Signs of the Times (5/10/13)

Delaware Eleventh State to Approve Same-Sex Marriage

Delaware became the eleventh state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage Tuesday after the State Senate approved the measure and the state’s governor signed it into law. Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, signed the bill following a 12-9 vote in the State Senate passing the measure. The State House approved the bill in April. While the state had an existing civil unions law, the new measure allows gay and lesbian couples to legally marry. Rhode Island, Iowa, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Washington and the District of Columbia all allow same-sex marriage.

  • This marker of the end-time decline in morality continues its downward plunge

Military Sexual Assaults Rising

The number of service members anonymously reporting a sexual assault grew by more than 30% in the past two years, according to a Pentagon report released Tuesday. The Defense Department estimated that more than 26,000 troops experienced an episode of “unwanted sexual contact,” a huge jump from the 19,300 figure in the 2010 report. Military officials worry that many victims don’t come forward because they are frightened of retaliation. But the numbers might indicate that more victims are willing to report crimes than in the past. The Defense Department has stepped up efforts to hold perpetrators accountable, establishing a special victims unit to handle cases and working to improve tracking of reports.

Jihadists Push New Tactics in U.S.

Aware that intensified American counterterrorism efforts have made an ambitious Sept. 11-style plot a long shot, Al Qaeda propagandists for several years have called on their devotees in the United States to carry out smaller-scale solo attacks and provided the online education to teach them how. “I strongly recommend all of the brothers and sisters coming from the West to consider attacking America in its own backyard,” wrote Samir Khan, an American who joined Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch. “The effect is much greater, it always embarrasses the enemy, and these types of individual decision-making attacks are nearly impossible for them to contain,” Mr. Khan wrote in a Web publication. The Boston Marathon bombing — which the authorities believe was carried out according to instructions that Mr. Khan posted online — offers an unsettling example of just how devastating such an attack can be, even when the death toll is relatively low. The web site shows how plotters can construct powerful bombs without attracting official attention.

Al Jazeera to Open 12 U.S. Bureaus

The Al Jazeera news organization, which bought Al Gore’s Current TV for $500 million earlier this year, has said it will begin broadcasting Al Jazeera America sometime late this summer and will have news bureaus in 12 cities across the country. Bob Wheelock, executive producer of Al Jazeera English, said “We’re trying to have bureaus in places where other networks do not,” Wheelock said. “Detroit is one place, obviously. … New Orleans is another, and Nashville.” Bureaus are also to be opened in major U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

Testimony Raises New Benghazi Questions

Three State Department officials provided a riveting, emotional account of last year’s fatal attack on U.S. installations in eastern Libya on Wednesday as they charged senior government officials with withholding embarrassing facts and failing to take enough responsibility for security lapses. Speaking before the Republican-led congressional panel, they reiterated criticism of the Obama administration’s initial reluctance to describe the attacks as premeditated terrorist acts. The move hindered the FBI’s probe into the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. in expanding the narrative of the intensely politicized episode, the witnesses raised fresh questions about whether then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her deputies were sufficiently engaged in assessing the security posture of diplomatic posts last year. But the new information failed to break the political logjam the attacks spawned, with Republicans and Democrats offering starkly different interpretations of what happened and who within the U.S. government is to blame. One of the whistleblowers, a veteran diplomat stationed at Benghazi, said he was demoted because he questioned official accounts of the attack.

U.S. Blames China’s Military for Cyberattacks

The Obama administration on Monday explicitly accused China’s military of mounting attacks on American government computer systems and defense contractors, saying one motive could be to map “military capabilities that could be exploited during a crisis.” Some recent estimates have more than 90 percent of cyberespionage in the United States originating in China. Until now the administration avoided directly accusing both the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army of using cyberweapons against the United States in a deliberate, government-developed strategy to steal intellectual property and gain strategic advantage. The report, released Monday, described China’s primary goal as stealing industrial technology, but said many intrusions also seemed aimed at obtaining insights into American policy decisions.

Public, Government Deplete Ammo Supplies

Demand for guns and ammunition has cleaned out stores nationwide, leading to waiting lists and early morning lines outside of gun and sporting goods stores for ammunition shipments. Common calibers routinely sell out within minutes of appearing on store shelves and prices have soared as much as 70 percent. Gun enthusiasts, already anxious President Obama’s re-election would translate into harsh controls on gun ownership, have packed stores, buying as many firearms and as much ammunition as they can find. Moves to expand background checks and limit firearm and magazine sales have added to the hysteria. Massive government purchases, including a plan by the Department of Homeland Security to buy more than 1 billion rounds of ammunition, have further stoked fears – and suspicions. Concerns over a federal government bid to purchase large amounts of ammunition sent gun enthusiasts back to the stores.

Citrus Disease With No Cure

Florida’s citrus industry is grappling with the most serious threat in its history: a bacterial disease with no cure that has infected all 32 of the state’s citrus-growing counties. Although the disease, citrus greening, was first spotted in Florida in 2005, this year’s losses from it are by far the most extensive. While the bacteria, which causes fruit to turn bitter and drop from the trees when still unripe, affects all citrus fruits, it has been most devastating to oranges, the largest crop. The relentless migration of the disease from southern to northern Florida — and beyond — has deepened concerns this year among orange juice processors, investors, growers and lawmakers. Florida is the second-largest producer of orange juice in the world, behind Brazil

Economic News

The annual deficit has fallen 32% over the first seven months of this fiscal year compared with same period last year, according to Congressional Budget Office figures released Tuesday. A major reason: A big jump in tax revenue. Tax collections rose by $220 billion — or 16% — between the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1 through April 30. The tax haul rose sharply primarily because wages and salaries were higher, the payroll tax cut of the past two years expired on Jan. 1 and the fiscal cliff deal brokered over New Year’s raised tax rates on high earners.

Spending, meanwhile, fell 1.9% year over year, the CBO estimated. The biggest percentage drop occurred in the payment of unemployment benefits, which were down nearly 25%, or $15 billion. Defense spending fell 5.3%, or $20 billion, and “other activities” — primarily spending on nondefense programs — fell 8.6%, or $58 billion.

Initial claims for unemployment benefits hit the lowest level since January 2008 last week. First-time claims for jobless benefits fell 4,000 to 323,000, bolstering the view that the jobs market is improving. However, many economists remain skeptical that a big surge in job creation will occur the rest of the year.

Foreclosure activity in April fell to its lowest level in 74 months. In April, one of every 905 U.S. housing units received a foreclosure filing, market watcher RealtyTrac says. That was the lowest level since February 2007 — near the beginning of the nation’s foreclosure crisis — and down 23% from a year ago.

Home prices in March were 10.5% higher than a year ago. The overall change was the biggest year-over-year jump in seven years and the 13th straight month for home price gains. Home prices increased 1.9% in March from February.

Hourly wages ticked up 4 cents in April to an average $23.87, rising at about the same tepid 2% annual pace since the recovery began in mid-2009. But taking inflation into account, they’re virtually flat. Adjusting for inflation, an average worker who was paid $49,650 at the end of 2009 is making about $545 less now — and that’s before taxes and deductions.

Consumer borrowing rose just $8 billion in March from February to a seasonally adjusted $2.81 trillion, the Federal Reserve said Tuesday. It was the smallest increase in eight months. The gain was driven entirely by more loans to attend school and buy cars. credit card debt fell $1.7 billion to $846 billion. That’s 17.2% below the peak of $1.022 trillion set in July 2008.

Eurozone

Portugal held a sale of 10-year bonds Tuesday for the first time since it needed a bailout in 2011, a milestone in its efforts to regain investor confidence and prove its austerity policies are paying off. Yields on outstanding Portuguese 10-year bonds had recently fallen to around 5.5%. Last year, yields were in double digits. Early indications Tuesday were that the interest rate in the latest bond sale would be below 5.7%.As the 17-nation eurozone tries to reduce its debt load, Portugal has been at the heart of the debate about the merits of the austerity policies demanded by the bailout creditors in return for their loan.

Syria

Concern over the possibility of broader war in the Middle East grew Monday in the wake of Israeli airstrikes on Syrian military installations. The reported strikes killed 42 Syrian soldiers, the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday, and 100 people remained missing. Syria claimed Israeli missiles struck at its military facilities on Sunday. Syrian ally Iran warned of a “crushing response” while Russia called reports of Israeli involvement “very worrying.”

President Bashar Assad’s regime has given a Palestinian militant group the go-ahead to set up missiles to attack Israel in the wake of recent Israeli airstrikes on the Syrian capital, a spokesman for the group said Tuesday. Syria has hinted at possible retribution against Israel since the Jewish state carried out the airstrikes over the weekend, although official government statements have been relatively mild. In that light, the Assad regime’s decision to allow a minor Syria-based Palestinian group to prepare for attacks is largely seen as a face-saving gesture unlikely to escalate the confrontation with Israel.

Libya

The Ansar al Sharia Brigade, the Islamist terror group linked to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, continues to operate freely in that Libyan city, according to U.S. military officials. The group remains active in the Mediterranean port city, operating patrols and checkpoints, and earlier this year reached an agreement with other Islamist groups allowing it to operate openly. The group “continues to spread its ideology in the Benghazi area, particularly targeting youth,” said one official, who noted that the lack of central government security was the key reason the militia has not been suppressed. The group is attempting to reinvent itself as a humanitarian and charitable organization after the Sept. 11 attack.

Bangladesh

At least 15 people died in clashes Monday between police and Islamic hardliners demanding that Bangladesh implement an anti-blasphemy law. Eight people, including two policemen and a paramilitary soldier, were killed in clashes in Kanchpur just outside the capital, Dhaka, another seven people died in Motijheel, a commercial area of Dhaka. The protesters blocked roads in the area with burning tires and logs during more than five hours of clashes. The violence erupted after security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets in the central commercial district.

Tanzania

Four Saudi Arabian citizens have been arrested following a bomb attack on a Catholic church. The four Saudi nationals were among six people arrested. Two people died in Sunday’s bombing of a newly opened church in the northern city of Arusha. Nearly four dozen people were wounded in the blast just before the church’s inaugural Mass, which was attended by the pope’s envoy to Tanzania. Mulogo said eyewitnesses reported that the bomb was thrown from a motorcycle into the church.

Somalia

A suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives into a convoy carrying a Qatari delegation in Mogadishu Sunday, killing at least eight people and wounding seven. Those killed were all bystanders at the busy intersection in Somalia’s capital. The radical Islamist group Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the bombing. Several principal roads in and around the capital were locked down by government troops in recent days amid threats by Al-Shabaab to launch deadly attacks. The site of Sunday’s suicide bombing was just reopened a day ago.

China

Poultry workers moving to and from wet markets and farms may be responsible for the spread of the deadly H7N9 virus in China, says a virologist who’s working with the World Health Organisation to investigate the outbreak. The closure of Shanghai’s poultry markets on April 6 had resulted in a sharp drop in the number of human cases in the city, clear evidence that the poultry markets are the primary source of human infection experts say.

Earthquakes

Iran says a moderate earthquake rattled a region near the country’s main nuclear reactor, but there were no reports of damage or deaths in the surrounding area. Monday’s quake had a preliminary magnitude of 5.1 and was centered near Kaki, about 60 miles southeast of Bushehr on the Persian Gulf coast. A more powerful 6.1 temblor struck the same area last month, killing at least 37 people and raising calls for greater international safety inspectors at the nuclear reactor in Bushehr.

Volcanoes

One of the Philippines’ most active volcanoes rumbled to life Tuesday, spewing room-sized rocks toward nearly 30 surprised climbers, killing five and injuring others that had to be fetched with rescue helicopters and rope. Eight people were injured, and The 2,460-meter (8,070-foot) mountain about 340 kilometers (212 miles) southeast of Manila has erupted about 40 times during the last 400 years.the others were in the process of being brought down the mountain. Ash clouds have cleared over the volcano, which was quiet later in the morning.

Weather

California and federal public health officials say valley fever, a potentially lethal but often misdiagnosed disease infecting more and more people around the nation, has been on the rise as warming climates and drought have kicked up the dust that spreads it. The fever has hit California’s agricultural heartland particularly hard in recent years, with incidence dramatically increasing in 2010 and 2011. The disease – which is prevalent in arid regions of the United States, Mexico, Central and South America – can be contracted by simply breathing in fungus-laced spores from dust disturbed by wind as well as human or animal activity. Although millions of residents in Central California face the threat of valley fever, experts say people who work in dusty fields or construction sites are most at risk, as are certain ethnic groups and those with weak immune systems. Newcomers and visitors passing through the region may also be more susceptible.

Days of rain in the Southeast U.S. have left roads underwater and rivers and creeks at high levels.  The flooding threat will continue for several more days. Heavy rain caused flooding from northern Alabama and northern Georgia to western North Carolina over the weekend. The core of the heaviest rains are expected to shift northward into Virginia and northern North Carolina through Tuesday. Several parts of northwest Georgia remained under a flood watch Monday morning, May 6. Others were under food warnings as rivers and creeks were spilling over their banks.

According to the National Weather Service in Corpus Christi, Texas, parts of South Texas have rainfall deficits on the order of several feet over a two-and-a-half-year period from October 2010 through April 2013.

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