What it Used to Be

Impending laws and regulations could make the U.S. fall further down the Index of Economic Freedom, which measures 184 countries on trade freedom, business freedom, investment freedom, and property rights. The Index is a joint project of The Wall Street Journal and The Heritage Foundation. The U.S. comes in this year at number ten — down from ninth place last year, marking the fourth consecutive year of decline. “The United States has dropped because of sharp increases in government spending, more costly regulations, and really a growing sense that policy makers in the U.S. and Washington are putting special interests above the interest of the public at large,” explains James Roberts of Heritage. Unless changes are made to entitlement programs, current and incoming regulations, and the new healthcare law, Roberts warns that finishing in the top ten will be a thing of the past for the U.S.

Disapproval of Congress Hits New High

A record 84 percent of Americans say they disapprove of the way the Congress is doing its job compared with just 13 percent who approve of how things are going, according to a Washington Post/ABC News public opinion poll published on Monday. Democrats and Republicans fought all last year over the best way to control the country’s debt and annual budget deficit, as the two parties tried to position themselves for the 2012 elections. A vitriolic debate leading up to an agreement last summer to allow President Barack Obama to raise the debt ceiling fueled public disgust with Congress and prompted Standard & Poor’s credit rating agency to strip the United States of its stellar AAA rating.

  • Career politicians are the primary cause of America’s ills

Problems Plague Cleanup at Hanford Nuclear Waste Site

Seven decades after scientists came here during World War II to create plutonium for the first atomic bomb, a new generation is struggling with an even more daunting task: cleaning up the radioactive mess. The U.S. government is building a treatment plant to stabilize and contain 56 million gallons of waste left from a half-century of nuclear weapons production. The radioactive sludge is so dangerous that a few hours of exposure could be fatal. A major leak could contaminate water supplies serving millions across the Northwest. The cleanup is the most complex and costly environmental restoration ever attempted. And the project is not going well.

The troubled, 10-year effort to build the treatment plant faces enormous problems just as it reaches what was supposed to be its final stage, according to a USA Today analysis. The plant’s $12.3 billion price tag, already triple original estimates, is well short of what it will cost to address the problems and finish the project. In addition, several senior engineers cite design problems that could bring the plant’s operations to a halt before much of the waste is treated. And the plant’s start-up date, originally slated for last year and pushed back to its current target of 2019, is likely to slip further behind.

Fungus has Killed up to 6.7M Bats in ‘Potential Extinction’

Federal biologists announced today that up to 6.7 million bats in 16 states and four Canadian provinces may have died from the white-nose fungus since it was detected six years ago, a die-off that a conservationist today called “a potential extinction event,” The Washington Post reports. Biologists report mortality rates of 90% to 100% at some sites and expect the disease to keep spreading through several species, including some that are endangered. The cause is a mystery. One theory is that humans may have introduced the fungus while exploring caves. The new die-off figures come just before another hibernation season and are several times greater than previous estimates.

Occupy Protesters in D.C. as House Returns

An apparent smoke bomb was thrown over the fence of the White House as hundreds of Occupy protesters massed outside the gates. The crowds were dispersed Tuesday night and the White House was all clear. There were no arrests in the incident. Protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement are meeting outside the Capitol for what participants hope will become the largest gathering of Occupy activists from around the country. A few hundred protesters gathered outside barricades around the Capitol on a cold, rainy Tuesday morning. U.S. Capitol Police said one person has been arrested and charged with assault on a police officer. Participants said they are decrying the influence of corporate money in politics and want to show the House of Representatives what real democracy looks like. The House reconvened Tuesday after its winter recess. Meanwhile, the Occupy movement is suffering from declining donations and cutbacks in spending.

  • Throwing smoke bombs and assaulting a police officer is a great demonstration of Occupy thuggery, not democracy

Workers Strike Panama Canal Expansion Project

About 6,000 workers have gone on strike for higher wages at a $5.25 billion project to widen the Panama Canal to accommodate larger ships. The employees want the base wage raised from $2.90 per hour to $4.90, and the wage for the most skilled workers raised from $3.52 per hour to $7.10. Employees of the multinational construction consortium Grupo Unidos por el Canal claim the firm has failed to pay them some overtime and vacation pay. They are also complaining about deficient workplace safety.

Obama’s Jobs Council Backs Republican Solutions

President Obama lauded the latest report from his jobs council Tuesday, even though many of its proposals sounded like the work of Republicans. The President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness proposed cutting the corporate tax rate, boosting domestic energy production and reducing government regulations that hinder business. The reports’ emphasis on taxes, regulation and energy thrilled Republicans. “With this report, President Obama’s own panel of experts has endorsed the approach to job creation House Republicans have been pursuing for more than a year. American job creators understand that we must ease the regulatory burden on small businesses, foster private-sector innovation, transition to a more competitive tax system, and utilize the vast energy resources we have here at home,” noted House Speaker John Boehner.

World Bank Warns of Global Recession

The World Bank Wednesday slashed its 2012 growth forecasts for both emerging and developing economies from its estimates of only six months ago, and warned the world is on the cusp of a new global recession that could be as bad as the crisis four years ago. A meltdown in financial markets triggered by the sovereign debt problems in Europe poses the greatest immediate risk, according to the report. A full-blown European crisis would shave a full 4 percentage points off of global growth, which would tip the global economy from a position of weak growth into recession.

Economic News

U.S. factory output surged in December by the most in any month in 2011, offering the most visible evidence yet that manufacturing is roaring back from the recession’s depths. Stronger demand for business equipment, vehicles and energy drove the 0.9% increase in manufacturing output, the biggest monthly increase since December 2010. Industrial output is now less than 5% below its pre-recession peak.

Declining prices at the wholesale level shows inflation remains in check. The producer price index, which measures price changes before they reach consumers, declined 0.1% in December. Excluding volatile food and energy costs, so-called core wholesale prices rose 0.3%.

Consumers whacked down credit card debt by 11% last year. The average credit card balance for 2011 was $6,576, down from $7,404 the previous year. The decline came as weak consumer confidence kept spending in check and banks continued to tighten their lending and slash credit limits for many existing customers.

Foreign demand for U.S. Treasury debt rose in November to the highest level ever, even as China trimmed its purchases for a second straight month. Foreign holdings increased 1.7% in November to $4.75 trillion. Japan, the second-largest buyer of Treasury debt, increased its holdings 6% to $1.04 trillion. China, the largest foreign holder, trimmed its holdings 0.1% to $1.13 trillion.

Global stock markets rallied Tuesday as China’s robust growth in the final quarter of 2011 eased fears of an abrupt slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy. Government figures showed that growth in China slowed in the final quarter of 2011 to an 8.9% annual rate, its lowest rate in 2 ½ years, but still relatively strong. However, the worst may be yet to come, as weak exports and government tightening ripple through the world’s second-largest economy.

Europe’s sluggish economy is already taking a toll on U.S. corporate profits, with some companies starting to report lower fourth-quarter earnings and gloomier forecasts. Companies in the Standard and Poor’s 500 index derive about 14% of their sales from Europe, though some depend on the continent for as much as 40% of revenue. Adding to the problem: Europe’s weakening economy has hammered the euro, making revenue earned by U.S. firms in Europe worth less when converted into dollars.

Middle East

A hacker network that claims to be based in Saudi Arabia paralyzed the websites of Israel’s stock exchange and national airline on Monday, escalating an international cyber war that has jolted this security-obsessed country. Neither website contains sensitive information and trading and flights were not affected. But the ongoing salvos by hackers who use anti-Israel language in their posts has revealed how vulnerable Israel is to cyber warfare, despite its sophisticated computer security units in the military and advanced high-tech sector. The attacks began earlier this month when hackers identifying themselves as group-xp, a known Saudi hacking group, claimed on an Israeli sports website to have gained access to 400,000 Israeli credit card accounts. The group called it a “gift to the world for the New Year” designed to “hurt the Zionist pocket.” Last week, an Israeli hacker identifying himself as a soldier in an Israeli intelligence unit retaliated by posting information online about hundreds of Saudis, Egyptians, Syrians and others.

Members of the Obama Administration, including the president himself, have issued a string of warnings to Israel in the past week not to launch a military strike to halt Iran’s nuclear program. They are insisting that Israel give sanctions more time to work. Analysts have noted the fear of the economic impact of war on the president’s reelection campaign as a powerful influence on Washington.

Egypt

Top parties in Egypt’s incoming parliament have agreed to select an Islamist politician as house speaker for the first time in decades. The Muslim Brotherhood, the big winner in the first election since the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak last February, said it joined several other parties in backing Saad el-Katatni, the secretary-general of the Brotherhood’s own party. The main function of the new parliament is to pick a 100-person commission to draw up a new constitution for Egypt, while preparations take place for presidential elections scheduled for June.

Romania

Dozens of demonstrators gathered in downtown Bucharest Monday as Romania’s prime minister warned that violent protests that left 59 injured over the weekend could jeopardize stability and economic growth. Police on Sunday clashed with a small contingent of around 1,000 protesters in the capital, after four days of demonstrations against austerity measures turned violent. Tear gas and flares were used to repel demonstrators hurling stones and firebombs. The windows of shops, banks and bus stations were smashed, and street lights vandalized. In 2009, Romania took a two-year €20 billion ($27.5 billion) loan from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the World Bank as its economy shrank by 7.1 percent. It imposed harsh austerity measures under the agreement, reducing public wages by 25 percent and increasing taxes.

Ethiopia

Five foreign tourists were killed by unknown armed rebels in Ethiopia’s restive Afar region in the country’s north. A group of eight unidentified foreign nationals were attacked near the Eritrean border on Monday. Two tourists were injured severely and have been brought to a health clinic by defense forces. They are in critical condition. The attackers were rebels with ties to Ethiopia’s archrival Eritrea, which hosts the exiled Oromo Liberation Front, a rebel group listed as a terrorist organization by the Ethiopian government.

Nigeria

Unions suspended their nationwide strike on Monday, hours after Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan partially reinstated subsidies to keep gasoline prices low and deployed soldiers in the streets to halt widening demonstrations. Union leaders described their decision as a victory for labor, allowing its leaders to guide the country’s policy on fuel subsidies in the future while having gas prices drop to about $2.27 a gallon. However, many protesters joined the demonstrations with hopes of seeing gas return to its previous price of about $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per liter), while also speaking out against a culture of government corruption in Africa’s most populous nation.

Honduras

All 158 Peace Corps volunteers in Honduras left the country on Monday, weeks after the United States announced that it would pull them out for safety reasons. The U.S. group said in late December that it was bringing home volunteers from Honduras and suspending training for new volunteers in El Salvador and Guatemala, though existing volunteers would remain in the latter two countries. The region is plagued by gang violence and Honduras is considered to have the highest murder rate in the world. Honduras President Porfirio Lobo said Monday that the Peace Corps volunteers had been affected by rising crime, but neither he nor U.S. officials have cited specific attacks as reasons for the withdrawal.

Weather

Powerful spring-like storms lashed portions of Kentucky with fierce winds Tuesday, uprooting trees and yanking down power lines that clogged roads and left thousands without electricity. Two tractor-trailers overturned on a Louisville-area highway during the storm. The fast-moving storm triggered a series of tornado warnings ahead of an expected sharp drop in temperatures from the balmy 60s in the morning to the more seasonal 20s by Tuesday night. The Louisville area appeared to be among the hardest hit, though storm warnings stretched into south-central Kentucky.

The disastrous Southern drought, which led to $10 billion in crop and agricultural losses in 2011, is forecast to continue through at least the next three months, government scientists report. The drought is also forecast to worsen and expand across the water-sensitive western USA. According to the most recent Drought Monitor, a weekly federal government report, drought is either in place or forecast to develop in a solid 2,500-mile stripe across the southern tier of the USA from California to Virginia. The climate pattern La Niña, a cooling of Pacific Ocean water that usually leads to dry weather across the southern USA, remains in place.

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Signs of the Times (1/16/12)

January 16, 2012

Member of Kuwaiti Royal Family Embraces Christ

A Kuwaiti royal prince has become a believer in Jesus Christ and says that if he is killed because of an audio recording he made about his decision, he believes he will meet Christ face-to-face, ASSIST News Service reports. Prince Abdullah Al-sabah, who comes from a royal family that currently governs Kuwait, said in an recording on a Christian Arabic TV station that he had recently denounced his Islamic faith and become a Christian. He introduced himself and stated: ” I’m satisfied with whatever they do to me, because the truth in the Bible has guided me to the right way.” Islam is the official religion in Kuwait, and almost the entire population is Muslim, with Christians making up only 4 percent.

Memorial New Focal Point for MLK Weekend Events, King Misquoted

Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy will be celebrated like never before in the nation’s capital this weekend now that a granite memorial and bookstore have been erected where events can be held. This will be the first MLK weekend since the memorial was dedicated in October. A children’s art exhibit opens Saturday morning at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial bookstore, followed by story time for children, a talk about King’s quotations at the memorial, a scavenger hunt for adults, and children’s marches on Sunday and Monday. National Park Service rangers will lay a wreath in King’s honor Sunday, his birthday, and on Monday, more lectures will explore the man, his family background and his moral philosophy.

The National Park Service has 30 days to fix a crudely excerpted quotation on the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told The Washington Post. A spokesman for the U.S Department of the Interior confirmed the decision Friday evening to the Associated Press. It’s not clear how much any change might cost or how it would be paid for, the AP reports. At issue is this quote, chiseled into the monument’s left flank: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” The phrase came from the beginning of a 1968 King speech: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

AZ Gov. Brewer Lifts Hold on Medical Pot Dispensaries

State health officials will be allowed to start the process for licensing medical-marijuana dispensaries after a decision by the governor, but a lawsuit and state bureaucracy could delay doors from opening for nearly a year or more. Gov. Jan Brewer, who in May blocked the dispensary-licensing process, said Friday that she will drop her lawsuit, which sought a judge’s assurance that state workers would not be subject to federal prosecution for implementing the law. The decision moves the state closer to fully implementing the voter-approved medical-marijuana system. However, although the licensing process can now begin, the governor said she will not allow workers to complete the process by issuing licenses until the courts resolve a separate legal challenge over the rules governing dispensaries. The lawsuits from would-be dispensary owners are still pending in Maricopa County Superior Court.Nearly 18,000 Arizonans have permission to use marijuana to treat a variety of debilitating conditions, including cancer and chronic pain, and about 15,000 of them have permission to grow pot.

New TB Strain Resistant to All Drugs

Indian doctors are reporting the country’s first cases of “totally drug-resistant tuberculosis,” a long-feared and virtually untreatable form of the killer lung disease. It’s not the first time highly resistant cases like this have been seen. Since 2003, patients have been documented in Italy and Iran. It has mostly been limited to impoverished areas, and has not spread widely. But experts believe there could be many undocumented cases. No one expects the Indian TB strains to rapidly spread elsewhere. The airborne disease is mainly transmitted through close personal contact and isn’t nearly as contagious as the flu.

  • With more and more diseases become drug resistant (e.g. MRSA), end-time pestilence becomes more likely

Study Links Processed Meat with Increased Risk of Pancreatic Cancer

Eating processed meat such as sausages or bacon increases the risk of pancreatic cancer, according to a new study. Swedish researchers analyzed data from 11 clinical trials and 6,643 pancreatic cancer patients. They concluded that the risk of pancreatic cancer increases by 19 percent for every 50 grams of processed meat a person adds to their daily diet. Consuming an extra 100 grams per day would boost the risk by 38 percent. Previous research has linked consumption of red and processed meat with colorectal cancer.

Biometric ID Launched in India

Recently, India has launched a nationwide program involving the allocation of a Unique Identification Number (UID) to every single one of its 1.2 billion residents. Each of the numbers will be tied to the biometric data of the recipient using three different forms of information – fingerprints, iris scans, and pictures of the face. All ten digits of the hand will be recorded, and both eyes will be scanned. The project was approved under the premise of preventing identity theft and social welfare fraud. India has rather extensive social welfare and safety net programs, ranging from medical support and heating assistance to others aimed at helping the poor. Fraud is a rampant problem in India, especially in relation to these programs due to a preponderance of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats who often stuff welfare rolls with fake names and take the money for themselves.

Biometric Identification Will Soon Replace Passwords

According to a recent prediction by IBM, many of the problems with passwords will be solved by biometric systems that can identify individuals based on unique biological features. Scientists have gotten smarter about denying access to fakers. For example, early fingerprint scanners were notoriously easy to fool, but researchers have developed techniques to test for the “liveness” of their input sources. Not only will sensors be able to track matching fingerprints and faces, but they’ll correlate them with heartbeats and bodily movements.

  • The technological basis for the ‘mark of the beast’ is rapidly coming to fruition

S&P Downgrades France, Italy, Spain, 6 Others

Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s has downgraded the government debt of France, Austria, Italy and Spain, but maintained Germany’s at the coveted “AAA” level. The cuts, which eliminated France and Austria’s triple-A status, deal a heavy blow to the currency eurozone’s ability to fight off a worsening debt crisis. In total, S&P cut its ratings on nine eurozone countries. France and Austria both dropped one notch to AA+. Italy was lowered by two notches to BBB+ from A, and Spain fell to A from AA-. Portugal and Cyprus also dropped two notches. The agency also cut ratings on Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Economic News

In 2009 and 2010 total health care spending grew at just under 4%, the slowest rate since the government began keeping records more than 50 years ago. One big reason is that Americans dramatically curtailed their use of physician and hospital services. Total health care spending in 2010 reached $2.6 trillion, or an average of $8,400 per person. The total amounts to 17.9% of GDP unchanged from 2009. But a spending increase of 3.9% from 2009 marks a dramatic deceleration from earlier in the decade when spending grew nearly twice as fast — an average of 7.6% annually.

Home sales and home building are forecast to rise this year after sliding steeply the past five years. Recovery is expected to be slow, and home prices are widely expected to fall this year. But investors are betting on the start of an upturn, bidding up home builder stocks and causing them to outperform the broader stock market. Many economists expect home prices to fall more this year because of foreclosures and other properties sold at very low prices.

Golf resort communities are bleeding money and members, as the recession exposed the vulnerability of the business model that created an unbreakable linkage between golf and real estate. Fewer people play golf, and Baby Boomers don’t have the time, money or interest in the game their parents did. The number of golfers in the U.S. has fallen by 13% in the past five years. Nationally, golf memberships have dropped by a million since the early 1990s.

California’s plan to balance its budget, as is the case with most states, is to raise taxes on the highest earners. But there’s a problem… The top earners Governor Jerry Brown plans to gouge are leaving. The number of Californians earning more than $500,000 annually shrank by one-third from 2007 to 2009, the most recent available data. According to tax returns, the number of individuals making more than $500,000 a year fell from 146,221 to 98,610 in two years.

Crucial negotiations between the Greek government and its private creditors on a bond swap needed to avoid financial default appeared close to collapse Friday. The bond swap aims to reduce Greece’s debt by €100 billion ($127.8 billion) and is a key part of a second, €130 billion ($166 billion) international bailout. Without it, the country could suffer a catastrophic bankruptcy that would send shockwaves through the global economy.

Middle East

Department of Defense officials are increasingly alarmed that Israel is on the verge of military action against Iran — to take out that country’s nuclear weapons potential, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. The report suggests that the Israeli preparations are being carried forth despite strong objections by the U.S., which has ramped up planning to safeguard U.S. facilities in the region. President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, among others, have warned Israeli leaders about the consequences of a strike, urging patience to allow the sanctions against Iran to take hold. The moves to calm Israel come against a backdrop of stern U.S. messages to Iran’s leaders against provocative actions such as closing the Strait of Hormutz to oil shipments. Some suggest that Israel’s assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists is intended to provoke a belligerent response that would cause the US to make war on Iran.

The Jerusalem Prayer Team notes, “An Iranian newspaper with close ties to the most radical part of Iran’s government has published a call for “retaliation” against Israel for the string of explosions at key military and industrial facilities and the deaths of a number of Iranian nuclear scientists. This is yet another escalation in tensions, leading toward the day when the silent war becomes an open war. Truly the pale horse of war and death is about to ride across the Middle East. The Israeli government has issued an urgent security warning for Jews living around the world, particularly those connected to official missions because of the new threat from Iran.”

The Israeli and U.S. militaries have postponed large-scale war games, in part to avoid aggravating mounting tensions between the international community and Iran over its disputed nuclear program, Israeli defense officials said Monday. The missile defense exercise, dubbed “Austere Challenge 12,” was scheduled for April to improve defense systems and cooperation between U.S. and Israeli forces. The Israeli military confirmed in a one-line statement that the drill would be rescheduled for the second half of 2012.

Thailand

An alleged terrorist plot aimed at Bangkok that sparked urgent warnings of danger from the United States and Israel has been thwarted, Thai police said Saturday. The alleged bombing scheme was called off by the alleged plotters — two Lebanese men said to be linked to pro-Iranian Hezbollah militants. One man was in custody for questioning, and the other was at large. Thailand seemed to have been caught by surprise by the publicity over the alleged plot, which officials said they had been informed about before New Year’s. The U.S. Embassy warning was the first public notice of the affair, and Defense Minister Yuthasak Sasiprapa said Thai authorities did not release news of the alleged plot because of fears that it would hurt the tourist industry and cause panic.

Iran

Iran said Saturday it has evidence that the United States was behind the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist this week in Tehran, state media reported. Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan was killed in a brazen daylight assassination Wednesday when two assailants on a motorcycle attached a magnetic bomb to his car in the Iranian capital. The killing bore a strong resemblance to earlier killings of scientists working on the Iranian nuclear program, and has prompted calls in Iran for retaliation against those deemed responsible. The U.S. has denied any role in the assassination. Britain’s Foreign Office has condemned the killing of civilians. Israeli officials, in contrast, have hinted at covert campaigns against Iran without directly admitting involvement.

Tunisia

Thousands of Tunisians marched in peaceful triumph Saturday to mark the one-year anniversary of the revolution that ended the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali— and sparked uprisings around the Arab world. Tunisia greeted the anniversary with prudent optimism, amid worries about high unemployment that cast a shadow over Tunisians’ pride at transforming their country. Now a human rights activist is president, and a moderate Islamist jailed for years by the old regime is prime minister at the head of a diverse coalition, after the freest elections in Tunisia’s history.

Syria

The U.N. Secretary General demanded Sunday that Syria’s president stop killing his own people, and said the “old order” of one-man rule and family dynasties is over in the Middle East. In a keynote address at a conference on democracy in the Arab world, Ban Ki-moon said the revolutions of the Arab Spring show that people will no longer accept tyranny. Thousands of people have been killed in the Syrian government’s crackdown on a 10-month-old uprising, which has turned increasingly violent in recent months. The failure of an Arab League mission and a government as defiant as its opposition is in disarray have thrust Syria into what increasingly looks like a protracted and chaotic conflict, perhaps full-scale civil war.

Yemen

Al-Qaeda militants seized full control of a town south of the Yemeni capital on Monday, overrunning army positions, storming the local prison and freeing at least 150 inmates. The capture of Radda in Bayda province, some 100 miles south of Sanaa, underscores the growing strength of al-Qaeda in Yemen as it continues to take advantage of the weakness of a central government struggling to contain nearly a year of massive anti-government protests. The opposition has accused President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is to step down this month in line with a power transfer deal, of allowing the militants to overrun the city to bolster his claims that he must remain in power to secure the country against the rising power of Islamist militants.

Iraq

Iraqi authorities have detained a few hundred foreign contractors in recent weeks, industry officials say, including many Americans who work for the United States Embassy, in one of the first major signs of the Iraqi government’s asserting its sovereignty after the American troop withdrawal last month. The detentions have occurred largely at the airport in Baghdad and at checkpoints around the capital after the Iraqi authorities raised questions about the contractors’ documents, including visas, weapons permits and authorizations to drive certain routes. Although no formal charges have been filed, the detentions have lasted from a few hours to nearly three weeks. The crackdown comes amid other moves by the Iraqi government to take over functions that had been performed by the United States military.

A car bomb killed at least eight people outside the northern city of Mosul on Monday, Iraq officials said, in the latest in a series of attacks to target the country’s Shiites. Another bomb killed at least 53 Shiite pilgrims near the southern port city of Basra on Saturday. It was the latest in a series of attacks during Shiite religious commemorations that have killed scores of people and threaten to further increase sectarian tensions just weeks after the U.S. withdrawal. The attack happened on the last of the 40 days of Arbaeen, when hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from Iraq and abroad visit the Iraqi city of Karbala, as well as other holy sites.

Iraqi security forces on Sunday battled gunmen who detonated a car bomb before blasting their way into a government compound and killing seven policemen in a one-time Sunni insurgent hotbed. The three-hour standoff between Shiite-dominated security forces and suspected Sunni insurgents in the Anbar province capital of Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, marked the first serious gunbattle for Iraqi forces against insurgents without American backup since the U.S. military completed its withdrawal last month.

Myanmar

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, freed some of its most famous political inmates Friday, sparking jubilation outside prison gates while signaling its readiness to meet Western demands for lifting economic sanctions. Prominent political activists, leaders of brutally repressed democratic uprisings, a former prime minister, ethnic minority leaders, journalists and relatives of the former dictator Ne Win were among those released. State media described the presidential pardon freeing 651 detainees as allowing them to take part in “nation-building.” In response, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. will exchange ambassadors with that nation.

Nigeria

Nigeria’s president announced Monday the government would subsidize gasoline prices to immediately reduce the price to about $2.75 a gallon amid a crippling nationwide strike over fuel prices in Africa’s most populous country. President Goodluck Jonathan also claimed provocateurs have hijacked the protests and demonstrations, which have seen tens of thousands march in cities across the nation. The strike began Jan. 9, paralyzing the nation of more than 160 million people. The root cause remains gasoline prices: Jonathan’s government abandoned subsidies that kept gasoline prices low on Jan. 1, causing prices to spike from $1.70 per gallon to at least $3.50 per gallon. The costs of food and transportation also largely doubled in a nation where most people live on less than $2 a day.

Weather

The ice that has cut off a remote Alaska town for months will connect it to the world again as crews prepare to build a path over it to carry fuel from a Russian tanker that was moored roughly a half mile from the town’s harbor Sunday. A Coast Guard cutter cleared a path through hundreds of miles of Bering Sea ice for the tanker as it made its way toward the town of 3,500 on Alaska’s western coastline, where residents are coping with their coldest winter since the 1970s.

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Signs of the Times (1/13/12)

January 13, 2012

Nigeria, Egypt, Iraq Claim Majority of Christian Martyrs in 2011

More Christians were killed for their faith in northern Nigeria, Egypt and Iraq in 2011 than anywhere else in the world, with 398 martyred in those three countries alone, Open Doors USA reports. The World Christian Encyclopedia defines martyrs as “believers in Christ who lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility;” many Christians who die as a result of persecution are not counted as martyrs. Northern Nigeria had a total of 300 confirmed martyrs — although the true total is thought to be much higher — as Muslim extremists grew more routine and organized in their attacks. In Egypt, at least 60 Christians were killed, followed by Iraq with 38 confirmed deaths. Most were at the hands of Islamic extremists, but there were exceptions. Twenty-seven Egyptian Coptic Christian protesters lost their lives in one day alone in the Maspero Massacre in Cairo on Oct. 9, and in Iraq, at least 21 Christians were killed just in Baghdad at the hands of those who sought to ethnically cleanse Christian neighborhoods.

Tim Tebow Makes John 3:16 Most Searched Item on Google

Not only did Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow lead his team to a stunning victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday in the NFL AFC wildcard playoff game, but his performance led to an explosion of Google searches for John 3:16 when the facts and figures emerged, TIME reports. Tebow threw for exactly 316 yards — averaging 31.6 yards per completion — and fans soon began pointing out the allusion to John 3:16, which Tebow famously painted in his eye black in 2009 when he led the Florida Gators to victory in the college national championship game. By Monday morning, John 3:16 was ranked as the top-searched item on Google, followed by “Tebow” and “Tim Tebow.” Coincidence or not, Tebow’s passing yards had millions of people discovering the verse where Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life.”

World’s Nuclear Stocks are Not Secure

A new report shows that President Obama is a long way from reaching his goal of locking down all the world’s nuclear weapons material by next year. The report by the U.S.-based Nuclear Threat Initiative grades the 32 countries believed to possess such material and suggests that many have far to go. Despite a push by the Obama administration to galvanize international efforts to keep terrorists from obtaining the ultimate weapon, the report concludes that there is not yet even a global consensus about what the priorities should be or how materials should be tracked and protected. The assessment comes ahead of a second summit of world leaders on nuclear security set to convene in March in Seoul. Obama hosted the first summit two years ago in Washington.

Obama Formally Requests $1.2T Debt-Limit Hike

President Obama has sent a letter to Congress formally requesting a $1.2 trillion increase in the nation’s debt ceiling. The request is likely to trigger a fierce election-year debate over the nation’s $15 trillion-plus debt, but the ceiling increase is likely to go through because of a deal Obama and Congress struck back in August. Under the agreement, Congress can reject the requested increase within 15 days, but then Obama has the right to veto it. Two similar increases in the debt ceiling have been enacted since the August agreement. Leaders of the Republican-run House have indicated they will seek to oppose the debt limit hike, but that effort may well run aground in the Democratic-run Senate.

  •  As the President and Congress play political football, the debt crisis continues onward, unabated

Obama Seeks Power to Merge Federal Agencies

President Obama will ask Congress today for greater authority to merge federal agencies as a way to shrink the government and save money. Obama will specifically ask to merge six different trade and commerce agencies that have overlapping programs. Obama notes that President Reagan had similar authority during the 1980s. They are: the Commerce Department’s core business and trade functions; the Small Business Administration; the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative; the Export-Import Bank; the Overseas Private Investment Corporation; and the Trade and Development Agency. The goal would be one agency designed to help businesses thrive. The administration said the merger would save $3 billion over 10 years by getting rid of duplicative overhead costs, human resources divisions and programs. From 1,000 to 2,000 jobs would be cut, but the administration would do so through attrition; that is, as people routinely leave their jobs over time.

Another Bill To Turn American Citizens Into Enemies Of The State

On the heels of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), otherwise known as the “Indefinite Detention Act,” comes another draconian bill designed to give the federal government the power to turn American citizens into enemies of the state for virtually any reason it deems necessary. Congress is considering HR 3166 and S. 1698 also known as the Enemy Expatriation Act, sponsored by Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Charles Dent (R-PA). This bill would give the US government the power to strip Americans of their citizenship without being convicted of being ‘hostile’ against the United States. In other words, you can be stripped of your nationality for ‘engaging in, or purposefully and materially supporting, hostilities against the United States.’ Legally, the term ‘hostilities’ means any conflict subject to the laws of war but considering the fact that the War on Terror is a little ambiguous and encompassing, any action could be labeled as supporting terrorism.

  • U.S. detention camps are being built, fusion data centers are gathering information on American citizens, laws are being changed, all in preparation for a time of planned subversion of discontent

Just 5% of Patients Accrue Half of Health Care Spending

Five percent of Americans accounted for 50% of all health care costs, about $36,000 each, according to a federal report released Wednesday. And, only 1% accounted for 22% of overall health care costs, about $90,000 per person. While the report showed how a tiny segment of the population can drive health care spending, the findings included good news – the trend is down. In 1996, the top 1% of the population accounted for 28% of health care spending. The report says the characteristics of patients in the top 10% of health care spenders are: 60% were women; 40% were 65 or older; 80% were white. Twenty-five percent of Hispanics were in the bottom half of health care spenders, the report showed, while only 7% of Hispanics were in the top 10% of spenders.

Record Number of Americans 55 and Older are Working

Although the recession and its aftershock have culled older faces from the workplace, more Americans over 55 are employed than ever before, according to the latest government statistics reported by The Washington Post. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a 12% increase (3.1 million) in the number of 55-and-older workers. By contrast, there’s been a 6.5% drop (6.5 million) in workers 25 to 54 years old. Those figures include people 75 and older, whose ranks have also increased since the recession. Fear of not having enough money to live on in retirement is one of the “primary economic forces” cited by experts, the Post writes.

Economic News

The Federal Reserve announced Monday that household borrowing on credit cards, car loans, student loans, and other kinds of installment debt rose at a 9.9% seasonally adjusted rate in November – the biggest monthly increase since November 2001 (following the events of September 11). Curiously, IHS Global Insight economist Paul Edelstein told the Wall Street Journal, “Consumer credit growth is a positive sign for the recovery in that it signals increasing demand and willingness to spend.”

  • Increased spending is good for an economy. But increasing borrowing to spend is not. Let’s not forget how we got here.

The number of people applying for weekly unemployment benefits spiked last week, largely because companies let go of thousands of workers after the holidays. The Labor Department said Thursday that applications jumped 24,000 to a seasonally adjusted 399,000, most in six weeks. That followed three months of steady declines that brought applications to the lowest level in more than three years. In the 30 months since the recession officially ended, nearly 1 million people have dropped out of the labor force — they aren’t working, and they aren’t looking — according to data from Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Retail sales barely rose in December, but the gain was enough to push sales to a record for 2011. It was the largest annual increase in more than a decade. Sales inched up 0.1% in December to a seasonally adjusted $400.6 billion. For all 2011, sales totaled a record $4.7 trillion, a gain of nearly 8% over 2010. It was the largest percentage increase since 1999.

About 1.9 million homes entered the foreclosure process in 2011, fewest since 2007 when the recession began. The decline does not necessarily indicate the housing market is getting better, as many foreclosures have been delayed due to confusion over documentation and legal issues involved in the process. There have also been problems with the way some lenders were handling foreclosures. Specifically, they have been signing off on home foreclosures without first verifying documents — a practice referred to as “robo-signing.” Many of the largest U.S. banks reacted by temporarily stopping all foreclosures, re-filing previously filed foreclosure cases and revisiting pending cases to prevent errors.

JPMorgan Chase, the nation’s largest bank, reported a sharp drop in quarterly earnings Friday morning, hit by big losses from its investment banking and trading divisions.

The U.S. trade deficit widened in November for the first time in five months, largely because of a spike in the price of imported oil. Still, exports fell for a second straight month, a sign that Europe’s slowdown has begun to affect the U.S. economy. The trade gap rose 10.4% to $47.8 billion. Overall exports dropped 0.9% to $177.8 billion. But American exports to Europe fell more sharply — nearly 6%. Many economists say Europe may already be in another recession.

The Chinese are worried about inflation and their voracious gold consumption is proof. Mainland China’s gold imports from Hong Kong jumped 483% over the past year.

Middle East

A new aircraft carrier strike group has entered the Arabian Sea and another is on its way, a Pentagon official said in a news briefing Wednesday — a shuffling of the U.S. fleet amid rising tensions with Iran. Officials said there is no connection between the fleet movements and threats from Iran, however, the arrival of the USS Carl Vinson comes on the heels of Iranian military exercises in the Persian Gulf and threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil transit route. U.S. Navy Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert told a Center for a New American Security forum on Wednesday that the US has no intention of leaving the Persian Gulf anytime soon.

Iran

A hard-line Iranian newspaper called Thursday for retaliation against Israel, a day after the mysterious killing of a nuclear scientist in Tehran with a magnetic bomb attached to his car. Provocative hints from Israel reinforced the perception that the killing was part of an organized and clandestine campaign to set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which the U.S. and its allies suspect are aimed at producing weapons. Iran’s nuclear confrontation with the West had already been escalating in the weeks before the killing, with the U.S. tightening sanctions against Tehran, and Iranian officials warning that they would shut a waterway vital to global oil shipping in response. The Wednesday assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan — at least the fourth targeted hit against a member of Iran’s nuclear brain trust in two years — has heightened tensions even further.

A senior U.N. nuclear agency team will visit Tehran on Jan. 28 with Iran saying it is ready to discuss allegations that it was involved in secret nuclear weapons work after years of refusing to do so, diplomats said Thursday. For more than three years, Tehran has blocked IAEA attempts to follow up on U.S. and other intelligence alleging covert Iranian work on nuclear arms, dismissing the charges as baseless and insisting all its nuclear activities were peaceful and under IAEA purview.

Afghanistan

The Taliban’s political wing is ready to enter peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan, but the insurgents will in the meantime continue their armed struggle, the group said Thursday. The militant movement’s e-mailed statement suggests that efforts to bring Afghan factions to the table are gathering momentum, but also highlights some of the roadblocks on the way to any settlement — in particular, the Taliban’s insistence that the government of President Hamid Karzai is an illegitimate “stooge” of the West. One of the international community’s and Afghan government’s conditions for reconciliation is that the Taliban must accept the Afghan constitution, meaning they must recognize Karzai’s government.

Pakistan

Pakistani intelligence officials said an American missile strike close to the Afghan border has killed four foreign Islamist militants. The victims in Thursday’s attacks in North Waziristan region were driving in a car when the missile hit. It was the second such drone strike in three days. Drone strikes had been suspended for weeks following a mistaken attack that killed many Pakistan security guards.

Yemen

Yemeni security officials said 20 fighters have been killed in new clashes between an ultraconservative Islamist group and former Shiite rebels in the country’s north. The Hawthis fought a bloody six-year war against Saleh’s government that ended with a cease-fire last year. Yemen’s Salafis practice a hard-line interpretation of Islam similar to al-Qaeda’s. The fighting pitted Shiite Hawthis against Sunni Salafi Islamists. Tensions between the groups have reignited since President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed a U.S.-backed deal in November to pass power to his vice president. Yemen has been badly shaken by 10 months of protests calling for Saleh’s ouster.

Myanmar (Burma)

Burma, also known as Myanmar, freed some of its most famous political inmates Friday, sparking jubilation outside prison gates while signaling its readiness to meet Western demands for lifting economic sanctions. Myanmar’s government also signed a cease-fire agreement Thursday with ethnic Karen rebels in a major step toward ending one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies and meeting a key condition for better ties with the West. The talks between officials and Karen National Union leaders were part of efforts by Myanmar’s new, nominally civilian government to seek international legitimacy through democratic reforms after years of military repression. The Karen group has been fighting for greater autonomy for more than 60 years, in a guerrilla campaign in eastern jungles that dates back to before Myanmar’s independence from Britain. It has been the only one of Myanmar’s major ethnic groups never to have reached a peace agreement with the government. The new government that took office after November 2010 elections has embarked on reforms to try to end its international isolation. Western governments had imposed political and economic sanctions on Myanmar because of repression under the military junta.

Horn of Africa

The number of successful pirate attacks in the Horn of Africa region declined nearly 50% last year, the first significant drop since the international community established counterpiracy naval forces in the area three years ago. The number of successful pirate attacks dropped to 24 last year, from 45 in 2010, according to NATO. Many other attacks were disrupted by naval vessels or merchant ships that were able to evade pirates, most of whom are based in Somalia. NATO and other forces in the region attribute recent progress against pirates to the increase in naval ships and the use of armed guards and other security measures taken by merchant vessels transiting the region.

Haiti

Hundreds of thousands of Haitians still live in miserable conditions and nearly half of $4.5 billion pledged by governments for reconstruction has yet to be disbursed two years after one of the most devastating earthquakes in the Western hemisphere. The quake killed more than 200,000 and left 1.5 million homeless. As Haiti today observes the second anniversary of a disaster that leveled 300,000 buildings and left its economy and government in ruins, half a million people still live in tents, the United Nations reports. Few have access to water, sanitation and other basic services, 60% are jobless and the world’s largest cholera outbreak has killed 7,000 people and infected 500,000 more. The slow progress comes despite promises by the international community that the chronically poor nation with tremendous needs before the disaster would be rebuilt better than before.

Hungary

Over 300 religious groups – including several Christian denominations – have lost official recognition in Hungary under the country’s controversial new constitution. The code, which came into effect on 1 January, introduces a new law on religion. It grants state recognition to 14 religious groups and decertifies the rest, meaning that over 300 denominations lose their official status, including their tax exemptions and freedom to run state-funded schools. These include a number of major Protestant denominations, including Episcopalians, Methodists and all but one of the evangelical churches, as well as many small Catholic orders. No version of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism can operate with state approval any longer. The day after the new constitution came into force, tens of thousands of Hungarians took to the streets of Budapest in protest. The European Union and United States have also asked for the law to be withdrawn.

Weather

The upper Midwest and Northeast looked ahead to more snow today and into early Saturday following a bitterly cold storm that disrupted travel and put an end to the recent stretch of mild, spring-like weather. As of Friday morning, Chicago had picked up almost 5 inches of snow. The storm forced the cancellation of more than 525 flights at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports. Friday morning, heavy snow led to school closings and travel headaches in parts of Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Lake-effect snow could top a foot near Lakes Michigan, Erie and Ontario later Friday and into early Saturday. Winter weather advisories and warnings remained in place Friday morning across the Great Lakes area, interior Northeast, and in northern New England.

Heavy snow fell in Alaska’s largest city Thursday, adding to what already has been the snowiest period for Anchorage since records have been kept. The weather service counts a snow year from July to June. From July 1 through Tuesday, Anchorage has received 81.3 inches of snow. A new snowfall of 8-16 inches is expected. About 150 miles to the southeast of Anchorage, the Prince William Sound community of Cordova has already been buried under 172 inches of snow since Nov. 1 and is trying to dig out from recent storms.

At least 15 people were injured and at least 60 buildings were damaged when a possible tornado struck in western North Carolina Wednesday afternoon. The storms struck in Rutherford and Burke counties as a cold front moved through the western Carolinas. The storm cell that caused the damage had dumped some hail in northwestern South Carolina before moving into North Carolina. The American Red Cross opened a shelter in Icard. The relief agency said at least 15 people had checked into the shelter at a church.

Even in a year marked by severe storm outbreaks, lightning killed fewer Americans in 2011 than any year on record, according to data released Wednesday by the National Weather Service. Although 2011 was a hellish year for tornado deaths across the country, with more than 500 people killed, only 26 people died as a result of a lightning strike. This is less than half the recent average of 55 deaths per year, and continues a downward trend in lightning deaths over the past few decades. In the 1940s, although the USA’s population was less than half what it is today, lightning killed more than 300 Americans each year, on average. Why the decrease in deaths? “More than anything it’s due to ongoing public education efforts from the weather service to keep people from being struck by lightning,” says meteorologist John Jensenius, the agency’s expert on lightning safety. People now recognize a dangerous weather situation and getting to a safer place.

Signs of the Times (1/11/12)

January 11, 2012

Supreme Court Sides with Church Employee Dismissal on Religious Grounds
The Supreme Court has sided unanimously with a church sued for firing an employee on religious grounds, is-suing an opinion on Wednesday that religious employers can keep the government out of hiring and firing decisions. In the case of Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, Cheryl Perich, a teacher, argued that the Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich., had discriminated against her under the Americans With Disabilities Act. But the high court found that Perich was was properly classified as a “minister,” meaning she falls within the “ministerial exemption” from many employment laws. “The exception … ensures that the au-thority to select and control who will minister to the faithful is the church’s alone,” the court found.

Doomsday Clock Moved Closer to Midnight
Citing ongoing threats from nuclear proliferation, climate change, and the need to find sustainable and safe sources of energy, scientists moved the “Doomsday Clock” one minute closer to midnight on Tuesday. The clock was moved from six to five minutes to midnight. The closer to a setting of midnight it gets, the closer it is estimated that a global disaster will occur. The clock is symbolic and has been maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1947. The group was founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project. “There are still 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world, enough to kill all of humanity many times over,” said Robert Socolow of Princeton University at a press conference in Washington D.C., on Tuesday. The bulletin has grown into an organization focused more generally on manmade threats to human civilization. The clock came closest to midnight — just two minutes away — in 1953 after the successful test of a hydrogen bomb by the USA. It has been as far away as 17 minutes, set there in 1991 following the demise of the Soviet Union.

  • While scientifically driven, the clock is not far from the Truth of a doomsday Tribulation that is just over the horizon

Salt Lake City Tops ‘Gayest Cities in America’
Salt Lake City ranks No. 1 on this year’s list of Gayest Cities in America, according to The Advocate, a national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender magazine. The magazine acknowledges that Utah’s capital is an unexpected pick for its third annual list: “While those unfamiliar with the Beehive State are likely to conjure images of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, far-less-oppressive-than-it-used-to-be Salt Lake City has earned its queer cred.” Rounding out the top five on The Advocate’s list: Orlando, Cambridge, Mass., Fort Lauderdale and Seat-tle. Rounding out the Top 15: Ann Arbor, Mich., Minneapolis, Knoxville, Atlanta, Grand Rapids, Mich., Little Rock, Ark., Portland, Austin, TX., Long Beach, CA, and Denver. The Advocate says its “decidedly subjective criteria” for compiling the list include the number of: LGBT elected officials, softball teams that competed in the Gay Softball World Series, International Mr. Leather Competition semifinalists, LGBT bookstores and nude yoga classes.

  • While a surprise in some ways, the spiritual darkness of Mormonism is bound to attract heightened demonic influence. Where’s San Francisco on the list?

U.S. Court Allows Texas to Enforce Abortion-Sonogram Law
Texas can begin enforcing a requirement that women undergo a sonogram before having an abortion, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. In overturning a lower court’s injunction, the appellate judges indicated they believe the law is constitutional. In August, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks had ruled that portions of the law, which had not yet taken effect, violate the free speech rights of both doctors and patients. The Center for Re-productive Rights, which filed the lawsuit, called the appeals court’s ruling “unprecedented.” The center said it is evaluating its legal options. Texas health officials weren’t clear when enforcement would begin.

Appeals Court Blocks Oklahoma Ban on Sharia Law
Oklahoma’s voter-approved ban on Islamic sharia law is likely unconstitutional and should not take force, the federal appeals court in Denver has ruled, upholding a lower court decision and injunction. The amendment, approved in November 2010 by 70% of Oklahoma voters, declares that state courts “shall not look to the legal precepts of other nations or cultures. Specifically, the courts shall not consider international law or Sharia Law.” “Given the lack of evidence of any concrete problem, any harm Appellants seek to remedy with the proposed amendment is speculative at best,” the three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote. The case, brought by the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, now returns to the lower court, which will hear arguments in the lawsuit and rule on the constitutionality of the measure. A permanent injunction is expected.

  • The specter of constitutional harm is not “speculative” but very real as international law has already been cited in a number of U.S. court cases as well as in a handful of Muslim cases decided by the application of Sharia law.

Family Research Council Files Brief on Obamacare
The Family Research Council and more than two dozen Republican members of Congress have filed a friend of the court brief with the Supreme Court aimed at overturning Obamacare. The council brief, which was joined by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas and 26 other GOP lawmakers, argues that the court should strike down the entire Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, because it requires all Americans to carry health insurance under the threat of financial penalty. The Obama administration submitted its opening brief to the court last Friday, arguing that the law is necessary to control the rising costs of healthcare nationwide. The court has accepted four cases challenging the law. Oral arguments are scheduled for March.

Feds Ban New Mining Claims near Grand Canyon
A decision to limit uranium mining on public lands near Grand Canyon National Park could turn into an election-year issue over jobs and the cost of protecting the environment. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed the order Monday to ban new hard-rock mining activities on about 1 million acres of public lands near the Canyon. Doing so, he said, will preserve an iconic wonder for millions of visitors and safeguard water and natural re-sources for millions more Westerners. But even before Salazar’s public event in Washington, D.C., Republicans began accusing the White House of caving in to liberal interest groups and framed the action as a job-killer. The decision was not unexpected. The Interior Department endorsed the mining ban last fall after reviewing the environmental consequences of allowing mines to operate or putting the land off-limits to new claims. The government has enforced a temporary ban for more than two years, withdrawing the land from acreage open to mining. The ban applies only to new claims. Existing mines or operations based on claims already validated can proceed. The Interior Department estimates as many as 11 mines could open over the 20-year life of the land withdrawal, about one-third as many as could open without the ban.

  • In a fallen world of good and evil, there are no perfect solutions. While it seems good to preserve the Grand Canyon area, creating more jobs and diminishing our oil dependency also seems good. Perfect solutions, however, will only return to the earth when Jesus comes back to rule and reign.

Guantanamo Closure Hopes Fade as Prison Turns Ten
Open for 10 years on Wednesday, the Guantanamo Bay prison seems more established than ever. The deadline set by President Obama to close Guantanamo came and went two years ago. No detainee has left in a year be-cause of restrictions on transfers, and indefinite military detention is now enshrined in U.S. law. Prisoners at the U.S. Navy base in Cuba plan to mark the day with sit-ins, banners and a refusal of meals, and will be the subject of demonstrations in London and Washington. Human rights groups and lawyers for prisoners are dismayed that Obama not only failed to overcome resistance in Congress and close the prison, but that his administration has resumed military tribunals at the base and continues to hold men who have been cleared for release. Critics are also angry over the president’s Dec. 31 signing of the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes a provision allowing indefinite military detention without trial.

DEA Helps Colombian Drug Trafficker Launder Cash
Undercover agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, working with their Mexican counterparts, helped transfer millions of dollars in drug cash and even escorted a shipment of cocaine via Dallas to Spain. The covert activities were undertaken as part of an operation to infiltrate and prosecute a major Colombian-Mexican narco-trafficking organization moving cocaine from Colombia to Mexico and the United States. The undercover operation was detailed in Mexican government documents obtained by the New York Times. The documents “describe American counternarcotics agents, Mexican law enforcement officials and a Colombian informant working undercover together over several months in 2007,” Thompson reported. “Together, they conducted numerous wire transfers of tens of thousands of dollars at a time, smuggled millions of dollars in bulk cash.

  • Infiltration is one thing, going overboard with assistance is another. After the Fast & Furious gun-running scandal, the DEA is running amok and must be reined in.

Fewer Children Being Born in the U.S., Under-18 Population Declines
The U.S. under-18 population fell between 2010 and 2011, for the first time in at least two decades, the Wall Street Journal reports. In July 2011, the under-18 population was 73,934,272, down 247,000 or 0.3 percent from July 2010. According to an analysis of Census data by demographer William H. Frey of The Brookings Institution, fewer children are being born and “it doesn’t look like a youth boom will reverberate any time soon.” States with the biggest drop in children tended to be concentrated in the Rust Belt and New England; every New England state’s under-18 population fell at least 1 percent from April 2010 to July 11.

Grocers Hire Rating Companies to Score Nutritional Values
Walk into one of 143 King Soopers supermarkets in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, and you’ll find nutritional rating numbers on the shelves, right next to the prices. Since October, the grocery store chain, a division of Kroger, has included nutrition ratings by NuVal, one of the nation’s largest rating companies. A growing number of grocers are signing up to have the foods they sell evaluated and ranked for nutritional con-tent at a time when government officials are studying whether more regulations are needed on packaging. Two of the largest companies, NuVal and Guiding Stars, license their scoring systems to more than 3,000 grocery stores nationwide. The scoring systems have some differences. Guiding Stars uses a system of three stars to signify which foods are healthiest. Three stars is the best ranking. NuVal uses a 100-point system: The higher the score, the better the nutritional content.

Economic News
Economists recently surveyed by the Associated Press expect employers to add 2.1 million jobs in 2012, an av-erage of 175,000 a month. That would top the monthly pace of 136,000 last year and 78,000 in 2010, though still fall short of the 250,000 to 300,000 needed to cut unemployment quickly. The USA has recovered just 2.6 million of the 8.8 million jobs lost in the recession.

After losing 2.2 million jobs in the economic downturn, the construction industry is projected to add 113,000 this year, more than doubling last year’s pace and placing it among the fastest-growing sectors, according to a 2012 job market forecast by Moody’s Analytics.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will close 259 domestic offices, labs and other facilities as part of an effort to save $150 million per year. While the closures and other cost-cutting steps will affect operations at USDA headquarters in Washington and in 46 states, the savings will be relatively small in the context of the agency’s $145 billion budget.

Despite record low mortgage rates and rising affordability in most U.S. housing markets, rent is the new reality for former home owners and new households alike. For some it is post-traumatic stress from the housing crash, for others it is the inability to get financing to buy a home. Either way, the rental market continues on its tear. In the last quarter of 2011, the apartment sector saw its largest quarterly increase in occupation rates. The vacancy rate dropped to 5.2%, the lowest since 2001.

Iran
Two assailants on a motorcycle attached a magnetic bomb to the car of an Iranian university professor working at a key nuclear facility, killing him and another person Wednesday, state TV reported. The slayings suggest a widening covert effort to set back Iran’s atomic program. The attack in Tehran bore a strong resemblance to earlier killings of scientists working on the Iranian nuclear program. It is certain to amplify authorities’ claims of clandestine operations by Western powers and their allies to halt Iran’s nuclear advances. Tehran has accused Israel’s Mossad, the CIA and Britain’s spy agency of engaging in an underground “terrorism” campaign against nuclear-related targets, including at least three slayings since early 2010 and the release of a malicious computer virus known at Stuxnet in 2010 that temporarily disrupted controls of some centrifuges — a key component in nuclear fuel production. All three countries have denied the Iranian accusations. Israeli officials have hinted about covert campaigns against Iran without directly admitting involvement.

  • Sources in Israel say that Mossad indeed is responsible as well as for the recent bombings of Iranian munitions camps

Syria
Syrian President Bashar Assad vowed Tuesday to respond to threats against him with an “iron hand” and re-fused to step down, insisting he still has his people’s support despite the 10-month-old uprising against him. In his fourth speech since the revolt began in March, Assad repeated claims that a foreign conspiracy and terrorists are behind the unrest — not true reform-seekers. “Our priority now is to regain security which we basked in for decades, and this can only be achieved by hitting the terrorists with an iron hand,” Assad said. Assad also lashed out at the Arab League, saying the Cairo-based bloc failed to protect Arab interests. The League has suspended Syria and sent a team of monitors to assess whether the regime is abiding by an Arab-brokered peace plan that Assad agreed to on Dec. 19. The moves were humiliating for Syria, which considers itself a powerhouse of Arab nationalism. “The Arab League failed for six decades to protect Arab interests,” Assad said. “We shouldn’t be surprised it’s failed today.” U.S., Russian, French and British air and naval forces streamed to the Syrian and Iranian coasts over the weekend on guard for fresh developments at the two Middle East flashpoints.

Egypt
Nearly one year after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are concluding their first free and fair elections in decades in what analysts say is a good sign for a country wracked by poverty, injustice and at risk for religious extremism. The third stage of the voting for the 498 seats of the lower house of parliament will end Wednesday with some run-off votes. The elections were dominated by Islamist parties long banned in Egypt and whose agendas are murky. Their newfound power will give them significant influence over the devising of a constitution in which the rights of women, religious minorities and the role of Islamic law will be enshrined.

Iraq
Two car bombs exploded Monday evening in the Iraqi capital and killed at least 16 people, authorities said. At least one appeared to target Shiite pilgrims, sinking the country deeper into a new wave of sectarian violence. The second car bomb struck near a police vehicle in the Shiite neighborhood of al-Shaab, killing three police-men and four other people. The attacks were the latest in a wave of violence primarily targeting Shiites that has killed more than 90 people in less than a week. Iraq’s Sunni minority dominated the government under the dicta-torship of Saddam Hussein, but since he was overthrown, Shiites have controlled government.

Pakistan
Pakistan’s military warned Wednesday of “grievous consequences” for the country after the prime minister accused the army chief of violating the constitution, adding to a sense of crisis that some believe could end in the ouster of government. The government dismissed the defense secretary, a retired general seen as an army representative within the civilian government, another ominous sign of near-open conflict in a nation that has seen repeated military coups in its six-decade history. Tensions between the army and the government of President Asif Ali Zardari have soared since a scandal involving a memo sent to Washington asking for its help in reining in the army broke late last year. The memo outraged the army.
A bomb targeting a militia opposed to the Pakistani Taliban exploded in a market close to the Afghan border Tuesday, killing 25 people in the deadliest blast in the country in several months. It also wounded 24 people. The explosion, likely detonated by remote control, hit vehicles being used by the militia in the Khyber region. The army has supported the formation of anti-Taliban militias in northwest Pakistan, but the insurgents have ruthlessly attacked the groups over the last two years.

Afghanistan
Taliban insurgents stormed a government building in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday, setting off a firefight that killed 10 people, the Interior Ministry said, the latest sign of insurgent strength after a decade of war. A statement said three attackers broke into a communications building in Sharan, the provincial capital, about 100 miles south of Kabul. In the ensuing firefight two of the attackers set off their suicide bomb vests. In addition to the three attackers, three policemen and four employees of the Telecommunications Ministry were killed in the attack. Two officers and a civilian were injured. Paktika province borders Pakistan and is one of the main routes for Taliban fighters infiltrating into eastern Afghanistan from their sanctuaries across the border. It is also one of the main strongholds of the al-Qaida-linked Haqqani network, which has been blamed for a series of spectacular attacks, including suicide bombings inside Kabul.

Nigeria
Thick black smoke and flames rose Tuesday from the burning roadblock that cut off a highway linking Nigeria’s mainland to the islands where the oil-rich nation’s wealthy live. The bare-chested young men who live under the bridge said they had had enough. As the paralyzing nationwide strike called by labor unions Nigeria entered its second day Tuesday, protests by those angered by government corruption and inaction drew tens of thousands to the streets and remain largely peaceful. However, worrying signs of possible unrest have begun emerging in a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people often violently divided by those who have and those who have not.

In Benin City in Nigeria’s southwest, an angry mob killed five people and wounded at least six others Tuesday afternoon as they attacked the city’s central mosque and a Quranic school. Authorities have tried to control violence in Nigeria, a nation divided into a mostly Christian south and Muslim north. However, a radical Islamist sect called Boko Haram has begun specifically killing Christians in the nation’s northeast, leading to a call by a prominent Christian leader for worshipers to begin defending themselves. The Benin City attack appeared to be a response to those killings.

Earthquakes
A powerful earthquake hit waters off western Indonesia early Wednesday, prompting officials to briefly issue a tsunami warning. Panicked residents poured into the streets, but there were no immediate reports of injuries or serious damage. The U.S. Geological Survey said the 7.3-magnitude quake struck 260 miles off the coast of Aceh province just after midnight. It was centered 18 miles beneath the ocean floor. People in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh — still deeply traumatized by the 2004 monster quake and tsunami — were rattled from their sleep. They fled their homes and waited outside as sirens blared from local mosques, some hopping in cars and motorcycles and heading for high ground. In the town of Seumele, patients were evacuated from a a hospital.

Weather
City roads were flooded and thousands of Houston residents, including at least five schools, were without electricity Monday after powerful thunderstorms ploughed through the area prompting a tornado warning and dumping several inches of rain and hail on the drought-stricken region. Up to four inches of rain had fallen on parts of Houston and neighboring areas by early Monday, with more expected. The rain comes as a welcome respite after months of severe drought, but meteorologists said even this wet event would not be enough to fill lakes, reservoirs, creeks and streams. According to preliminary data, Texas got about 14.89 inches of rain in 2011, compared to a normal average of 29.39 inches – levels that compare to 1917 and 1956, some of the driest years in recorded history.

  • The state’s devastating drought has made food and water scarce, raising worries that the parched conditions could threaten the only self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes left in the wild. The lack of rain has made estuaries and marshlands too salty for blue crabs to thrive and destroyed a usually plentiful supply of wolf berries. In addition, a long-lasting “red tide” — a toxic algae that blooms in salty water — has made it dangerous for the birds to eat clams, which retain the algae’s toxin and can pass it along the food chain.

A mudslide caused by two days of downpours has killed at least 13 people in a small town in southeastern Brazil, and another 11 are listed as missing. Mud loosened by the rains swallowed at least nine houses built on the hillside. Floods elsewhere in the state have forced more than 30,000 people to flee their homes.

Meanwhile, a severe drought in Brazil’s southern state of Rio Grande do Sul led the governor, Beto Grill, to declare a state of emergency Monday. The federal Ministry of Agriculture announced it has allotted $9.7 million to build dams and wells among other public works designed to improve the situation.

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Signs of the Times (1/9/12)

January 9, 2012

Tax-Funded Planned Parenthood: 329,455 Abortions a Year

The latest annual report from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America reveals that the PPFA received more than $487 million in tax dollars over a 12-month period — and performed 329,455 abortions. The report covers the period from July 1, 2009, to June 30, 2010, the PPFA’s fiscal year. It states that the organization received “government health services grants and reimbursements” totaling $487.4 million, accounting for 46 percent of its revenue. In 2006, Planned Parenthood did 289,750 abortions; in 2007, it did 305,310; in 2008, 324,008 abortions; and in 2009, 331,796. The PPFA therefore accounts for a major portion of the abortions reported annually to the Centers for Disease Control, which in 2008 — the most recent year for which figures are available — numbered 825,564 “With over a billion in net assets and a business model centered on abortion and government subsidies, it is time for Planned Parenthood to end its reliance on taxpayer dollars,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List — a pro-life organization that lobbies Congress to defund Planned Parenthood.

  • Tax-payer funding of abortions through Planned Parenthood has got to stop or the blood curse of murder will continue to drag America down further and further

‘Gay’ Rights … or Business-Owner Rights?

A bed and breakfast in Illinois that is currently under attack by a homosexual couple is now getting aid from Alliance Defense Fund. Complaints were lodged with the state Human Rights Commission by two men who objected to the owners of the TimberCreek Bed and Breakfast refusing to allow their property to be used for same-gender civil union ceremonies, which are now legal in Illinois. ADF attorney Bryan Beauman says about the owners of the bed and breakfast, “They’re willing to host weddings for marriages, but they decline to host any civil union ceremonies for both same-sex or opposite-sex couples.” The owners rejected the homosexual pair’s request on the basis of their strongly held religious beliefs. “These complaints ignore those basic fundamental freedoms and they’re just further examples of the threat that the homosexual legal agenda poses to every American’s basic rights.”

U.S. Defends Dore of Health Care Overhaul

Defending President Obama’s signature health care overhaul, the administration is urging the Supreme Court to uphold the contentious heart of the law, the requirement that individuals buy insurance or pay a penalty. The administration filed a written submission with the court Friday describing the 2010 law as an appropriate response to a “crisis in the national health care market.” The justices will hear arguments in the high court’s biggest case this term over three days in late March. The outcome, expected in late June, has the potential to affect President Obama’s bid for re-election. One federal appeals court struck down the so-called individual mandate as exceeding Congress’ power under the Constitution. But two other federal appeals courts upheld the law and agreed with the administration’s argument that Congress was well within its power to adopt that requirement.

Shift in Illegal-Immigrant Policy

Illegal immigrants closely related to U.S. citizens would no longer have to leave the country to try to obtain legal status under a proposed change in immigration policy announced Friday by President Barack Obama’s administration. The change, which would greatly reduce the amount of time U.S. citizens are separated from undocumented family members seeking legal status, is the latest attempt by the Obama administration to use its authority to implement some immigration reforms without congressional approval. Immigrant advocates praised the proposed change as a practical and long-overdue step that would help preserve family unity by speeding up reunification. But critics attacked the change as one more example of the administration backing off from enforcing immigration laws.

‘No Child Left Behind’ Falls Short after 10 Years

The No Child Left Behind education law was cast as a symbol of possibility, offering the promise of improved schools for the nation’s poor and minority children and better prepared students in a competitive world. Yet after a decade on the books, President George W. Bush’s most hyped domestic accomplishment has become a symbol to many of federal overreach and Congress’ inability to fix something that’s clearly flawed. As the 2014 deadline draws closer, more schools are failing to meet federal standards, with nearly half not doing so last year. The law forced schools to confront the uncomfortable reality that many kids simply weren’t learning, but it’s primarily known for its emphasis on standardized tests and the labeling of thousands of schools as “failures.” Critics say the law carries rigid and unrealistic expectations that put too much of an emphasis on tests for reading and math at the expense of a more well-rounded education. Frustrated by the congressional inaction, President Obama told states last fall they could seek a waiver around unpopular proficiency requirements in exchange for actions his administration favors. A vast majority of states have said they will go that route, seen as a temporary fix until lawmakers do act.

US Navy Rescues Iranians Held by Somali Pirates

The same U.S. aircraft carrier group that Iran warned not to return to the Persian Gulf region has rescued 13 Iranians held hostage for weeks by pirates in the Arabian Sea, the Pentagon said Friday. The rescue operation took place Thursday, when forces with the USS John C. Stennis carrier strike group received a distress call from the master of the Al Molai, an Iranian-flagged fishing vessel, who said he was being held captive by pirates. At the Pentagon, spokesman Capt. John Kirby said the crew of 15 pirates, all believed to be Somalis, were now being detained aboard the Stennis.  Iran’s foreign ministry on Saturday labeled the U.S. Navy’s rescue of 13 Iranians from pirates who had hijacked a fishing vessel a “humanitarian and positive” act. Iran’s hard-line Fars news agency had a different take, calling the rescue operation a Hollywood dramatization of a routine event.

Clean Tech Investments Surged in 2011

Despite a weak global economy, investments in clean technology such as solar power and energy efficiency rose 13% worldwide last year and 30% in North America. North America, which accounted for 76% of global investments, raised $6.81 billion last year. Its total number of deals, 470, was up 25% from 2010, according to preliminary 2011 data released Thursday by Cleantech Group. Globally, mergers and acquisitions reached record highs last year worth $41.2 billion, up 153% from 2010. In North America, California led the way with $3.69 billion in investments (a 54% share), followed by Massachusetts (8% share) and Colorado (5% share). “Based on our historical data, we believe 2012 will be an all-time-record year for global clean-tech investments.”

Supersized Cars Limit MPG Gains

Cars haven’t improved their miles-per-gallon much in recent decades, but fuel efficiency is not to blame. A new study quantifies the real culprit: super-sizing. The average auto, which now gets 27 miles-per-gallon, would have seen its mpg jump from 23 in 1980 to about 37 had it retained the same weight and horsepower. That didn’t happen. Between 1980 and 2006, the average curb weight increased 26% and horsepower soared 107%. So even though fuel economy jumped 60%, the average gas mileage of vehicles sold in the United States rose only about 15%.

Economic News

The soaring national debt has reached a symbolic tipping point: It’s now as big as the entire U.S. economy. The amount of money the federal government owes to its creditors, combined with IOUs to government retirement and other programs, now tops $15.23 trillion. That’s roughly equal to the value of all goods and services the U.S. economy produces in one year: projections show the economy likely grew to about $15.3 trillion by December. President Obama’s 2012 budget shows the debt soaring past $26 trillion a decade from now. Among advanced economies, only Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan and Portugal have debts larger than their economies.

Data from the end of 2011 suggest that a housing-market recovery has begun in metro Phoenix. The median price of a metro Phoenix home rose to $120,000 in December, its highest level since November 2010. That was the first December since 2005 that the region’s median price didn’t drop. The number of home sales in 2011 climbed to their highest level since the housing market’s peak in 2006. Foreclosures fell to their lowest level since 2008.

People and businesses underpaid their taxes by an estimated 17 percent in the most recent year studied, meaning they failed to send the government $450 billion it was owed, according to an Internal Revenue Service report released Friday. After IRS audits and other enforcement efforts, non-compliance shrank to 14 percent, leaving the final amount of unpaid taxes at $385 billion.

Nevada’s largest casinos suffered a combined $4 billion loss in 2011. Combined, the 256 casinos had total revenue of $22 billion. In 2010, the largest casinos had a net loss of $3.4 billion on total revenues of almost $20.9 billion. Casinos paid $792 million in taxes and fees, equating to 7.8% of gambling revenue.

  • Pray that ongoing, increasing losses will drive many casinos completely out of business

Western powers this week readied a contingency plan to tap a record volume from emergency stockpiles to replace nearly all the Gulf oil that would be lost if Iran blocks the Strait of Hormuz. The International Energy Agency (IEA), which advises 28 oil consuming countries, discussed on Thursday a plan to release up to 14 million barrels per day (bpd) of government-owned oil stored in the United States, Europe, Japan and other importers. Action on this scale would be more than five times the size of the biggest release in the agency’s history — made in response to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The maximum release, some 10 million bpd of crude and about 4 million bpd of refined products, could be sustained during the first month of any coordinated action

Iran

Iran has begun uranium enrichment at a new underground site well protected from possible airstrikes, a leading hardline newspaper reported Sunday. Kayhan daily, which is close to Iran’s ruling clerics, said Tehran has begun injecting uranium gas into sophisticated centrifuges at the Fordo facility near the holy city of Qom. Iran is under U.N. sanctions for refusing to stop uranium enrichment — which can produce both nuclear fuel and fissile warhead material — and other suspected activities that the international community fears could be used to make atomic arms. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says Iran is laying the groundwork for making nuclear weapons someday, but is not yet building a bomb.

The announcement came as another newspaper quoted a senior commander in the country’s powerful Revolutionary Guard as saying that Tehran’s leadership has decided to order the closure of the strategic Strait of Hormuz if the country’s oil exports are blocked. The United States will respond if Iran tries to close the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf,Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Sunday.

An Iranian court has convicted an American man of working for the CIA and sentenced him to death, state radio reported Monday, in a case adding to the accelerating tension between the United States and Iran. Iran charges that as a former U.S. Marine, Amir Mirzaei Hekmati received special training and served at U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan before heading to Iran for his alleged intelligence mission. The 28-year-old former military translator was born in Arizona and graduated from a high school in Michigan. His family is of Iranian origin. His father, a professor at a community college in Flint, Michigan, has said his son is not a CIA spy and was visiting his grandmothers in Iran when he was arrested.

Libya

More than 1 million Libyan students returned to school Saturday to start the first year in which the whims, politics and wacky philosophies of Moammar Gadhafi will not drive the curriculum. Gone are the days when history books lauded Gadhafi’s accomplishments while blasting “Fascist” Italy, the “Zionist” United States and the “devilish” West, Libyan officials said. Revamping the curriculum was only one of the tasks the new Education Ministry faced in preparing for the first school year following the eight-month civil war that killed thousands and left parts of some of Libya’s biggest cities in ruins. Many schools were damaged in the fighting and more than a dozen were completely destroyed. Elsewhere, crews had to clear land mines from school yards to make them safe for students.

Syria

Thousands of regime backers massed at a mosque in the Syrian capital Saturday for funeral prayers for policemen killed in a Damascus bombing, as the government vowed to respond with an “iron fist” to security threats. Coffins bearing 11 policemen, covered with Syrian flags, were brought into the Al-Hassan mosque for the prayers, a day after the explosion ripped through a Damascus intersection, killing 26 people and wounding 63. Officials said the attack was a suicide bombing, the second in two weeks to hit the normally quiet Syrian capital. The regime of President Bashar Assad has touted the attacks as proof that it is being targeted by “terrorists.” But the country’s opposition demanded an independent investigation, accusing forces loyal to the Syrian regime of being behind the bombing to tarnish a 10-month-old uprising against Assad. The bombings have coincided with a mission by Arab League observers investigating Syria’s crackdown on the protest. The Arab League repeated its demand Sunday for the Syrian government to immediately stop all violence and allow more monitors in.

Egypt

Poised to dominate the new Parliament, Egypt’s largest Islamist group is putting off an expected confrontation with Egypt’s military rulers, keeping its distance from more radical Islamist parties and hoping that the United States will continue to support the country financially, a top leader of the group’s political arm said Sunday. Essam el-Erian, a senior leader of the political party founded by the group, the Muslim Brotherhood, said the party had decided to support keeping the caretaker prime minister and cabinet appointed by the ruling military council in office for the next six months, until the military’s preferred date for a handover of power, after the new Constitution is approved and a president is elected in June.

The deputy leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has called Israel a “criminal enemy” and threatened to cancel the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Dr. Rashad Bayoumi was asked if the government of Egypt is required to recognize Israel. He responded: “This is not an option. Whatever the circumstances, we do not recognize Israel at all. It’s an occupying criminal enemy.” He said no Muslim Brotherhood member will ever negotiate with Israelis. He also said the Brotherhood would take legal action toward canceling the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel that was signed in 1979.

Afghanistan

An Afghan investigative commission accused the American military Saturday of abuse at its main prison in the country, repeating President Hamid Karzai’s demand that the U.S. turn over all detainees to Afghan custody and saying anyone held without evidence should be freed. The demands put the U.S. and the Afghan governments on a collision course in an issue that will decide the fate of hundreds of suspected Taliban and al-Qaida operators captured by American forces. Members of the Afghan investigation said U.S. officials told them that many of those militant suspects were taken based on intelligence that cannot be used in Afghan courts. The escalating controversy and demands by Karzai appeared to be the most recent in a series of exercises in political brinksmanship, as the president tries to bolster his negotiating position ahead of renewed talks for a Strategic Partnership Document with America that will determine the U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014, when most foreign troops are due to withdraw.

Haiti

Two years after an earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince, Haiti is in the grip of one of the most devastating cholera outbreaks in modern history, health authorities said Friday. More than half a million people have become ill with the disease and at least 7,000 have died since the outbreak began in October 2010. Health providers report about 200 new cases a day, and expect that number to increase when Haiti’s rainy season begins in April. The disease has spread across the island of Hispaniola to Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic, which has reported 21,000 cases and 363 deaths from cholera.

Japan

Japan says it will soon require atomic reactors to be shut down after 40 years of use to improve safety following the nuclear crisis set off by last year’s tsunami. Concern about aging reactors has been growing because the three units at the Fukushima plant in northeastern Japan that went into meltdown following the tsunami in March were built starting in 1967. Many more of the 54 reactors in Japan will reach the 40-year mark in the near future, though some were built only a few years ago. The proposal could be similar to the law in the U.S., which grants 40-year licenses and allows for 20-year extensions. Such renewals have been granted to 66 of 104 U.S. nuclear reactors. That process has been so routine that many in the industry are already planning for additional license extensions that could push the plants to operate for 80 years or even 100.

Nigeria

An industrial court in Nigeria ordered unions Friday to stop a planned nationwide strike over spiraling gasoline prices, giving authorities legal power to break up any work stoppages by labor groups. The order by the National Industrial Court came as protests continued in other Nigerian cities over the removal of government-sponsored fuel subsidies. The nation’s House of Representatives said it would meet Sunday to address the concerns of the people, but Nigeria’s president appears unwilling to pull back from eliminating the subsidy. Gas prices have risen from $1.70 per gallon to at least $3.50 per gallon since the subsidy ended Sunday. That’s caused prices to inflate for food and transportation across Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people where most live on less than $2 a day.

Indonesia

Acts of violence and intolerance against Christians in Indonesia almost doubled in 2011, with an Islamist campaign to close down churches symbolizing the plight of the religious minority, Compass Direct News reports. The Indonesian Protestant Church Union counted 54 acts of violence and other violations against Christians in 2011, up from 30 in 2010. The number of such incidents against religious minorities also grew, from 198 in 2010 to 276 in 2011, but the worst is perhaps yet to come if authorities continue to overlook the threat of Muslim extremism — at least 36 regulations to ban religious practices deemed deviant from Islam were drafted or implemented in the country in 2011.

Philippines

More than 3 million Roman Catholic worshippers paraded with a charred Christ statue through the Philippine capital in an annual procession Monday despite a warning from the president that terrorists might target the gathering. Police estimated that more than 3 million people had joined the procession; up to 9 million were expected. The black wooden statue known as the Black Nazarene was displayed at the seaside Rizal Park where Manila’s Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle led a Mass and offered prayers for victims of tropical storms and landslides over the past year. President Benigno Aquino III warned Sunday at a hastily called news conference, along with military and police officials, that several terrorists planned to disrupt the event and had reportedly been seen in the capital.

Weather

Dozens of National Guard troops have arrived to help an Alaska fishing town dig out from massive snows that have collapsed roofs, trapped some people in homes, and triggered avalanches. The town of Cordova is used to snow, but not like this season’s blanketing. The Guard reported more than 18 feet of snow has fallen in the past weeks. Officials said at least three buildings have collapsed or partially collapsed and six homes are deemed severely stressed by heavy wet snow. The town issued a disaster proclamation last week after three weeks of relentless snow overwhelmed local crews working around the clock and filled snow dump sites.

A U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker is cutting a path through icy seas for a Russian tanker carrying much-needed fuel for the iced-in Alaska city of Nome. The city of about 3,500 people on the western Alaska coastline normally gets fuel by barge. But it didn’t get its last pre-winter fuel delivery because of a massive storm, and it could run out of crucial supplies before spring. The Russian tanker came upon ice about a foot thick very early Friday. If the mission is successful, it will be the first time petroleum products have been delivered by sea to a Western Alaska community in winter.

The weather in the Plains is cooling, but not before setting another slew of high temperature records. Just about every major city in North Dakota and South Dakota on Thursday set a record for the date, with temperatures in the 50s and 60s. The National Weather Service reports that Rapid City, S.D., hit 73 degrees. The agency says that not only were a large number of high temperature records broken, but many records were exceeded “by a tremendous amount” — as much as 17 degrees. After several days of record temps, Friday’s highs in the central and northern Plains were forecast in the 30s and 40s.

It’s a tense time at Florida’s ornamental fish farms. Millions of platies, mollies and guppies in outdoor ponds could die quickly from the drastic drop in temperature — it went from beach weather to below freezing two weeks later — or they could fall sick and linger from stress or a fungus. Almost all the U.S.-raised tropical and ornamental fish come from Florida, and when cold weather strikes the results can be devastating. In 2010, many Florida ornamental fish farmers lost between 80 and 100 percent of their stock because of the cold. Florida’s fish farms are not as well known, or as lucrative, as oranges, strawberries or tomatoes. But the sales figures are still substantial. The state’s tropical fish sales were $32.2 million in 2007, the last year statistics were gathered.

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