Signs of the Times (8/19/14)

Pope Honors Korean Martyrs as Models for Church

Pope Francis beatified 124 Korean martyrs on Saturday, telling hundreds of thousands of people who turned out for his open-air Mass that their ancestors’ willingness to die rather than renounce their faith two centuries ago was a model for Asian missionaries Saturday. Korea’s church is unique in that it was founded not by foreign missionary priests — as occurred in most of the world — but by members of Korea’s own noble classes who learned of Christianity by reading books about it. These early Catholics were killed in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Joseon Dynasty, which tried to shut the Korean Peninsula off from Western influence. Police in Seoul declined to give an estimate of the crowd size, but the Vatican said about 800,000 people had turned out.

Navy Returns Bibles to Hotel Rooms

Scores of activists with PIJN and AFA called Congressman Buck McKeon the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and the Navy reversed its decision to remove all Gideon-placed Bibles from its lodging hotels. “Gideons Bibles are going back into Navy lodges,” reports Stars and Stripes. Atheists had cheered a victory after a complaint prompted the exchange to begin moving the Bibles to its lost-and-found bins this summer, but the Navy said the decision was made without consulting senior leadership.

Hundreds of Bioterror Lab Mishaps Cloaked in Secrecy

More than 1,100 laboratory incidents involving bacteria, viruses and toxins that pose significant or bioterror risks to people and agriculture were reported to federal regulators during 2008 through 2012, government reports obtained by USA TODAY show. But details of exactly what happened are cloaked in secrecy. More than half these incidents were serious enough that lab workers received medical evaluations or treatment, according to the reports. In five incidents, investigations confirmed that laboratory workers had been infected or sickened; all recovered. In two other incidents, animals were inadvertently infected with contagious diseases that would have posed significant threats to livestock industries if they had spread. But the names of the labs that had mishaps or made mistakes, as well as most information about all of the incidents, must be kept secret because of federal bioterrorism laws, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the labs.

  • No matter how many fail-safe policies and procedures are put in place, flawed human beings will cause accidents. It’s only a matter of time before one of these bioterror incidents causes more widespread damage.

New Solar Power Plants are Incinerating Birds

Thousands of birds are flying into a new solar “mega-trap” in the middle of California’s Mojave Desert, killing the avian lot at a rate of up to one bird every two minutes, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The state-of-the-art Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which opened in February, is the world’s largest solar plant to utilize “power towers,” skyscraping structures that receive beams of focused solar rays to generate electricity. At Ivanpah, the sun’s ray’s are redirected from a sea of more than 300,000 mirrors on the desert surface below to hit water filled boilers atop three 459-foot “power towers.” Temperatures near the towers can climb to 800 degrees, which causes the water to produce steam that turns turbines which generate energy. All told, the facility at Ivanpah generates enough electricity to power 140,000 homes and eliminates carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to 72,000 vehicles a year. However, up to 28,000 birds per year may be meeting an early death after burning up in the focused beams of sunlight.

Ferguson Protests Degrade into Violence

Violence erupted in Ferguson, Mo., once more overnight, even as National Guard troops arrived, the latest in a series of attempts to quell the chaos after a police officer fatally shot an unarmed man. Armored vehicles rolled down the streets. Stun grenades and tear gas canisters arced through the night sky and into crowds of protesters overnight in Ferguson, Missouri, after police said they had been targeted with rocks, Molotov cocktails and gunfire amid continuing demonstrations over the death of Michael Brown. Two people were shot — not by police, authorities said. Four officers were injured. Police arrested at least 31 people. Police and protesters blamed outside agitators for the gunplay and violence. The protests are the latest spasm of violence over the shooting of Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, by white police Officer Darren Wilson on August 9.

  • Some liberal media have labeled agitators coming from out-of-state as being from the “extreme right,” never missing an opportunity to politicize and capitalize on human tragedy

Economic News

Housing starts surged last month, topping a seasonally adjusted annual pace above 1 million for the second time this year. Construction of new homes rose 15.7% from June to an annual rate of 1.1 million, the Census Bureau said Tuesday. While housing starts are running ahead of last year, much of the growth has been in construction of apartment buildings, rather than single-family homes. Home builders say that market has been held back by a still-tight lending climate for residential mortgage borrowers and shortages of finished lots and labor.

Home ownership has been a critical component of the American Dream for decades. However, affordability issues and the recent housing-bubble collapse are keeping many buyers on the sidelines. Last month, the Census Bureau reported that the nation’s homeownership rate during the second quarter dipped 0.3 percentage points to 64.7%, compared to 65% a year earlier and the lowest level in nineteen years. At the same time, national vacancy rates in the second quarter fell to 7.5% for rental housing, representing the lowest level since 1997. Rent prices are not rising as fast as home prices, but Trulia reports that rent prices rose 6.1% on a year-over-year basis in July — a sizable increase to those already struggling with their finances.

Inflation moderated in July as gasoline prices fell after surging in previous months. The consumer price index edged up 0.1% after rising 0.3% in June, the Labor Department said Tuesday. Core inflation, which excludes the volatile food and energy categories, was up 0.1% and 1.9% over the past year. Despite the overall moderation in price increases, food prices surged 0.4%, resuming a spring acceleration that had eased in June. Prices for meat, poultry, dairy and fruits and vegetables all increased sharply. Housing costs, and prices for new cars, medical care and apparel all jumped 0.3%.

A third of people (36%) in the U.S. have nothing saved for retirement, a new survey shows. In fact, 14% of people ages 65 and older have no retirement savings; 26% of those 50 to 64; 33%, 30 to 49; and 69%,18 to 29, according to the survey of 1,003 adults, conducted for Bankrate.com, a personal finance website. About 36% of workers have less than $1,000 in savings and investments that could be used for retirement, not counting their primary residence or defined benefits plans such as traditional pensions, and 60% of workers have less than $25,000, according to a survey of 1,000 workers from the non-profit Employee Benefit Research Institute and Greenwald and Associates.

New parents be warned: It could cost nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise your child — and that’s not even including the cost of college. To raise a child born in 2013 to the age of 18, it will cost a middle-income couple just over $245,000, according to newly released government estimates. That’s up $4,260, or almost 2%, from the year before. High-income families who live in the urban Northeast, for example, are projected to spend nearly $455,000 to raise their child to the age of 18, while low-income rural families will spend much less, an estimated $145,500.

Persecution Watch

Christians in Pakistan are facing more religiously-motivated violence and persecution than previous years. In a new report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said that 128 Pakistani Christians have died in the last year from targeted acts of violence, up from 7 the previous year.

Coffee chain Starbucks has thousands of stores across the world, and hundreds in Muslim nations. But one country where they proudly will not operate is in the nation of Israel. Starbucks closed all their stores over 11 years ago in the Holy Land, and in a recent announcement effectively reveals they are boycotting Israel.

Middle East

A cease-fire in the Gaza Strip has been broken after at least three rockets were fired from Gaza City at Israel Tuesday. Israel has not yet responded to the latest round of rocket fire. Meanwhile, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators in Cairo resumed indirect talks on Tuesday, trying to hammer out a roadmap for the war-torn Gaza Strip after Egypt had announced a 24-hour extension of the cease-fire to allow more time for negotiations. The extension of the truce fanned hopes of an emerging deal, however vague, though wide gaps remain on key issues, including Israel’s blockade of Gaza, its demands for disarmament of the Islamic militant group Hamas and Palestinian demands for a Gaza seaport and an airport. In an apparent attempt to pressure Hamas, Egypt said early Monday it would co-host an international fundraising conference for Gaza — but only if a deal is reached first.

That appears to play into the hands of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, which is seeking to regain a Gaza foothold, seven years after Hamas ousted it from power in the densely populated coastal strip. Hamas, whose officials are part of the Palestinian delegation in the Cairo talks, has emerged weaker from the month-long Gaza war. The militant group finds itself pressured by both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority to accept a less than perfect deal with Israel, but needs to show the people of Gaza that the enormous sacrifices they endured in the fighting were not in vain.

Iraq

Iraq’s government claimed Monday to have recaptured the Mosul dam from Islamic militants following two days of U.S. airstrikes that targeted militants in the area and supported the ground attack. The claim, which could not be independently verified, would amount to a significant victory for Iraq’s government, which has struggled to blunt the momentum of the militants. The U.S. military had launched more than 20 air strikes around the area over the last several days. Militants seeded the area around the dam with roadside bombs and booby traps, making progress slow. About 150 improvised explosives were found by ground forces, according to Iraq’s military.

Ukraine

A Ukrainian attack on a suspected convoy of Russian military vehicles sent Moscow a tough new message: Ukraine’s military is more confident about protecting its territory, and a full-scale Russian invasion could be prolonged and bloody. If the convoy is confirmed to be Russian military vehicles, the attack Thursday night would mark the first time in the five-month war in the country’s east that Ukrainian and Russian forces clashed directly. The aid convoy consisted of 262 military trucks, most of them painted white and each manned by three former Russian military personnel, according to a report by National Public Radio. When Ukrainian officials began inspecting the trucks Friday, many of them turned out to be mostly empty, according to the BBC. Ukraine claims its artillery then destroyed much of a military convoy that crossed from Russia into Ukraine this week as witnessed by two British reporters.

Separatists shot down a Ukrainian fighter plane after army troops entered deep inside a rebel-controlled city. Ukraine’s national Security Council said government forces captured a district police station in Luhansk after bitter clashes in the Velika Vergunka neighborhood. Weeks of fighting have taken their toll on Luhansk, which city authorities say has reached the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. The siege mounted by government forces has ground delivery of basic provisions to a halt and cut off power and running water links.

The Ukrainian government has recognized the contents of 262 Russian vehicles as humanitarian aid for war-weary civilians in the eastern part of the country, according to a statement from the Ukrainian Cabinet office. The aid will be transported to Ukraine through the Donetsk checkpoint. However, it may be awhile before the food, water and medicine reaches those who need it. Ukraine, meanwhile, says it is distributing its own aid through the Red Cross.

Pakistan

Tens of thousands of protesters rallied Saturday in Pakistan’s capital, defying the pouring rain to demand the prime minister step down in the biggest challenge yet to the country’s government. Imran Khan, a famous cricketer who now leads the country’s third-biggest political bloc, and a fiery anti-government cleric called for the rallies in Islamabad, focused on making Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif leave office and holding new elections. Sharif, who took office just a year ago in the first democratic transfer of power in a country long plagued by military coups, has said he’ll stay in power, raising fears of possible political instability. Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of 180 million people, has largely been ruled by military dictators since it was carved out of India in 1947. The army still wields great influence in Pakistan, which is battling several militant groups, but has not taken sides in the protests. There are fears, however, that political unrest could prompt the military to intervene.

Nigeria

The Islamist terror group Boko Haram kidnapped at least 97 men and boys and killed 28 people last week in a raid on villages in Borno State in northeast Nigeria. Boko Haram gunmen also injured 25 others during the raid in which scores of homes were burned. The gunmen raided the farming and fishing village of Doron Baga and surrounding villages on the shores of Lake Chad, about 110 miles north of the state capital, Maiduguri. In better news, Nigerian authorities say most of the 100 people kidnapped by Boko Harm on Aug 10th were freed by security forces from neighboring Chad. The abductions took place near the border with Chad. Chadian security forces intercepted the group, killed many of the fighters and freed most of those abducted.

South Sudan

Renewed fighting broke out in South Sudan on Friday (Aug. 15) after weeks of quiet in the civil-war torn country. The latest conflict is a result of rebel leader Riek Machar blaming the South Sudanese government of spending the country’s oil profits on weapons instead of aid for millions that are facing food insecurity in the nation. Aid workers station in South Sudan were forced to take cover as the fighting erupted in the city of Bentiu. South Sudan’s civil war has caused 1.5 million residents to flee their homes; farmers have abandoned crops contributing to the serious food crisis and potential famine in the region. Most recently, the nation missed its deadline to reach a peace settlement, adding further concern for the physical well-being of civilians.

Pestilence

The number of deaths from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has climbed to 1,229, the World Health Organization said Tuesday. The death toll increased between August 14 and 16, as 113 new cases were reported, raising the total number of cases this year to 2,240, the world health body said. The information came from Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone — the four West African countries hit by the deadly virus. The WHO on Monday called on the affected countries to carry out exit screenings of travelers at international airports, seaports and major land crossings.

Earthquakes

A powerful earthquake struck early Monday in western Iran, injuring at least 250 people in a region near the border with Iraq. Local authorities said they fear the quake may have caused widespread destruction in rural areas. The 6.2-magnitude earthquake hit at a depth of around 6 miles in an area about 22 miles southeast of the Iranian city of Abdanan, the U.S. Geological Survey said. It was followed by a series of aftershocks. The quake injured at least 250 people in the province of Ilam.

A 4.2 magnitude earthquake struck near Guthrie, Oklahoma, Tuesday morning, the U.S. Geological Survey says. No details were as yet available.

Wildfires

Yet again, a wildfire is burning near California’s Yosemite National Park, and residents are being told to leave. Evacuation orders were sent to about 13,000 phone numbers in central California as Sheriff John Anderson declared a state of emergency in Madera County Monday night. Four hotels in the community of Oakhurst about 16 miles away from an entrance to Yosemite were evacuated and Tuesday classes have been canceled for most of the Yosemite Unified School District. The 1,200-acre blaze, called the Junction fire, closed down State Route 41 toward Yosemite. The fire was burning near a propane business with 30,000 gallon tanks on the site. Firefighters were trying to save the facility but were wary of the danger of explosions.

Meanwhile, another blaze that began Monday some 50 miles northeast of Bakersfield has surged to 3,000 acres, or nearly five square miles. The fire burning near Lake Isabella in Kern County caused officials to issue recommended evacuation orders for several neighborhoods. Some structures had burned, but it wasn’t immediately clear how many. Northeast of Los Angeles, crews were making quick work of a 275-acre wildfire that forced the evacuation of 200 people from a campground and recreational areas. The blaze that broke out Sunday afternoon above the foothill community of Glendora was 60 percent as of Tuesday morning.

Campers and hikers in California’s Angeles National Forest were forced to evacuate Sunday due to a brush fire that swept through San Gabriel Canyon and has torched at least 400 acres of land so far. Crews say the blaze is moving away from homes, and as of Sunday night, no residences are threatened. The fire is 5 percent contained. While afternoon and evening wind gusts from 20 to 40 mph will make containing the blaze difficult, general onshore winds in southern California means the fire is not being blown toward populated areas. Highway 39 was closed by firefighters in an area north of the East Fork Road as a result of the inferno.

Weather

At least 180 people have been killed and more than 100 others are missing after three days of monsoon rains in western Nepal and northern India set off landslides that swept away houses, At least 54 other people have suffered injuries. It has been raining in the region since last Thursday, displacing thousands in the Himalayas, making roads impassable and stranding people in their flooded homes. Highways and roads were either flooded or blocked by landslides in the western part of Nepal, stopping rescuers from reaching remote villages where over a thousand people were thought to be stranded. Trucks loaded with emergency supplies, food, tents and plastic sheets were being sent to the flooded area, but their reach was limited by the blocked roads.

Scientists have known for a while that Arctic snow cover and sea ice are retreating, but the magnitude of problem wasn’t so clear. New long-term measurements have solved that problem, and the news isn’t good. In the last 50 years, snow cover over Arctic sea ice has thinned rapidly, according to a study by NASA and the University of Washington. The report shows that snow cover has thinned by half in some parts of the Arctic Circle, which can cause problems for the ice below. Researchers are uncertain what effects melting snow cover will have on the environment, but they predict that less snow cover could cause the ice to melt quicker in spring.

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