Archive for December, 2014

Signs of the Times (12/30/14)

December 30, 2014

Newsweek Explores Christianity with its Latest Cover

Newsweek’s latest cover gives top billing to an examination of Christianity. Why? “The short answer is that those articles typically get a good response and they sell very well,” Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute told CNNMoney on Monday. Newsweek’s latest cover story, by Kurt Eichenwald and published online the day before Christmas Eve is headlined “The Bible: So Misunderstood it’s a Sin,” and calls out “God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch…. With politicians, social leaders and even some clergy invoking a book they seem to have never read and whose phrases they don’t understand, America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy.” Critics have contended that Eichenwald was out of his depth. RedState editor-in-chief Erick Erickson said that Eichenwald “displays staggering ignorance to attack Christianity.”

  • The main theme of the article has some merit. Many, if not most, Christians have an appalling lack of knowledge about what the Bible actually says. But Eichenwald exhibits those same qualities as well. For example, the article contends that the story in John 7 about Jesus rescuing an adulterous woman from stoning was not written by John but rather made up by scribes during the Middle Ages.

Obama Threatens to Employ Veto to Counter GOP-led Congress

The new Congress hasn’t yet been sworn in, but President Obama already is warning he plans to use his veto pen to counter initiatives from the incoming Republican majority. Obama, despite his near-constant friction with congressional Republicans the last few years, rarely has used the presidential veto — in part because legislation he didn’t like typically died in the Democrat-controlled Senate before reaching his desk. But with Republicans taking charge of the Senate next month and building their majority in the House, Obama said in an NPR interview he’s dusting off the veto pen. The president suggested he would mostly use his veto pen to block efforts to unravel existing laws and regulations pushed by his administration. To overturn Obama’s veto, Republicans would need the votes of two-thirds of the House and Senate. Their majorities in both chambers are not that large, so they would still need to persuade some Democrats to defy the president.

ObamaCare Fines Rising in 2015

Don’t have health insurance? Get ready to pay up. The ObamaCare-mandated fines for not having insurance are rising in 2015 — and for the first time, will be collected by the Internal Revenue Service. The individual requirement to buy health insurance went into effect earlier this year. But this coming tax season is the first time all taxpayers will have to report to the IRS whether they had health insurance for the prior year. The fines for the 2014 year were relatively modest — $95 per person or 1 percent of household income (above the threshold for filing taxes), whichever is more. The fine will jump in 2015 to $325 or 2 percent of income, whichever is higher. By 2016, the average fine will be about $1,100. According to government figures, tens of millions of people still fall into the ranks of the uninsured.

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant Shut Down

The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant stopped sending power to the New England electric grid Monday following more than 42 years of producing electricity from the southeastern Vermont town of Vernon. The state of Vermont remains divided about the closing of Vermont Yankee. The closing has been mourned by employees and supporters, while cheered by critics. In its 42 years of operation, the plant produced more than 171 billion kilowatt-hours of low-cost and low-carbon electricity. During that same period the plant provided 71.8% of all electricity generated within Vermont, or 35% of the electricity consumed in the state. Economic factors, especially related to the natural gas market in the Northeast, were the primary reason for the shutdown. The Northeast has undergone a shift in supply because of shale gas, resulting in sustained low natural gas prices and low wholesale energy prices. The plant closing is having a major negative economic impact on the three-state region.

Delaware-Size Gas Plume over New Mexico from Leaking Methane

The methane that leaks from 40,000 gas wells in New Mexico may be colorless and odorless, but it’s not invisible. It can be seen from space. In the air it forms a giant plume: a permanent, Delaware-sized methane cloud, so vast that scientists questioned their own data when they first studied it three years ago. The country’s biggest methane “hot spot” is only the most dramatic example of what scientists describe as a $2 billion leak problem: the loss of methane from energy production sites across the country. When oil, gas or coal are taken from the ground, a little methane — the main ingredient in natural gas — often escapes along with it, drifting into the atmosphere, where it contributes to the warming of the Earth. Methane accounts for about 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and the biggest single source of it — nearly 30 percent — is the oil and gas industry. All told, oil and gas producers lose 8 million metric tons of methane a year, enough to provide power to every household in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. As early as next month, the Obama administration will announce new measures to shrink New Mexico’s methane cloud while cracking down nationally on a phenomenon that officials say erodes tax revenue and contributes to climate change.

Ebola Update

The United States’ months-long effort to stop the deadly Ebola outbreak is reaching a “pivot point,” but Americans should expect more domestic cases, White House Ebola czar Ron Klain said Sunday. “We will see (cases) from time to time,” Klain told CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “There’s still work to be done in Sierra Leone and Guinea. But we’re nearing a pivot point.” Among the roughly 19,340 cases recently confirmed by the World Health Organization, Sierra Leone has the most with 8,939, followed by Liberia at 7,830 and Guinea with 2,571. Klain, a long-time Democratic operative and former chief of staff to Vice President Biden, told CBS that the number of cases in that region is now at five to 10 a day, compared to 50 to 100 daily. Klain called the CDC’s mishandling last week of an Ebola sample “unacceptable” but said the technician involved has so far shown no signs of infection. A health care worker who was diagnosed with the Ebola virus after returning to Scotland from Sierra Leone was transferred early Tuesday to the Royal Free Hospital in London.

Minimum Wage to Rise in 21 States

The minimum wage will rise in 21 states on January 1st, putting it above the federal pay floor in more than half the USA and highlighting the impact of a national movement to boost the earnings of low-paid workers. The increases will lift the hourly wages of 2.4 million workers to an average of $8 and a high of $9.15, according to the Economic Policy Institute. The federal hourly minimum is $7.25. Minimum pay will rise more modestly for another 1.9 million workers in nine other states as a result of automatic cost-of-living increases.

Super Wealthy on the Rise

There were 12,040 new people who have more than $30 million in net assets in 2014, according to the Wealth-X and UBS World Ultra Wealth Report 2014. That’s a 6% increase from last year, pushing the worldwide total to a record 211,275 people. Of them, 183,810 are men and just 27,465 are women. The U.S. had the highest number of uber wealthy. The wealth of these super rich people increased 7% to $30 trillion in 2014, almost twice the size of the entire U.S. economy. Although they only account for .004% of the world’s adult population, they control almost 13% of the total global wealth. 64% of them are self-made and only 17% have fully inherited their wealth. However, 48% of ultra-wealthy women fully inherited their fortunes. Nearly 88% of these super rich individuals got a bachelor’s degree, though 12% didn’t make it beyond high school.

Economic News

Heating bills across the United States are falling this winter as unusually warm temperatures in the Eastern United States have crimped demand for natural gas as a source of heat. The diminished demand has pushed prices below $3 per British thermal unit (BTU) on the futures market Friday for the first time since 2012. Prices are down about 33% since Thanksgiving. Government data released last week showed a growing surplus in natural gas supplies.

Gasoline prices may have tumbled, but truckers and other who depend on diesel fuel aren’t seeing as much relief at the pump. The spread between the price of diesel fuel and gasoline has widened to nearly 88 cents a gallon in this week’s Energy Information Administration’s price survey. Gas prices plummeted 86.8 cent a gallon to an average of $2.40 from a year ago in this week’s government survey, but diesel has come down only 59.2 cents a gallon with the national average now at $3.28.

Russia’s central bank is running down its stash of foreign cash to try to stop its currency from plunging and contain the crisis threatening its economy. So far this year the central bank has burned through more than $110 billion in foreign currency supplies. That’s more than a quarter of what it has in reserves right now. That, along with a series of other measures to support the banking sector, has helped to stabilize the ruble. However, the ruble extended its losses Monday, declining as much as 8.5% before recovering slightly as the economy shows the first signs of recession, contracting for the first time in 5 years. Starved of international funding sources, Russian banks are finding it tough to lend to local companies, threatening to hurt the country’s already fragile economy.

Greece’s parliament will be dissolved and the country will hold snap elections within the next month, risking a nasty fallout for Greece’s fragile economic recovery. The need for snap elections was triggered Monday after Greece’s parliament was unable to secure enough votes to install a new president. The main Greek stock market index plunged by as much as 11% after the voting results came out. Greece’s massive bailouts from 2010 and 2012 kept the country afloat and within the Eurozone, but left it saddled with a mountain of debt worth about 170% of GDP.

Persecution Watch

Over 200 Muslims reportedly protected Christians from attacks in Nigeria Christian Today reports. After Boko Haram militants carried out a series of attacks in the area, young Muslims volunteered to protect the Christ Evangelical Church in Kaduna while it conducted a Christmas service. Pastor Yohannah Buru told the News Agency of Nigeria that the courageous act was the first of its kind and he hoped that such peaceful initiatives would continue. Christian Today reports that Kaduna State has experienced increasing religious tension. On Saturday (Dec. 27) 10 people were killed and many others injured during an after Christmas celebration when militants invaded; Boko Haram is believed to be behind the deadly attack.

Security personnel in Sudan have held a pastor from South Sudan since Dec. 21 after he delivered a sermon at an embattled North Khartoum church. Agents from Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) arrested the Rev. Yat Michael of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church after Sunday worship concluded at Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church on Dec. 21. As of Tuesday, he remained in jail without charges. Police in North Khartoum on Dec. 2 beat, arrested and fined 38 Christians from the church after nearly two weeks of raiding and demolishing church property. Pastor Michael had been invited to encourage the congregation to stand firm amid persecution. Besides arrests, the North Khartoum church compound has been subject to demolition of buildings and part of its worship center as Muslim investors seek to take it over.

Islamic State

Since June, the Islamic State terror group has executed nearly 1,878 people, mostly civilians, in Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based watchdog group. The killings took place between June 28, the day ISIS announced a “Caliphate” in Syria,” and Dec. 27. 120 ISIS members killed were executed for trying to go back to their homes. The report said there could be more executions that have gone undocumented. In response, the U.S. has led a coalition to launch airstrikes on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. “ISIS] was presenting itself as an unstoppable movement,” The Guardian quoted an anonymous U.S. official as saying. “That kind of unstoppable momentum has been blunted, to say the least. We have killed over 1,000 of their fighters.

Iraq

As the Pentagon continues to add ground troops to Iraq for the ISIS war, it is expected that considerable numbers of private military contractors will follow. Currently there are around 1,800 such contractors working for the State Department, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has ordered another 1,300 sent. This will likely be just a fraction of the overall deployment. At the peak of the US occupation of Iraq, there were over 163,000 contractors involved in the war. The use of contractors allowed the US to mask the size of the overall deployment, but was controversial because of both cost and oversight problems. The Pentagon made it clear, before they even started going into Iraq this time that they were looking for contractors for long-term deployments. Officials say the exact size will depend on how spread out the actual ground troops are, but signs are it will be considerable.

Afghanistan

The United States and NATO formally ended their war in Afghanistan on Sunday with a ceremony at their military headquarters in Kabul as the insurgency they fought for 13 years remains as ferocious and deadly as at any time since the 2001 invasion that unseated the Taliban regime following the Sept. 11 attacks. The symbolic ceremony marked the end of the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, which will transition to a supporting role with 13,500 soldiers, most of them American, starting Jan. 1. The new mission will provide training and support for Afghanistan’s military, with the U.S. accounting for almost 11,000 members of the residual force.

Syria

The Syrian government is ready to send envoys to Moscow for talks with representatives of the opposition it has been fighting in a brutal civil war for over 3½ years, according to state-run media. The government of President Bashar Al-Assad wants to find a way out of the conflict. But moderate opposition groups say they have not been invited to the talks by Russia and will not participate. Moscow apparently invited only loyalists groups that are close to the Syrian regime. Negotiations in Geneva, brokered by the United Nations, fell apart last February. Since then, the extremist group ISIS has become a growing force in northern Syria and al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front has made gains, weakening more moderate opposition groups.

Pakistan

Pakistani warplanes and ground forces killed 39 militants as part of an ongoing operation in a volatile tribal region near the Afghan border, the Pakistani military said. The airstrikes were carried out Friday evening in the Datta Khel area of the North Waziristan tribal region. The military claimed several important militant commanders were among the dead, including the alleged organizer of last week’s school massacre, the latest sign that the government and military are stepping up their assault on the Pakistani Taliban and other Islamist militant groups.. Also late Friday night, Pakistani troops ambushed a large assembly of militants on the border between the Orakzai and Khyber tribal regions.

Lebanon

For more than two decades, the whirr of cranes and the hum of bulldozers have resounded through Beirut, the capital city, as shiny new skyscrapers went up and buildings pock-marked by bullets and bombs came down. The redevelopment of Beirut’s downtown was intended to heal wounds from Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, with hopes to draw back tourists. But these days, visitors are met with rows of shuttered shops, boarded-up restaurants and rent signs flapping in the wind following a spate of kidnappings and bombings over the past two years. The war in neighboring Syria, now rolling into its fourth year, threatens fragile ties that have kept Lebanon united since a conflict that pitted Lebanon’s sects against each other came to an end in 1990. And with the Islamic State looking for access to the sea via the northern port city of Tripoli, instability in Lebanon could have repercussions far beyond its borders.

Somalia

The United States conducted an airstrike Monday in Somalia against Al-Shabaab, said Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary. The strike, which took place in the area of Saakow, was targeting a senior leader of the Islamist militant group. The strike was carried out by an unmanned aircraft, and was an operation of the U.S. Defense Department, according to a U.S. defense official. On Saturday, Somalia government forces captured a top Al-Shabaab commander, said two of the country’s military officials. The capture came after militants with the group, which is linked to al Qaeda, attacked a large African Union base in Mogadishu last week, killing three Ugandan soldiers and a civilian.

Cuba

Cuban dissidents have expressed frustrations with the U.S. government over which political prisoners will be on a list of 53 people scheduled to be freed by the Castro regime as part of an effort to normalize relations between Washington and Havana. According to Reuters, the dissidents say that U.S. officials have kept them in the dark about who is on the list, leading to concerns that common criminals will be freed while genuine political prisoners will be left behind. A U.S. official told Reuters over the weekend that the U.S. had asked Cuba to release a specific group of people who were imprisoned on charges related to their political activities, but did not reveal Havana’s response to that request. It is not entirely clear when or how the list was assembled, who was consulted inside Cuba, or even when the prisoners will actually be released.

Weather

The U.S. was fortunate again this year, as large-scale weather catastrophes — including devastating and deadly hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires — were few and far between. Not since Superstorm Sandy devastated the Northeast in 2012 has a single natural disaster cost the U.S. tens of billions in damage, according to a report released today by CoreLogic. Sandy cost the U.S. about $70 billion. Despite the overall quiet pattern, major local flooding occurred in California, Arizona, New York and Michigan this year. Floods in metro Detroit, for example, caused more than $1 billion in damage. The worst tornado outbreak of the year occurred on April 27-28, when 31 people died in the South and hundreds of homes were destroyed. Overall, 2014 is on track to have the fewest annual number of tornadoes recorded in the past decade. Globally, Asia took the brunt of the natural disaster damage this year, due primarily to a series of powerful typhoons that blasted the Philippines, Japan, China and Taiwan.

Flash floods and landslides triggered by Tropical Storm Jangmi left at least 29 people dead and 10 missing in the Philippines, including in areas still recovering from last year’s Typhoon Haiyan, officials said Tuesday. Jangmi, dumped heavy rains Monday on southern Mindanao Island, where floods destroyed bridges and highways, sending thousands of residents to evacuation centers. The storm then pushed its way through eastern and central islands, where most of the deaths occurred Tuesday.

Several drivers were stranded overnight in Britain as snow and ice stormed through parts of Europe on Saturday. Snow and ice stranded thousands of drivers and caused at least one death in the French Alps Saturday night into Sunday. Thousands were left without power. Switzerland and Southwestern Germany were covered with snow with higher parts of Germany’s Black Forest receiving more than 8 inches. The cold weather stranded several British motorists, trapping some for hours and forcing others to abandon their vehicles. A bus traveling from Sheffield to London became stuck in the snow, and the vehicle’s passengers spent the night in a church. Western Power Distribution said 36,000 customers were without power, and another 69,000 had short interruptions to supplies. The snow was welcomed in the French Alps, which have seen hardly any since the start of the ski season. But with up to 2 feet predicted this weekend above 2,000 yards altitude, one of the busiest vacation weeks of the year looked more promising – if drivers could reach the mountains.

Signs of the Times (12/26/14)

December 26, 2014

Dispelling Hollywood’s Christmas Myths in Movies, TV Shows

The Christian group Defending the Bible International (DBI) recently reported about some blatant and not-so-blatant inaccuracies panned off as biblical truths that faithfully make it before our eyes around Christmas. “Do you see what I see on television … [t]he pregnant Mary beaten by her father, Mary accused of sleeping with a Herodian soldier, God depicted as a promiscuous, absentee father and Jesus being cajoled in losing his virginity on December 7th’s ‘Family Guy?’” DBI Founder and Director Rick Dack asks. The Christian ministry leader is disheartened to see the entertainment industry making little attempt to give its viewers accurate portrayals of the best-selling and most influential book of all time — the Bible. “There was a time when Hollywood’s portrayal of faith on film was tolerated but no longer,” Dack contends. “Satirical, anti-faith bitterness on Adult Swim/Comedy Central [and] supposedly accurate Bible films [such as] Exodus: Gods and Kings, Noah, The Bible and Son of God… all miss the mark.”

Violence Dampens Tourism in the Holy Land

The holy city of Bethlehem is praying for another Christmas miracle. Months of violence near this cradle of Christianity has dampened visits by pilgrims, and there are few signs that tourism will rebound anytime soon. Still, residents hope the expected upsurge of visitors on Christmas Eve will lead to long-term cheer in the struggling tourism industry. “There are no tourists. It’s been this way for half a year, but we understand the hotels are full for Christmas, so that’s a glimmer of hope,” said Louis Michel, a storekeeper and resident of this town where the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. “People have been scared away. We’ve never experienced such a sustained drought of pilgrims.”

Police Brutality Protests Continue Despite Officer Murders

Activist groups in New York City have rejected a call by Mayor Bill de Blasio to hold off on any new demonstrations until after the funerals of two NYPD officers who were ambushed and murdered Saturday in Brooklyn. Hundreds of demonstrators in New York City briefly blocked busy Fifth Avenue on Tuesday night amid last-minute Christmas shopping. The killings have aggravated tensions between police, City Hall, and protesters who have staged regular demonstrations since a Staten Island grand jury refused to indict an officer earlier this month in connection with the death of 43-year-old Eric Garner. “We will not let recent tragic moments derail this movement,” one protester shouted. “This is the revolution and we will not be repressed.”

Protesters took to the streets of Berkeley, Mo., for a second night on Wednesday after a white police officer killed a black teenager who police said pointed a gun at him. Dozens of protesters marched on Interstate 170, shutting it down for a brief time before heading to the Mobil gas station where 18-year-old Antonio Martin was shot and killed Tuesday night. The shooting happened about 5 miles from Ferguson, where a white police officer fatally shot unarmed Michael Brown in August, sparking months of civil unrest. Surveillance video appears to show a person — identified by police and his family as Antonio Martin, 18 — pointing a gun at an officer in a gas station parking lot in Berkeley right before the officer fatally shot the teen

Sixty Journalists Killed in 2014

At least 60 journalists around the world were killed in 2014 while on the job or because of their work, and 44 percent of them were targeted for murder, the Committee to Protect Journalists said. An “unusually high proportion,” or about one-fourth, of those killed were international journalists, though the overwhelming number of journalists threatened continue to be local. The number of journalists killed in 2014 was down from 70 the year before, but the past three years have been the deadliest since the organization started compiling such records in 1992. The crushing conflict in Syria, now well into its fourth year, has been a major factor. The report said at least 17 journalists were killed there this year, with at least 79 killed since the fighting began in 2011. The conflict in Ukraine between the new government and Russian-backed separatists saw five journalists and two media workers killed. Fifty days of fighting in Gaza between Israel and the Palestinians over the summer saw at least four journalists and three media workers killed.

Obamacare Sticker Shock Coming in 2015

Some 6.4 million Americans have signed up for Obamacare coverage for 2015, though millions of them were automatically renewed into their existing policies. More than 60% of those renewals were done automatically because the enrollees had not revisited healthcare.gov to select a new plan or continue their existing one. Those who were auto-enrolled may suffer from sticker shock when they see their 2015 premiums. Many current plans are going up in price. That’s why the administration strongly encouraged enrollees to shop for 2015 coverage. Americans surged to sign up on the federal exchange in the days before Dec. 15 so their coverage could begin Jan. 1. Open enrollment continues until Feb. 15.

Obama Administration Imposes 1,200 Year-End Regulations

The Obama administration published more than 1,200 new regulations in the last 15 days, reports Fox News according to data from Regulations.gov. Energy and environment rules are the biggest category. One of the most contentious new regulations is the EPA’s coal ash rule. The rule has been criticized by the coal industry and environmental groups — though for entirely different reasons — and has a price tag of up to $20.3 billion. Before that, the Obama administration finalized a new ozone standard that could become the costliest rule ever proposed by the EPA. So far this year, the Obama administration has proposed or finalized more than $200 billion in regulations. But that’s not all, the Obama administration will be unleashing a slew of new regulations in 2015 aimed at hydraulic fracturing, energy production on federal lands, methane from oil and gas drilling and carbon dioxide from power plants.

  • The Emperor-in-Chief continues to obliterate the Constitutional balance of powers in the federal government

Gitmo Hypocrisy: Release then Offer $5M Reward

A terrorist formerly held at the prison camp in Guantánamo who was released to Saudi Arabia in 2006 has a bounty of $5 million on his head for taking part in terrorist activities. Ibrahim al-Rubaysh was repatriated back to Saudi Arabia and enrolled him in their “rehabilitation” program. It apparently didn’t work. Now we learn that the U.S. government is secretly admitting that it erred in at least one case, reports patriotupdate.com. “In fact, in 2008 counterterrorism officials confirmed that many of the terrorists who return to “the fight” after being released from U.S. custody actually graduated from the laughable Saudi rehab program, which started under Bush and continued under Obama.” The U.S. government has now offered a $5 million reward for information that could lead to al-Rubaysh’s capture.

Wind Turbine Industry in Decline

Revenue in the wind turbine installation industry fell at an annualized rate of 16.4% in the five years through 2014, and it is projected by IBISWorld to slump by an annualized 7.3% over the next four years. One problem is that production ramped up prior to the expiration of a federal tax credit for wind production. The International Energy Administration projected in its Renewable Energy Medium Term Market Report that growth in new global wind generation capacity would gradually slow each year through 2020.

Postal Service Delivers Record Number of Packages

The U.S. Postal Service delivered 28.2 million packages Monday, breaking its own record for most parcels ever delivered in a single day in its 237-year history. “The times are changing,” spokeswoman Sarah Ninivaggi said. “You can see how much people are going online to buy their Christmas gifts.” Monday’s deliveries marked a 10.5% increase over the same day last year and 9.5% higher than the busiest day in the 2013 holiday season. Online shopping demand is higher than ever. Forrester Research, which analyzes technology companies, products and services, predicted e-commerce sales would increase 13% over 2013 to $89 billion in 2014.

Economic News

The U.S. economy grew at its fastest pace since 2003 in the third quarter on stronger consumer and business spending. Gross domestic product expanded at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5% in the three months ended Sept. 30, higher than the 3.9% previously estimated, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. The reading was the government’s third and final estimate.

Third quarter consumer spending shot up 3.2%, much faster than the 2.2% previously estimated. A measure of business investment rose 8.9%, including a healthy 11% rise in equipment spending, as companies continued to replace worn equipment and expand capacity to meet rising demand. Government spending also increased more rapidly than estimated at 9.9%, bolstered by a big jump in defense expenditures.

Just in time for the holidays, gasoline prices have now fallen a record 88 straight days and have plummeted to levels not seen since 2009, AAA says. AAA said Monday that it is the longest consecutive streak that it has ever recorded. The last time that gas prices fell on such a sustained basis was 86 days in 2008, as the recession took hold. Since starting their fall on Sept. 25, gas prices have fallen to an average of $2.39 a gallon nationally, down 85 cents from a year ago.

Sales of existing homes fell all over the U.S. in November, sliding 6.1% to the slowest annual pace since May, the National Association of Realtors said Monday. Equities rallied globally after the US central bank said it will move cautiously toward a rate increase.

Despite plunging oil and gas prices, stocks soared this week with the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit new record closing highs each day following news of 5% economic growth and the strongest consumer sentiment since 2007. The blue-chip Dow Jones index closed above 18,000 for the first time ever, finishing at 18,030 on Wednesday.

The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits has reached its lowest level in seven weeks. The Labor Department says applications for unemployment benefits dropped 9,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 280,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, declined 8,500 to 290,250. That average has plunged 16 percent in the past 12 months. The number of people seeking jobless benefits has been at historically low levels — below 300,000 — for 14 of the past 15 weeks.

Deflation is gripping well over half of the economic world at this point – all of Asia and all of Europe. China is also sliding uncomfortably close to deflation. Producer prices are falling at a rate of 2.7pc as excess plant capacity in steel, cement, chemicals, coal and even solar chips lead to price wars.

  • Stubbornly (blindly?), the U.S. still says deflation is not a threat here.

Middle East

Cracks have appeared among Palestinian factions over the draft resolution presented to the UN Security Council last week. Some factions are angry because Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did not consult with them before presenting the plan to the Security Council via Jordan while others have denounced what they see as weak execution of the plan and lack of follow through. Still others point out that the idea of forcing Israel to retreat from the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem and establishing a Palestinian state in those areas does not satisfy Palestinian political aspirations. Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is currently serving a life sentence in Israeli prison for murdering Israeli children and who polls show would likely win an election to replace Abbas if one were ever held, demanded a review of the proposal, which he said makes too many concessions.

Palestinian snipers opened fire with machine guns Wednesday on Israeli defense forces and a number of Israeli civilians working on the Gaza border fence. An Israeli soldier was shot in the chest and critically wounded. The IDF responded with tank and helicopter fire, and further forces were rushed to the scene. Sources in Gaza report that at least one Palestinian was killed and three others injured. Israeli farmers working near the fence were ordered to abandon their fields for fear of further terror attacks.

Islamic State

The Islamic State’s vaunted exercise in state-building appears to be crumbling as living conditions deteriorate across the territories under its control, exposing the shortcomings of a group that devotes most of its energies to fighting battles and enforcing strict rules, reports the Washington Post. Services are collapsing, prices are soaring, and medicines are scarce in towns and cities across the “caliphate” proclaimed in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State, residents say, belying the group’s boasts that it is delivering a model form of governance for Muslims. Schools barely function, doctors are few, and disease is on the rise.

For the first time since a United States-led international coalition began airstrikes against the extremist group ISIS, a coalition pilot was shot down and has been taken captive. The captured F-16 pilot is Moaz al-Kasasbeh, a member of Jordan’s military. The pilot was downed carrying out a mission Wednesday around the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, which ISIS controls and has made its de facto capital. The coalition air campaign has recently stepped up its attacks on Raqqa, located on the banks of the Euphrates River.

The latest ISIS-appointed governor of Mosul was killed in coalition airstrikes on Thursday, according to Iraqi police. Hassan Hassan Saeed Al-Jabouri, also known as Abu Taluut, was killed 18 miles south of Mosul in the village of Qayyara. Jabouri is the second ISIS-appointed governor of Mosul killed by airstrikes and had been in office for less than 25 days. Mosul is a key stronghold for ISIS fighters and was taken from Iraqi forces earlier this year.

Afghanistan

In a large swath of the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan, government centers are facing a renewed challenge from the Taliban this winter: Four years after the American troop surge helped make such places relatively secure, they are back under threat from the insurgents, reports the New York Times. The fighting in Helmand Province in the south has been particularly deadly, with over 1,300 security force members killed between June and November. And the insurgents’ siege of several key districts has continued long after the traditional end of the fighting season. One of the differences is that this year, the American forces, and their close air support, have been almost completely absent from the field. And though the Afghan forces are holding on, for the most part, they are taking punishingly heavy losses.

Iran

Plummeting oil prices and the failure so far to conclude a nuclear agreement are dealing a double blow to Iran’s economy just as it was starting to recover. The slide in oil prices is strangling revenues in Iran, a country dependent on oil money… The renewed economic travails are eroding gains that accompanied President Hasan Rouhani’s surprise election 18 months ago. Mr. Rouhani, whose political fortunes rest largely on an economic recovery, has been scrambling to contain the damage. In a recent address to parliament, he touted a radical but difficult plan to address what he called an unprecedented oil slump: cutting dependence on oil income by boosting industrial exports and hiking taxes. He has also proposed dramatic fiscal tightening in the new Iranian year that begins in March.

Iranian officials and media outlets are painting the change in US policy toward Cuba as an acknowledgement that the US sanctions have not been effective in changing Cuba’s positions. Though there are major differences between US-Iran and US-Cuba relations, both Iran and Cuba, after experiencing revolutions, expelled all American influence from their country while changing the balance of power in their regions and facing severe US pressure and sanctions. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said, ‘The resistance of the Cuban people and officials on their principles and the ideals of the revolution during the last 50 years showed that a policy of isolation and sanctions from domineering powers against the will and endurance of independent governments and people is ineffective and inefficient.'”

Pakistan

A suspected U.S. drone fired missiles at two compounds in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region Friday, killing at least seven alleged militants, while security forces killed the alleged planner of the deadly recent attack on a school, Pakistani officials said. Drone strikes are largely unpopular in Pakistan where many consider them a violation of the country’s sovereignty and resent the collateral damage caused to Pakistani civilians. But the U.S. insists these attacks are effective to eliminate militants in areas inaccessible to the Pakistani military.

Ukraine

Retirees in Donetsk, the largest city in eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists, are dying of hunger because their pensions have been cut off by the national government, rebel officials and residents say. Though Ukraine has not publicly discussed starvation deaths, it acknowledges there is a humanitarian crisis in the eastern region because of the conflict and blames the separatists and Russia for supporting the rebels. The government cut off pensions this month to people in all areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by separatists to undercut support for pro-Russian rebels.

India

The death toll in rebel violence in Assam state has risen to 52 with the discovery of more bodies, police officials in the remote northeastern said Wednesday. The rebels gunned down at least 37 Adivasi, or tribal settlers, in Sonitpur district and 15 others in Kokrajhar. The killings took place in a series of five coordinated attacks late Tuesday. A faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland were behind the massacre. Adivasis, who migrated to Assam more than 100 years ago, have been targeted by Bodo rebels in the past along with Muslim settlers in the state. Disputes over land and jobs have been at the heart of the clashes. The rebels have been fighting for a separate homeland for ethnic Bodo people for decades. The Bodos are an indigenous tribe in Assam, making up 10 percent of the state’s 33 million people.

France

French officials urged calm late Monday after a second attack involving a car hitting pedestrians in as many days injured 10 people in the western town of Nantes. Authorities said a driver crashed his van into a crowded Christmas market before stabbing himself several times. He is among five people hospitalized in serious condition. The Nantes attack came one day after another driver ran down 13 bystanders in the eastern city of Dijon, and two days after Bertrand Nzohabonayo, a 20-year-old recent convert to Islam, knifed two police officers outside the city of Tours before being killed by police.

  • Officials are downplaying that these attacks are Islamists responding to the Islamic State’s call for ‘lone wolf’ attacks against ‘infidels’

North Korea

North Korean websites are back online after a temporary shutdown. The disruption of Internet service in the hermit kingdom came as tensions grew with the United States over North Korea’s alleged computer hack attack on Sony Pictures. The outages to the secretive nation’s four official Internet networks began Sunday and as of Monday morning all were offline. U.S. officials on Monday declined to say if the United States was responsible for the outage. On Friday, President Obama said he would “respond proportionately” to the cyberattack on Sony Pictures Entertainment, which the FBI confirmed was launched by North Korea. North Korea’s Internet service, which was out for almost 10 hours on Monday, went down two more times Tuesday, including a 31-minute stretch.

  • Cyber-warfare is the new battleground

Nature

Hundreds of sea turtles are washing ashore on Cape Cod, and scientists probably won’t be able to save them all from certain death. Rescuers are overwhelmed. When they wash up on beaches, the turtles are already close to dying. They’re limp and struggling to move due to their extremely low body temperatures. Of the seven species of turtles that wash ashore in New England, six are endangered, according to the New York Times. So a team of volunteers stroll the beaches and rescue any turtles they find in an effort to rehabilitate and relocate them to warmer climates – the only option they have to keep the protected reptiles alive. Compared to a normal year, when no more than a few hundred turtles wash ashore, 2014 has seen more than 1,000 of the helpless creatures needing a rescue. When the turtles begin to swim south in search of warmer waters for the winter, some get left behind for reasons unknown. As temperatures plunge in the late fall and early winter months, the stranded turtles become so cold that they can’t move and slowly die on the beach.

Weather

While a Midwest/East Christmas week storm had more rain than snow, a significant pattern change ahead will open the Arctic freezer door once again headed into the last week of 2014. Friday into this weekend. Highs in the teens, even some single digits, will reappear over parts of the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest. Colder air will also plunge down the Plains. Highs may languish in the 40s (or colder) as far south as Oklahoma City and Dallas-Ft. Worth.

Severe weather swept across the South Tuesday, spawning five reported tornadoes, including a deadly tornado in the town of Columbia, Miss. in Marion County. The tornado damaged businesses, flipped cars and toppled power lines onto U.S. 98, closing the road for several hours. Two people were killed, one in a trailer park, the other in a strip mall. The storm will lead to an extensive cleanup effort on Christmas Eve in Columbia, a town of about 6,400. Businesses, like Te Davi Florist on U.S. 98, saw their buildings damaged and merchandise blown away by the reported tornado. Businesses saw their buildings damaged and merchandise blown away by the tornado. In all, NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center relayed a total of 69 storm reports across the Deep South on Tuesday. Most of those were wind damage reports.

A hillside gave way in Sausalito, California, early Monday and spilled mud and rocks across two southbound lanes of Highway 101, which connects Marin County to San Francisco. The California Highway Patrol said traffic in was backed up for miles. The landslide, reported at 2:27 a.m. occurred about 5 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Boulders, a tree and a light pole blocked two lanes of the highway. Recent rains had made the hillside unstable.

Yosemite National Park’s tall, striking waterfalls are flowing again after several storm systems moved through California, dumping inches of rain for the first time in more than a year in some areas. The gorgeous waterfalls are created when snowmelt from the higher elevations runs down into the park and over the cliffs. But this year, when the drought reached extreme levels, the falls went dry.

The worst floods in Malaysia in decades have killed five people and displaced more than 100,000. Numerous villages and towns in five Malaysian states have been evacuated. More than 105,000 people have sought shelter in schools, community halls and other relief centers. The government says it was the worst flooding in more than 30 years, and on Friday ordered the deployment of more helicopters, boats and land vehicles.

Signs of the Times (12/22/14)

December 22, 2014

Pope Rips Vatican Bureaucracy

Francis’ Christmas greeting to the cardinals, bishops and priests who run the Holy See was no joyful exchange of holiday good wishes. Rather, Pope Francis issued a blistering critique Monday of the Vatican bureaucracy that serves him, denouncing how some people lust for power at all costs, live hypocritical double lives and suffer from “spiritual Alzheimer’s” that has made them forget they’re supposed to be joyful men of God. He spoke of how the “terrorism of gossip” can “kill the reputation of our colleagues and brothers in cold blood.” How cliques can “enslave their members and become a cancer that threatens the harmony of the body” and eventually kill it by “friendly fire.” About how those living hypocritical double lives are “typical of mediocre and progressive spiritual emptiness that no academic degree can fill.” The cardinals were not amused. The speech was met with tepid applause, and few were smiling as Francis listed one by one the 15 “Ailments of the Curia” that he had drawn up, complete with footnotes and Biblical references.

Government Hacks and Security Breaches Skyrocket

The North Korean hack of Sony Pictures that unleashed proprietary information, embarrassing emails and brought the multi-billion dollar company’s operations to its knees was unprecedented. But cyber security and intelligence experts warn that this is only the beginning. A CNN review of cyber-attacks against federal agencies shows that the number of breaches into government systems is skyrocketing. There were almost 61,000 cyber-attacks and security breaches across the entire federal government last year according to a recent Obama administration report.

The number of cyber incidents involving government agencies has jumped 35 percent between 2010 and 2013, from roughly 34,000 to about 46,000, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office. The uptick in security breaches is not because of a lack of spending, experts say. In fact, the Obama administration report showed that federal government agencies spent $10 billion on information security. The biggest culprits, experts say, are human error and a patchwork of different systems. Billions of dollars in security can’t stop an employee from clicking a malicious link.

Defector Claims North Korea has 1,800 Cyber-Warriors

Jang Se-yul, who defected from North Korea seven years ago, told CNN that he thinks there are 1,800 cyber-warriors in the agency stationed around the world. But he says even the agents themselves don’t know how many others work for the secretive group, called Bureau 121, whose mission is to “conduct cyberattacks against overseas and enemy states.” The South Korean government thinks Bureau 121 is the agency at the heart of numerous cyberattacks from North Korea against elements in foreign countries. President Barack Obama says he doesn’t consider North Korea’s hack of Sony Pictures “an act of war” bur rather “an act of cyber-vandalism” and that the U.S. would respond in “an appropriate manner.”

Staples says Breach affects 1.2M Cards

Staples on Friday said cyber criminals may have compromised 1.2 million customer credit cards. Staples gave an update to a data breach announced in October, saying criminals deployed malware to point-of-sale systems at 115 of its more than 1,400 U.S. retail stores. Staples said its investigation revealed that the malware may have allowed the criminals access to transaction data “including cardholder names, payment card numbers, expiration dates, and card verification codes.” Overall, the company believes that approximately 1.16 million payment cards may have been affected. It’s the latest in a long line of data breaches at national retailers. Target suffered a 2013 holiday shopping data breach that affected 40 million customer credit and debit cards. Home Depot, meanwhile, recently said some 56 million customer cards may have been compromised following a five month attack on its network

Police Shootings in Retaliation for Black Deaths?

Ismaaiyl Brinsley walked up to Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos on Saturday in Brooklyn as they sat in their patrol car and shot them in the head. Police said he later used the same gun to commit suicide. Former New York Gov. George Pataki and police union officials quickly lashed out at New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. The governor accused de Blasio of putting officers’ lives at risk because the mayor supported recent protests over the killing of Eric Garner by a New York police officer who was not indicted. Hours before Saturday’s attack in New York, suspected gunman Brinsley appeared to have made statements on social media suggesting he planned to kill police and expressing outrage over the deaths of Garner and Brown. The cop-killer didn’t seem to have a specific target — just any two officers in uniform. Police officials in New York and elsewhere were quick to lay at least partial blame for the officers’ killings on ongoing protests of several high-profile fatal encounters between police and unarmed black men this year. The murders of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in Brooklyn heightened fears about the safety of law enforcement officials nationwide

Obamacare Shutting Down Free Health Care Clinics

In some parts of the southwest, small hospitals and urgent care centers have had to close their doors because of the amount of free medical care they were forced to provide to illegals, reports Liberty Alliance. Some places in southern Arizona no longer have any local emergency facilities, forcing US citizens to travel further to larger cities to get urgent care. The delay in treatment for things like heart attacks, strokes and auto accidents can mean the difference between life and death. A few of these free clinics have closed their doors due to the fact many of the people they served were able to sign up for Medicaid under the Obamacare expansion. With most of their clientele now having coverage the need for free medical care no longer was necessary.

Arizona Dreamers can Apply for Driver’s Licenses Monday

Young immigrants known as dreamers will be able to begin applying for driver’s licenses Monday, according to a court ruling handed down Thursday by U.S. District Court Judge David G. Campbell. Campbell issued a preliminary injunction ordering Arizona to stop denying driver’s licenses to dreamers. The ruling means the state is now compelled to begin allowing dreamers who have received work permits through President Barack Obama’s 2012 deferred action program to apply for driver’s licenses. Gov. Jan Brewer has fought to keep driver’s licenses out of the hands of dreamers since August 2012, when she issued an executive order denying licenses to anyone approved for Obama’s program. “The right to determine who is issued a driver license is reserved for the states — not the federal government or an unelected judiciary,” Brewer said.

U.S. Banks Profit from TARP

The U.S. government closed the books on TARP with a $15.3 billion profit. Treasury sold its remaining shares Friday in Ally Financial, its last remaining major stake from the $426 billion bailout of banks and the U.S. auto industry. The Troubled Asset Relief Program was passed in 2008, in the wake of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy, as the nation’s financial system was on the verge of collapse and economists feared another Great Depression. At the height of the bailout, Treasury owned a significant stake in all of the major U.S. banks. Ally Financial was formerly known as GMAC, and had been GM’s finance arm. Overall, the auto bailout was the one big money loser for TARP. Even with the Ally sale, taxpayers lost about $9.2 billion.

Economic News

The stock market nearly erased the damage from its recent mini correction Friday as stocks extended a three-session surge that started when the Federal Reserve cheered Wall Street with its assurance that it is in no hurry to raise interest rates. The day capped a stunning comeback from earlier in the week, when the S&P was down 4.9% from its high and fanning talk of the market possibly being headed to its first correction, or 10% drop, in more than three years. A rebound in crude helped fuel the rally as the price of oil rose 4.5% to about $56 a barrel.

Just in time for a holiday road trip, gas prices in many places in middle of the country have dipped below $2 a gallon. As of Friday morning, there were 24 states with prices under $2 a gallon. American Automobile Association travel analysts estimate that current gas prices, which are at their lowest since 2008, are likely to drop as much as 7 cents by Christmas and possibly 7 more cents by New Year’s.

The United Kingdom’s oil industry is taking a beating from low oil prices, so much so that it is “close to collapse,” said the head of the Association of UK Independent Oil and Gas Exploration Companies. “It’s almost impossible to make money at these oil prices,” Chairman Robin Allan told the BBC in an interview. “It’s a huge crisis.”

The former finance minister of Russia, Alexei Kudrin, said Monday, “Today, I can say that we have entered or are entering a real, full-fledged economic crisis. Next year we will feel it clearly.” With 55% of consumer goods being imported, the collapse of the Ruble has doubled the price of these items, almost overnight. People are pulling their money out of banks to convert into physical goods. The stage is set for huge defaults.

Persecution Watch

According to the World Evangelical Alliance, over 200 million Christians in at least 60 countries are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith. A group that works with persecuted Christians claims there is a significant increase in the number of Christian girls being raped, according to Christian Today. Release International reports that on Nov. 28 in the Jaranwala district in Pakistan two Christian girls were attacked in a field as they attempted to use the latrine. Sardar Mushtaq Gill, the family’s attorney, told the Assyrian International News Agency, “In Pakistan, rape is used as an instrument of arbitrary power over Christian girls, who come from poor and marginalized families. It is a form of violence that wants to reiterate the submission to Muslims.” A 14-year-old girl was abducted on November 26 and forcibly converted to Islam and married to her kidnapper.

“I was beaten and humiliated in broad daylight just because I belong to the Christian community,” says Elishba Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who was beaten and stripped by two Muslim brothers whose family employed her as a maid. The 28-year-old mother of four was pregnant at the time and suffered a miscarriage following the incident.

Tens of thousands of Christians have fled the Kurdish-dominated Hasaka province over the past three years because of an ongoing civil war, economic pressures and the rise of the Islamic State, which captured large swaths of Iraq and Syria earlier this year. The Christians had numbered about 2.2 million — 10% of Syria’s population — and lived mainly in the northeast. Residents here estimate up to two-thirds have departed, leaving streets largely abandoned and dozens of shop fronts boarded up. While Derike has been largely spared from the civil war’s violence, it’s not far away. And with few employment opportunities, rising food prices and a lack of electricity and water, remaining residents aren’t optimistic about the future.

Middle East

Another rocket fired by terrorist organizations in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip landed in southern Israel Friday afternoon, causing no damage or injuries but sending thousands of residents scrambling for bomb shelters. The rocket was another reminder of the fragile security situation in southern Israel, even as the IDF has initiated a program of training for armed civilian response teams in Gaza border communities. In response, Israel’s military struck a Hamas site in the Gaza Strip early Saturday in its first airstrike on the Palestinian territory since this summer’s war. No injuries were immediately reported.

Islamic State

Airstrikes have killed several senior and mid-level Islamic State leaders since mid-November, according to the Pentagon. In recent days bombing runs have killed Haji Mutazz, Abd al Basit and Radsin Talib. Their deaths are expected to reduce the group’s effectiveness against security forces in Iraq. “We believe that the loss of these key leaders degrades the Islamic State’s ability to command and control current operations against Iraqi Security Forces, including Kurdish and other local forces in Iraq,” Rear Adm. John Kirby said. In all, there have been more than 1,300 airstrikes against ISIS since August.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters claimed to take control Saturday of Sinjar, the northern Iraqi town that ISIS militants stormed this summer causing minority Yazidis to flee into nearby mountains and spawning a humanitarian crisis. The Kurdistan Region Security Council said on Twitter that its forces entered Sinjar district around 1:45 p.m. local time and, just over an hour later, “succeeded in taking complete control of it & nearby villages.” The advance is the latest in recent days by Kurdish forces against ISIS, which has been blamed for atrocities around the area.

Pakistan

Pakistani warplanes and ground forces killed at least 77 militants in a northwestern tribal region near the Afghan border, officials said Friday, days after Taliban fighters killed 148 people – most of them children – in a school massacre. In the wake of the mass killing the military has struck targets in the Khyber tribal region. The military actions follow this week’s horrifying Taliban attack on an army school in Peshawar that killed 145 people, 132 of them children.

A U.S. drone fired two missiles at militant hideout in northwestern Pakistan on Saturday, killing at least five Taliban fighters, two security officials said. The drone strike took place in the town of Datta Khel in North Waziristan, where Pakistani troops have been carrying out a major operation against local and foreign militants since June. It was not immediately clear if the drone strike was connected to the school massacre.

France

French authorities say that 13 people were injured Sunday when a driver deliberately slammed his car into crowds in several locations around the city of Dijon in eastern France, amid reports that the driver was heard shouting “‘Allahu Akbar” (God is great). Witnesses also heard the driver shouting that he was acting on behalf of “the children of Palestine” during the rampage, which lasted approximately 30 minutes. Two of the injuries were described as serious. The Sunday night rampage came a day after a knife attack on police in the town of Joue-les-Tours in central France that counter-terrorist police are investigating as another ‘Lone Wolf” attack encouraged by ISIS that are on the rise worldwide.

North Korea

An angry North Korea, now on the defensive over a U.S. accusation of hacking, is refusing to take part in a groundbreaking U.N. Security Council meeting Monday where the country’s bleak human rights situation will be discussed for the first time. International pressure has built this year on Pyongyang after a sprawling U.N.-backed inquiry of alleged crimes against humanity and warned that young leader Kim Jong Un could be held accountable. And attention has focused on the North in recent days, as the Obama administration on Friday blamed it for the devastating hacking attack on Sony over the film “The Interview,” which portrays Kim’s assassination. North Korea is accusing the U.S. government of being behind the making of the movie “The Interview.” And, in a dispatch on state media, the totalitarian regime warned the United States that its “citadels” will be attacked, dwarfing the hacking attack on Sony.

Cuba

In the wake of President Obama’s historic decision to mend diplomatic ties with Cuba, U.S. businesses and potential tourists scrambled to figure out what new opportunities will be available on the island and to position themselves at the head of the line. The political conversation sparked by Obama’s Wednesday announcement grew in both volume and dogmatism. Some hailed the opening as the dawn of pragmatic diplomacy. Others denounced it as a presidential sellout. Reestablishment of formal diplomatic relations, while approved by both countries, requires a formal process that will begin with the visit to Havana next month of Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson.

As Cuban-Americans soak in the news that the United States is re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years, it’s rekindled a deep divide in the community — even within families — over the best way to deal with the Castro brothers and their Communist regime. Earlier this year, 88% of Cuban-Americans under the age of 30 said they support re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, according to a poll conducted by Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute. For Cuban-Americans over 65, that support drops to 41%. “They didn’t suffer what we suffered, so they can’t feel what we feel,” said Garces, 71, a surgeon in Miami.

Volcanoes

A volcano in eastern Indonesia erupted Friday, spewing towering clouds of hot ash into the air and sending a group of hikers to scramble to safety, leaving nine injured and one missing. Mount Gamalama on Ternate Island in North Maluku province shot thick gray smoke up to 6,560 feet into the sky just before midnight Thursday. Nine panicked hikers fell while fleeing to safety and suffered severe injuries. Four of them were hospitalized and rescuers were searching for the tenth. Slow-moving red lava was visible at the peak of the eruption Friday and villages were blanketed with thick ash.

A powerful volcanic eruption at Pico do Fogo volcano on the island of Fogo, Cape Verde, destroyed two villages and forced the evacuation of 1,500 people. Little happened at Pico do Fogo for four days following the first eruption, so many island residents thought the volcanic activity might have stopped. But the volcano erupted again, spewing lava onto both Portela and Bangaeira, destroying the villages. The lava front of more than 547 yards has swept over much of the village and continues to move forward.

A lava flow from the active Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island was on the move again, creeping toward a market that supplies food and other necessities for residents in the town of Pahoa. According to the Associated Press, the lava advanced about 130 feet from its previous position Thursday. If the flow continues its encroachment on the town, the market’s electricity will be cut three days before the flow reaches the area, and a gas station nearby has already removed the fuel from its tanks.

Earthquakes

Residents of Napa and other areas of northern California rocked by August’s magnitude-6.0 earthquake probably thought the earth had come to a halt when the shaking stopped. But they’d be wrong. New satellite observations from Europe’s Sentinel-1a show that the Napa Fault is still moving near the surface at a rate of up to an inch “over a couple of months,” and could move 2 to 6 more inches in some areas in the next three years. The process is known as an afterslip, which takes place after an earthquake because earth closer to the surface has a different composition than that of the earth below and doesn’t react as quickly to the fault slip. Twenty homes are at risk for serious damage if the worst case scenario, 6 additional inches of movement, plays out.

Weather

As a record number of Americans prepare to hit the road for the holidays, a massive storm is poised to disrupt travel plans for two-thirds of the nation. Starting Tuesday, the system — stretching from the Midwest down to the South and up the East Coast — will bring heavy rain, thunderstorms and strong winds that are likely to cause travel headaches on the roads and flight delays from the Great Lakes to the Mid-Atlantic and New England. The heavy rain will begin in the South and Southeast on Tuesday hitting Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville and Montgomery, Ala., before marching north to the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes to batter Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Detroit.

On Christmas Eve, the storm will gather strength, lashing areas from Tampa to eastern North Carolina up to D.C., Philadelphia and Boston. Those hoping the storm will bring them a white Christmas are likely out of luck, except in Wisconsin and northern Michigan, Hurley said. Temperatures in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast will be on the warm side, meaning the massive storm will only bring rain. Meanwhile, a smaller system will target the Pacific Northwest on Wednesday, bringing rain to Seattle and Portland. By Christmas Day, that storm could dump rain or snow in the central Rockies, Salt Lake City and Denver.

The good news in California is that recent rain has finally started to chip away at the severe precipitation deficits the state is facing. The bad news is that most of California is still in a deep drought and it’s going to take a long time to fully recover. Thursday’s U.S. Drought Monitor update noted: “Cautious optimism, but still a long way to go.” Parts of Northern California were drenched by rain, with precipitation exceeding 10 inches as a “Pineapple Express” atmospheric river siphoned tropical moisture and dropped it over the region. More importantly, that atmospheric river — which, as its name suggests, is a stream of moisture-laden air — dumped significant snow on the Sierra Nevada Mountains. And the precipitation continued over this past weekend.

Seven people were hospitalized after lightning struck a car in Lot 14 of Tampa Bay’s Raymond James Stadium late Sunday afternoon. The strike occurred at around 4:15 p.m. EST after the game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Green Bay Packers. One victim remains in critical condition.

Signs of the Times (12/18/14)

December 18, 2014

Atheists Try to Prevent Oahu Churches from Renting at Public Schools

A trial court is being asked to dismiss the alleged charges filed by two atheists against two Oahu churches, which have been renting public schools for their services. Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley says these atheists are trying to recover millions of dollars from One Love Ministries and Calvary Chapel Oahu that they never owed because they’ve been paying the agreed-upon amount to the schools all along. He says it’s critical that this case be dismissed because it could set a dangerous precedent.

13 “Gay” Bakeries Deny Christian’s Request for Pro-Traditional Marriage Cake

Christian bakeries that refuse to make pro-homosexual marriage cakes are persecuted throughout America. They get sued, they get fined, they get death threats, and they lose their businesses. So Shoebat.com called some 13 prominent bakers who are either gay or pro-gay and requested that they make a pro-traditional marriage cake with the words “Gay marriage is wrong” placed on the cake. Each one denied them service, and even used deviant insults and obscenities against them. Shoebat.com recorded all of this in a video that shows how militant and intolerant the homosexual agenda is.

Federal judge: Obama Immigration Actions Unconstitutional

A federal judge has found parts of President Obama’s immigration executive actions unconstitutional, in an opinion delivered as part of a separate immigration case not directly tied to the policy changes. The opinion filed Tuesday by U.S. District Court Judge Arthur Schwab, in Pennsylvania, marks the first court opinion to tackle Obama’s immigration announcement. He said Obama’s immigration actions are invalid and effectively count as “legislation” from the Executive Branch. “President Obama’s unilateral legislative action violates the separation of powers provided for in the United States Constitution… and therefore, is unconstitutional,” the judge wrote. It is unclear what impact, if any, the opinion might have other than to rally critics and fuel momentum behind other lawsuits.

Supreme Court: Traffic Stop, Search OK

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that police officers may use evidence seized during a traffic stop even if the reason the officers pulled the car over was based on a misunderstanding of the state’s law. In the 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a North Carolina police officer who had stopped a car with a broken brake light – and then found cocaine in the car- even though driving with a faulty brake light isn’t against the law in the state. A state appeals court said the stop was impermissible because a quirky state law only requires a car to have one functioning brake light. But the state’s highest court reversed, finding that the officer’s mistaken reading of the law was reasonable. The Supreme Court agreed, finding that the Fourth Amendment requires police to act reasonably, but not perfectly.

Supreme Court Declines to Hear Arizona Abortion Case

The battle over abortion-inducing medications has divided federal Circuit Courts in recent years. But the U.S. Supreme Court showed Monday that it’s still not ready to weigh in on the matter, declining to hear arguments in a challenge to a controversial Arizona law. The decision keeps the 2012 Arizona law, which placed restrictions on some abortion-inducing drugs and was put on hold by a Circuit Court ruling from taking effect. Planned Parenthood Arizona and Tucson Women’s Center filed the federal lawsuit alleging that the law wasn’t intended to protect women’s health, as its supporters claimed, but rather to keep them from accessing legal abortions, particularly early in pregnancy. Nearly half of all abortions in Arizona are performed using medications.

Obama Issues ‘Executive Orders by Another Name’

President Obama has issued a form of executive action known as the presidential memorandum more often than any other president in history — using it to take unilateral action even as he has signed fewer executive orders. When these two forms of directives are taken together, Obama is on track to take more high-level executive actions than any president since Harry Truman battled the “Do Nothing Congress” almost seven decades ago, according to a USA TODAY review of presidential documents. He’s used presidential memoranda to make policy on gun control, immigration and labor regulations. Tuesday, he used a memorandum to declare Bristol Bay, Alaska, off-limits to oil and gas exploration. Like executive orders, presidential memoranda don’t require action by Congress. They have the same force of law as executive orders and often have consequences just as far-reaching. And some of the most significant actions of the Obama presidency have come not by executive order but by presidential memoranda.

Executions Continue to Decline in U.S.

Driven in part by continuing legal disputes related to lethal injection drugs and state moratoriums on the death penalty, the 35 people executed in the U.S. marks the fewest in two decades, according to a year-end report by the Death Penalty Information Center. The center, which opposes capital punishment, also found that the 72 death sentences issued in 2014 represents the fewest in 40 years. “What’s going on here is that we are seeing capital punishment slipping into irrelevance as a criminal justice tool,” said Richard Dieter, the center’s executive director. “The country is re-thinking this as an effective remedy.”

Sony Hackers ‘Have Crossed the Line’

Events surrounding the hack attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment began to cascade late Tuesday after hackers posted a message threatening a “9/11” style attack on theaters that screened the Seth Rogen-James Franco comedy The Interview. A note from the Guardians of Peace group posted online Tuesday morning warnedpotential movie-goers, “We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time. (If your house is nearby, you’d better leave.)” The New York premiere of the comedy, which depicts an assassination attempt against North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was cancelled Tuesday night, a spokesman for LandmarkSunshine cinemas said. The West coast premiere, in Los Angeles, took place without incident on Dec. 11. One major movie theater chain has decided not to show Sony’s “The Interview,” and other theater owners may follow on Wednesday. Hours after an announcement Thursday that U.S. authorities determined North Korea was behind the recent cyber-attack on Sony Pictures, the entertainment company announced it was pulling the release of the film The Interview.

Breach insurance: Not Just for Large Companies

A ruling last week by a federal judge that Target is on the hook for financial losses sustained by banks when it was hacked earlier this year is making companies of all sizes look at breach insurance with a new eye. Cyberbreach insurance, which covers losses and costs due to hacker attacks on a company’s computer system, is a relatively new type of policy. It was first introduced in the 1990s, mostly to cover computer failures at banks and Fortune 500 companies. In the 2000s it began to be applied to companies whose information had been hacked. Today, as all types of companies move increasing amounts of their business online, it’s something small- to medium-sized companies are beginning to take seriously. About 33% of small- to mid-sized companies now have a cyberliability policy. In 2013 the number was just 16%. Among companies hit by a cyberbreach, 76% say it’s equal to or greater than a natural disaster or fire in terms of disruption.

New York to Ban Fracking

The Cuomo administration announced Wednesday that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State, ending years of uncertainty by concluding that the controversial method of extracting oil from deep underground could contaminate the state’s air and water and pose inestimable public-health risks. “I cannot support high volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York,” said Howard Zucker, the acting commissioner of health. The decision came amid increased calls by environmentalists to ban fracking, which uses water and chemicals to release natural gas trapped in deeply buried shale deposits.

Economic News

Plunging prices at the gas pump pulled down U.S. consumer prices by the largest amount in six years last month, the Labor Department said Wednesday. The consumer price index fell 0.3% as gasoline prices fell lower for the fifth straight month. Excluding volatile food and energy costs, the core inflation rate rose 0.1% from October. Prices have increased 1.3% over the last 12 months. Labor’s energy price index is down 4.8% over the past 12 months and the gasoline and fuel oil prices are both down more than 10%.

The Federal Reserve signaled Wednesday that it could raise near-zero short-term interest rates within months amid an accelerating economy despite the low inflation. But it hedged its intentions, saying any decision on raising rates would depend on the economy’s future progress. Wall Street responded with a 288 point rise in the Dow Jones Industrial average.

One of the biggest losers from the roughly $50 a barrel drop in oil prices in the last six months is the U.S. Energy Department itself. The Energy Department owns nearly 700 million barrels of oil it has stored underground in locations around the country, making up what is known as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. That huge supply of oil held by the government has lost about $35 billion in value since June. The government says it paid an average of about $30 a barrel for the oil it holds, so the oil is still worth more than it cost.

Oil rich nations in the Middle East are talking tough when it comes to plunging oil. They claim they can hold out even if crude oil falls as low as $40. But investors in their stock markets aren’t nearly as confident. The main stock indexes of Qatar, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia are taking a beating as investors fear that low oil prices are here to stay and they will spill over into other parts of the Gulf economies. The Dubai Financial Market Index has tanked 22% already in December. In the Gulf economies, it’s all about oil. As oil revenue sputters, investors are worried that government spending will slow and take other industries with it.

Russia’s economy is crashing and its currency appears to be in free fall. The ruble plunged by about 12% Monday, meaning it’s lost nearly 50% against the dollar this year. A double-whammy of collapsing oil prices and Western sanctions is driving up inflation. Cash is flooding out of the country and the risk that some Russian companies may default is increasing. Russia’s central bank has raised interest rates five times this year, and spent nearly $90 billion trying to defend the ruble and prevent prices spiraling out of control.

Persecution Watch

A pastor and group of church members were attacked by Hindu extremists Saturday evening (Dec. 13) for singing Christmas carols in the Indian City of Hyderabad. The Christian Post reports that the Hindu extremists accused the pastor and 15 church members of trying to convert others to Christianity and violently attacked the group. Pastor Bhim Nayak and four others were injured in the attack; Nayak remains in critical condition after being beaten unconscious. John Dayal of the Indian government’s National Integration Council said that Hindu extremists are becoming increasingly influential in India, which threatens safety of Christians. “There has been a sharp rise in hate campaigns against Christians by political organizations. This threat of purging Christians from villages extends from Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh to now Uttar Pradesh, and to the borders of the national capital of New Delhi,” Dayal said.

Three Iranian Christian leaders have had their convictions overturned after an appeals hearing for the men. Pastor Matthias Haghnejad and Deacon Silas Rabbani have been declared free from their six-year sentences. Pastor Benhram Irani must still serve two more years for previous convictions. Christian Solidarity Worldwide Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said, “While we welcome this news, we remain concerned at the continued detention of Amin Khaki and long-term prisoners like Behnam Irani and Farshi Fathi – all of whom who have been unjustly detained.” Jason DeMars, president of Present Truth Ministries, said: “We are very thankful for the prayers and the action the Christians have taken to speak out on their behalf and to intercede for them before the Lord.”

Islamic State

Iraq’s Ministry of Human Rights has reported that 150 women were killed by ISIS militants after refusing to marry terrorists. “At least 150 females, including pregnant women, were executed in Fallujah by a militant named Abu Anas Al-Libi after they refused to accept jihad marriage. Many families were also forced to migrate from the province’s northern town of Al-Wafa after hundreds of residents received death threats.” According to the group, the women were buried in mass graves.

Four men have reportedly been beheaded by ISIS’ “Islamic Police” after allegedly committing blasphemy or “insulting almighty Allah.” The men were killed near the city of Homs in Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the beheadings. The human rights group also reported the murder of a man who was beheaded by the terrorist group and the stoning of a man and women for alleged adultery. Both incidents reportedly occurred in northern Syria. According to the Observatory, ISIS has killed 1,432 Syrians not in combat since the end of June.

Pakistan

Taliban gunmen stormed a school in Pakistan on Tuesday, killing at least 145 people, mostly children. Another 122 people were wounded. Hospital officials earlier said at least one of the fatalities was a teacher, and one security official was also among the dead. The attack began in the early morning, with the gunmen entering the school — a military-run facility in the northwestern city of Peshawar with students in grades 1-10 and shooting at random. Army commandos quickly arrived at the scene and exchanged fire with the gunmen. Taliban spokesman Mohammed Khurasani claimed responsibility for the attack in a phone call to media, saying that six suicide bombers carried out the attack in revenge for the killings of Taliban members at the hands of Pakistani authorities. The army said all six militants were killed. As Pakistan started three days of national mourning Wednesday, the Taliban said they targeted a school that mostly admits soldiers’ children because the students aspired to follow in their fathers’ footsteps and target militants. In an email, the terror group warned Muslims to avoid places with military ties.

  • Islam, the ‘peaceful’ religion that enslaves women and murders children.

Yemen

Two car bombs killed at least 31 people, including 20 children, in central Yemen’s Radaa city when suspected al Qaeda fighters targeted Houthi militants Tuesday. One car bomb struck a Houthi gathering point, but the other did not make it to the target and instead blew up next to a bus that was carrying children home from school. All the murdered children were under the age of 12. Eleven Houthi fighters were also killed. At least a dozen others were injured, among them six in critical condition. Radaa was an al Qaeda stronghold that fell to Houthi fighters after clashes in October that killed hundreds from both sides. Houthis follow the Zaidi sect of Islam and are considered Shiite Muslims by al Qaeda, a Sunni Muslim terrorist network.

  • Sunnis killing Shiites is akin to Methodists murdering Baptists, absolutely insane

Nigeria

Boko Haram Islamic insurgents kidnapped at least 185 women and children, and killed 32 people in a raid in northeastern Nigeria this week Gunmen in pickup trucks attacked the village of Gumsuri, just north of Chibok, on Sunday, shooting down men before herding women and children together. They gathered the women and children and took them away in trucks after burning most of the village with petrol bombs. News of the attack took four days to emerge because of a lack of communication. Telecommunications towers in the region had been disabled in previous attacks. Boko Haram has terrorized northern Nigeria regularly since 2009, attacking police, schools, churches and civilians, and bombing government buildings. The extremist group has targeted mainstream Islam, saying that it does not represent the interests of Nigeria’s 80 million Muslims and that it perverts Islam.

Iran

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has warned U.S. businesses to be on the alert for a sophisticated Iranian hacking operation whose targets include defense contractors, energy firms and educational institutions, according to a confidential agency document. The operation is the same as one flagged last week by cyber security firm Cylance Inc as targeting critical infrastructure organizations worldwide, cyber security experts said. Cylance has said it uncovered more than 50 victims from what it dubbed Operation Cleaver, in 16 countries, including the United States. ‘It underscores Iran’s determination and fixation on large-scale compromise of critical infrastructure,’ Cylance Chief Executive Stuart McClure said. The FBI’s technical document said the hackers typically launch their attacks from two IP addresses that are in Iran. Cyber security professionals who investigate cyber-attacks said that they are seeing evidence that Iran’s investment in cyber terrorism is paying off. ‘They are good and have a lot of talent in the country,’ said Dave Kennedy, CEO of TrustedSEC LLC. ‘They are definitely a serious threat, no question.'”

Cuba

President Obama announced sweeping changes to U.S. policy with Cuba on Wednesday, moving to normalize relations with the island nation and tear down the last remaining pillar of the Cold War. Under the new measures, the United States plans to reopen its embassy in Havana and significantly ease restrictions on travel and commerce within the next several weeks and months, Obama said. Speaking from the White House, he declared that a half-century of isolation of the Communist country “has not worked.” The history-shaping overtures come after more than 18 months of secret negotiations with the Cuban government of President Raul Castro. The final touches appeared to be arrangements for a series of simultaneous prisoner releases. However, the historic changes were met with heavy bipartisan resistance on Capitol Hill, raising questions of whether Congress will consider easing a more than 50-year trade embargo against the communist state.

American Alan Gross has been released from Cuba after five years in prison and is on his way back to the United States. “Mr. Gross was released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government at the request of the United States,” a U.S. official said. The release follows years of desperate appeals by Gross and his family. Gross was arrested in 2009 while working to set up Internet networks for the island’s Jewish community on a contract with the U.S. government’s Agency for International Development. Washington argues that his activities were humanitarian, and posed no threat to Cuba. However, some aspects of his work allegedly violated Cuban law, and Gross’ documents show he tried to avoid detection. Havana considers such USAID programs an affront to its sovereignty, and Gross was convicted under a statute governing crimes against the state.

Weather

The ongoing December warm neared its peak Monday after days of record-shattering high temperatures in the Northwest and Midwest. Meanwhile, in an ironic twist, parts of Florida were under frost advisories for the fifth morning in a row Monday. This December thaw kicked into high gear last week as Seattle turned warmer than Orlando and set its all-time December record high last Wednesday. Countless records have been set in the days since, and the unusually warm December weather continued over a sizable swath of the U.S. into Tuesday.

As drought-plagued California saw needed rainfall Tuesday night, some problems accompanied the wet weather yet again. The issues started in the Bay Area, where rain created a chaotic evening commute Tuesday. Before long, rain was also falling in southern California, and parts of Los Angeles experienced flooding and the ever-present fear that too much rain could cause one of the many burn scars to give way, resulting in a mudslide. South of L.A., the town of Torrance reported major flooding on some roadways, forcing police to urge drivers to stay away from the area. A torrent of mud and rocks from a recently burned hillside covered part of state Route 91 in Orange County before dawn Thursday. Cars and trucks were stuck for about 90 minutes, and the eastbound lanes were shut for several hours.

NASA scientists say it will take 11 trillion gallons of water to replenish two of California’s drought-starved river basins and help reverse the state’s drought. Combined, the two basins account for about 51 percent of California’s water supply. Additionally, the satellite analysis found that the two basins lost four trillion gallons of water a year since 2011, most of which came from groundwater sources. The measurements mark the first time scientists have ever been able to determine exactly how much water is needed to replenish an area stricken by drought. Unfortunately, while a series of storms have dumped substantial rain and snow on California, the state still needs a substantial amount of precipitation over a long period of time to reverse a drought three years in the making.

A massive storm system dropped several feet of snow on parts of Japan this week, leading to travel problems and at least five deaths. As of late Thursday night, local time, Tsunan, Japan reported a snow depth of 81.5 inches. Seven other locations in western Honshu reported at least 59 inches of snow depth. The storm also trapped three men on Mount Shiraga on the island of Shikoku in western Japan. Some 550 flights have been canceled Wednesday and Thursday. The current sea-effect snow event should wind down Friday.

Signs of the Times (12/15/14)

December 15, 2014

Christmas Supplies to Displaced Children in Iraq

Samaritan’s Purse airlifted 60,000 Operation Child Christmas Child shoeboxes to northern Iraq Wednesday (Dec. 10). The boxes filled with clothing, hygiene items, school supplies and small toys will be delivered to child living in refugee camps since ISIS took over parts of Iraq. Operation Christmas Child Domestic Director Randy Ribble said, “Many of these children have never received a gift in their lives and that was when they were living in their normal circumstances [before the ISIS takeover]. Now, they have been removed from everything that they know: their homes and their families. They are living in the refugee camp and these gifts will provide a moment of hope. Of course, they will be delivered in the name of Jesus.” People in the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, Holland and Finland packed the boxes to be sent to children in third-world countries. Ten million shoeboxes were packed total this year to be distributed around the world.

Christian Persecution Increasing Worldwide

The year 2014 has seen more global persecution of Christians than any other year in recent history, reports Open Doors. From the kidnapped schools girls in Nigeria, to Meriam Ibrahim being sentenced to death in Sudan, to the ISIS crisis, Christians throughout the world saw a major increase in persecution. This year, hundreds of Christian girls were kidnapped in Pakistan. Countless believers were arrested and/or fined for having a Bible study in Central Asia. And thousands of Christians were displaced in the Central African Republic. “I had to leave everything I owned behind,” explains one Christian Iraqi refugee. “We have nothing to our name and will probably never be able to return to our home. But we are encouraged, because we know that Christians around the world have not forgotten about us.”

  • Keep the prayers flowing for persecuted Christians around the world

Homeschooling in Germany Illegal

As the repression of homeschooling continues to make the German landscape look more and more like pre-World War II Germany, where Adolf Hitler said, “Let me control the text books and I will control the state,” the criminalization of homeschooling is continuing to drive more parents into courtrooms, prison cells or out of the country. After Germany’s Supreme Court refused in its ruling last month to strike down a state statute that calls for criminal penalties against parents for not sending their children to school, the Homeschool Legal Defense Association decided to make a return visit this week to turn the tides and revive the nation’s homeschooling movement. “Decision after decision has gone against homeschoolers in Germany,” said HSLDA Director of Global Outreach and Staff Attorney Michael Donnelly, who will attempt to get German officials to recognize the value of homeschooling this week. Besides earning high test scores, German homeschoolers have proven to benefit society by being highly involved in their community, and this is one contention that Donnelly is striving to continue to impress upon Bavarian lawmakers.

  • Homeschooling is largely a Christian phenomenon as parents seek to avoid having their children indoctrinated with secular principles, hence the rising anti-Christ persecution of homeschooling, not only in Germany but the U.S. as well.

Deal Reached at U.N. Climate Summit in Peru

The latest round of United Nations climate talks ended in the early hours of Sunday morning — nearly 33 hours later than scheduled — with a deal that barely kept hopes for a meaningful global agreement next year. The conference, which started on Dec. 1., had two main goals: to agree to a series of measures aimed at reducing the greenhouse gases scientists say cause climate change in the near term, and to pave the way for an agreement that will include action from all countries by the end of the next edition of the talks, a year from now in Paris. The Lima agreement was adopted hours after a previous draft was rejected by developing countries who accused rich nations of shirking their responsibilities to fight global warming and pay for its impacts. Progress in Lima was mostly technical, setting out guidelines for financial contributions, actions to reduce emissions and a timetable for the period leading up to the Paris talks in 2015.

House/Senate Approve $1.1 Trillion Spending Package

In a dramatic vote late Thursday evening, the U.S. House narrowly approved a $1.1 trillion government spending package despite a rare uprising from House Democrats. The bill passed on a 219-206 vote. Congress was set to approve a two-day stopgap funding bill to give the U.S. Senate time to pass the package and get it to President Obama’s desk. Government funding had been scheduled to run out at midnight. House Democrats derailed plans Thursday afternoon for a vote on the funding bill after lawmakers rebelled over provisions tucked into the measure to roll back regulations on Wall Street and ease campaign finance laws. The uprising created a rare moment of intraparty warfare, pitting the majority of House Democrats against President Obama. The president had announced support for the package because it includes many of his spending priorities, such as funds to combat the Ebola epidemic and Islamic State militants as well as more money for Pell Grants and early education programs. But in a blistering speech on the House floor, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., characterized the package as a “moral hazard” and said she was “enormously disappointed” in the president. The Senate passed the bill Saturday and passed it on to President Obama for his signature..

Obamacare Deadlines Approaching

President Obama’s healthcare reform push faces the biggest test of its second year in existence Monday, the deadline for customers to choose an insurance plan for 2015. Midnight Pacific Time is also the deadline for current enrollees to make changes that could reduce premium increases ahead of the new year. The final deadline for enrollment for coverage in 2015 — and to avoid penalties at tax time in 2016 for not having insurance — is Feb. 15. Wait times at the federal call center started creeping up around the middle of last week, mainly due to a surge of current customers with questions about their coverage for next year. Many will face higher premiums, although they could ease the hit by shopping online for a better deal.

Obama Quotes Nonexistent Bible Verse

President Obama referred to the Bible on Tuesday as he was drumming up support for his immigration reform executive orders in Nashville, but he confused some of the lines and even threw in a proverb that appears nowhere in the religious text. “The good book says, don’t throw stones in glass houses,” he said. “Or … make sure we’re looking at the log in our eye before we are pointing out the mote in other folks’ eyes.” The expression “they that live in glass houses should not throw stones” is a proverb of unknown origin that has been used in various form for centuries, The Washington Post reported. It does not appear in the Bible.

Workers in America in Decline

The proportion of prime-age men — those 25 to 54 years old — who are not working has more than tripled since the late 1960s from 5% to 16 percent, reports the New York Times. More recently, since the turn of the century, the share of women without paying jobs has been rising, too. The United States, which had one of the highest employment rates among developed nations as recently as 2000, has fallen toward the bottom of the list. Many men, in particular, have decided that low-wage work will not improve their lives, in part because deep changes in American society have made it easier for them to live without working. These changes include the availability of federal disability benefits and the decline of marriage, which means fewer men provide for children. A smaller work force is likely to lead to a slower-growing economy, and will leave a smaller share of the population to cover the cost of government, even as a larger share seeks help, notes the Times report.

  • Rather surprising for the liberal New York Times to be highlighting the downside of our increasingly socialistic, entitlement society

Economic News

Stocks plunged again Friday with Wall Street capping off one of its worst weeks of the year as tumbling oil prices spooked markets. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 315.51 points, or 1.8%, to 17,280.83. The blue-chip index fell 678 points, or 3.8%, this week, its worst week since Sept. 2011. Oil slumped after the International Energy Agency said global oil demand in 2015 will grow less than previously forecast.

The oil price crash could take thousands of good-paying jobs with it in America and around the world. Bad news already started to flow this week: Halliburton (HAL) affirmed that it plans to cut 1,000 positions due to the depressed oil market, and BP (BP) announced an unspecified number of layoffs as part of a $1 billion restructuring plan. On Monday, ConocoPhillips (COP) became the first major U.S. oil company to reveal that it is slashing spending for 2015.

Crude oil prices settled below $58 a barrel Friday as renewed selling pressure pushed benchmark prices to new five year lows. And the carnage may not be over yet. The slide came after Saudi Arabia, the world’s No. 2 oil producer after the U.S., suggested it would not cut production to prop up prices. Separately, Bank of America warned that crude oil prices could fall to $50 a barrel in 2015 as North American output, coupled with increased production in Iraq and Libya, hits markets already awash in supply. Crude oil peaked this year at about $107 a barrel in June. It’s now down about 47%. After a weekend of price cutting, gas for less than $2 can be found in 13 states across the country on Monday.

Americans’ net worth slipped in the July-September quarter as a drop in stock prices overwhelmed a solid gain in home values. U.S. household wealth declined 0.2% in the third quarter to $81.3 trillion, the Federal Reserve said Thursday. Americans’ stock and mutual fund portfolios fell $700 billion. The value of their homes increased $245 billion.

A Pew Research Center study released Friday found that the wealth gap between white households and minorities has widened in recent years. The wealth of white households was 13 times greater than that of black households in 2013, versus eight times the wealth in 2010. And the wealth of white households was more than 10 times that of Hispanic households, up from nine times the wealth in 2010.

Russia’s economic crisis just keeps on getting worse. The central bank hiked interest rates for a fifth time this year on Thursday, taking them up to 10.5%. That compares with 5.5% at the start of 2014. It had little choice given soaring inflation and a plunging ruble, but the latest move will pile on the agony for an economy that has ground to a halt. The ruble has crashed by 40% against the U.S. dollar since the start of the year due to economic sanctions from the West over Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory. Plunging global oil prices have slammed Russia because it depends on its massive energy sector to power the economy. About half of the government’s revenue comes from oil and gas exports.

Persecution Watch

Three Christian church leaders in Iran appealed their prison sentences this week. The men were each sentenced to six years in an Iranian prison for their faith. “Their only ‘crime’ is to exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief, as guaranteed in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is signatory. We urge the Iranian government to uphold this right for religious minorities in Iran, in line with its obligations under international law and the provisions upholding the rights of religious minorities in its own constitution,” said Christian Solidarity Worldwide Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas in a news release. A house church leader in Shiraz, was also recently arrested. Hosseinzadeh, was taken into custody by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security. They also confiscated his Christian books and laptop.

An Israeli student praying last week at the Chabad synagogue in Brooklyn, New York, was stabbed by a knife-wielding assailant who some witnesses said was screaming, “Kill the Jews.” The attacker entered the synagogue and then “just went nuts” one witness said. He was later killed by responding police officers.

An Army chaplain was punished for discussing matters of faith and quoting from the Bible during a suicide prevention training session with the 5th Ranger Training Battalion. Chaplain Joseph Lawhorn was issued a Letter of Concern that accused him of advocating for Christianity and “using Christian scripture and solutions” during a Nov. 20th training session held at the University of North Georgia.

As young people were praying and fasting together on December 2nd at a church in Khartoum Bahri, Sudan, police forces stormed the gathering with bulldozers and began demolishing the building. Thirty-seven of the group were arrested, charged with “breach of peace, public nuisance and obstruction of a public servant during the course of his duty”. Pastor Yahya Abdelrahim Falo told reporters that the police arrived at around 6 a.m. in nine vehicles. In what he called “a humiliation of all Sudanese Christians”, authorities proceeded to raid the Khartoum Bahri Evangelical Church and to demolish the exterior walls of the building.

Middle East

A Palestinian posing as a hitchhiker threw acid at an Israeli family in the West Bank Friday, before he was shot by a passer-by and arrested, the Israeli military said. The army said the Palestinian also tried to attack the father of the family with a screwdriver and then started to run away, but a civilian passer-by shot him in the leg. Israeli police arrested him and evacuated him to hospital for treatment. The incident occurred as tens of thousands marched in the Gaza Strip in celebration of the 27th anniversary of the founding of the Islamist Hamas group. About 600 Palestinians clashed with Israeli forces in Hebron Friday. Israel Defense Forces soldiers were using crowd-dispersal methods to break up the demonstrations. Tension has been mounting between Israelis and Palestinians, especially in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in recent months since a five-week war between Israel and Hamas ended in August.

Islamic State

The Islamic State has released a pamphlet detailing guidelines for treating non-Muslim female slaves in the militant group’s custody. The pamphlet — which was posted on a pro-Islamic State Twitter account — answers more than 20 questions and states, among other things, that it is OK to have sex with non-Muslim slaves, including adolescents, and that it is also acceptable to beat and trade them. The pamphlet’s guidelines make clear that those held captive are under complete control of the extremists. The document also says it is OK to buy, sell or trade a female captive because they are “merely property, which can be disposed of.”

A jihadist’s standoff inside a Sydney cafe entered its twelfth hour with as many as 15 people still held inside, as police and news crews surround the shop watching the frightened hostages through the front window. Television footage shot through the Lindt Chocolat Cafe’s windows showed several people with their arms in the air and hands pressed against the glass, and two people holding up a black flag associated with the Islamic State.

Afghanistan

Separate insurgent attacks killed two U.S. troops, 12 workers clearing mines and a top Afghan court official, authorities said Saturday, part of a surge of militant assaults ahead of the withdrawal of most foreign troops at the end of the month. Security in the capital, Kabul, has been stepped up as the Taliban have warned that attacks on the government, foreigners, and the media will continue. The deaths on Saturday were the first foreign troops killed this month, bringing to 65 the total number of international troops killed in the country this year, 50 of them Americans.

Russia

Moscow is going on a huge shopping spree for weapons and military equipment. Russian defense companies boosted sales by more than 20% last year, driven by demand from the country’s military, according to new data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. That compares with a 2% decline in sales globally, largely due to a weaker performance by American companies, which account for more than half of the world’s arms trade. Russia has begun investing heavily in upgrades to its military capabilities. President Vladimir Putin plans to spend more than 20 trillion rubles ($700 billion) bringing equipment up to date by 2025.

Belgium

Belgium ground to a halt in its biggest strike in years Monday as trade unions grounded flights, cut international rail links and shut sea ports to protest the new government’s austerity plans. In the climax to a month of industrial action against new Prime Minister Charles Michel’s policies, striking workers stopped all public transport while most schools, businesses and government offices shut down. Pickets also blocked traffic outside the Brussels headquarters of the European Union, the 28-nation bloc that has seen years of protests against its austerity measures aimed at cutting debts that threatened the euro currency. The Belgian strike came days after a day of protest in Italy against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s ambitious reform plans, while there have been similar demonstrations in Spain and Greece in recent months.

Venezuela

The government of Venezuela, under the self-proclaimed revolutionary government of President Hugo Chávez and now handpicked successor Nicolás Maduro, has managed to squander one of the longest, greatest oil booms in history, not just misspending the oil windfall that at one point reached $133 per barrel, but also destroying the country’s domestic economy. As a result, Venezuela teeters on the edge of default on its debt. Venezuelan benchmark sovereign bonds are now trading at 22 cents on the dollar. At more than 60%, Venezuela has the highest inflation rate in the region, a result of government profligacy that produced a fiscal deficit reaching 12% of GDP and public debt at 26% of GDP by 2012. Part of this has gone to the government’s popular social missions that provide free access to health care and education to the poor as well as subsidized food through state stores.

Haiti

Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe announced early Sunday that he was resigning along with several ministers in the wake of violent anti-government protests and a commission’s call for him to step down. President Michel Martelly said earlier he accepted the findings of the commission that had recommended Lamothe’s be replaced. Some political analysts believe Lamothe might seek the presidency in upcoming elections. Lamothe’s resignation complicates the current political situation because nominations for a new prime minister require approval from Parliament and it is unclear whether someone would be nominated before Parliament is dissolves in January. Haiti’s capital has endured a growing number of violent demonstrations in recent weeks during which protesters have demanded the holding of elections that were expected in 2011 and the resignations of Lamothe as well as Martelly. The unrest followed a demonstration Friday in which U.N. peacekeeping troops opened fire on a crowd that marched through Port-au-Prince, set tires on fire and skirmished with troops and police.

Weather

California was trying was drying out this past weekend from its biggest storm of the season — but another weather system is bearing down on the Golden State with rain expected on Monday. Strong winds, torrential rain and snow that caused widespread blackouts in Northern California hit the southern part of the state Friday. After drenching Northern California the previous day, the storm dumped up to 5 inches of desperately needed rain in Southern California. A landslide left 10 homes uninhabitable and fire officials executed a dramatic rescue of two people from the Los Angeles River. There were street flooding, traffic tie-ups and wind gusts up to 60 mph in some areas. At its height, about 50,000 customers lost power, though most had it back quickly. A small tornado hit South Los Angeles as well. The “wind event” occurred at 10 a.m. blowing a roof off a house and causing other damage. No injuries were reported. In Camarillo Springs, in Ventura County, California, a large debris flow swept through and pummeled homes with mud and rocks. In total, the debris flow damaged more than a dozen homes and left 10 completely uninhabitable.

Glendora, California, residents living near the Colby Fire burn area were under mandatory evacuations that went into effect Thursday night. California State Patrol reported a section of Highway 1 in Marin County collapsed Thursday. Strong wind gusts downed trees and power lines across northern California Thursday. Gusts exceeding 60 mph were reported across the region. Northern California utility provider PG&E listed at least 14,100 power outages across the region Thursday night. The San Francisco Police Department closed the Embarcadero in San Francisco from AT&T Park to Pier 39 due to high waves Thursday. Flooding closed all northbound lanes of US-101.

The U.S. experienced fewer tornadoes in the past three years than any similar span since accurate records began in the 1950s. Meteorologists aren’t sure exactly why. About 150 fewer damaging tornadoes than average have hit the U.S., according to data from the Storm Prediction Center (SPC). Explanations for the decrease in twisters the past three years range from unusual cold to unusual heat, or just coincidence. Despite the calmer than average years, deaths due to twisters remain near the average of 60 each year, with 68 killed in 2012, 55 in 2013 and 42 so far this year, according to the SPC. That pales in comparison with the 553 Americans killed by tornadoes in 2011.

Officials say torrential rains touched off a mudslide that swept through a central Indonesian village and killed at least 32 people, leaving 76 others missing. The landslide buried or swept away over 100 homes in Central Java’s Banjarnegara district late Friday. About 420 residents were evacuated to temporary shelters. About 2,000 rescuers, including soldiers, police and residents, dug through the debris over the weekend with their bare hands, shovels and hoes searching for survivors.

 

Signs of the Times (12/11/14)

December 11, 2014

Abortion Rate at Lowest Level since Roe v. Wade

The abortion rate in the United States has declined to its lowest point since abortion’s legalization in 1973, according to an annual report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Forty-seven states reported 730,322 abortions in 2011 to the CDC (California, Maryland, and New Hampshire didn’t report their data). According to those reports, the abortion rate has fallen by 14 percent since 2002, to 13.9 abortions for every 1,000 women aged 15 to 44. The abortion rate among white women is 7.8 for every 1,000 births, compared to 16.1 for Hispanic women and 25.8 for black women. ). Teen abortions have declined from 29.2 percent of total abortions in 1980 to 13.9 percent in 2011.

The cause for the decline may come from multiple sources. The CDC partly credits contraceptive availability because most abortions stem from unplanned pregnancies. However, David Frum, senior editor at The Atlantic, identifies two social trends leading to abortion’s decline. First, the pro-life movement has successfully increased the number of people who view abortion as morally wrong: 51 percent say it’s wrong while only 38 percent view it as morally acceptable, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. Second, single motherhood has become more socially acceptable than in previous decades, according to Frum. But the majority of abortions still involve unmarried women (85.5 percent.

Jesus and Bible OK’d for Air Force Cadets

After cadets at the Air Force Academy were censored for posting Bible verses on the erasable white-boards outside their rooms, thousands sent petitions to Congress and the Air Force. Now the U.S. Air Force has relented, and changed AFI 1-1, which had restricted Christians, but now specifically allows airmen to talk about Jesus Christ in uniform. The Air Force’s revised regulations governing religious expression contain a new clause guaranteeing airmen ‘the right to individual expressions of sincerely held beliefs,’ reports the Military Times.

Senate Releases Controversial Report on CIA Torture

A report condemning the CIA’s use of torture against suspected terrorists was released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday. Newspapers around the world led their front pages with the explosive story Wednesday. There has been widespread global condemnation of the CIA’s use of torture. The hotly disputed Senate report on the CIA’s brutal interrogation tactics is tearing open barely healed political wounds first opened after the September 11, 2001, attacks. The report found CIA tactics were more brutal than previously known and accused the agency of keeping the Bush White House and Congress in the dark about them. The reaction of a deeply polarized Congress to the long delayed Senate Intelligence Committee report, not to mention fierce CIA push back, shows how hard it will be to build any national consensus on the proper approach to a threat like terrorism. Former Vice President Dick Cheney slammed the Senate report on CIA interrogation techniques Wednesday, calling it “full of crap,” and a “terrible piece of work” that was “deeply flawed.”

President Obama banned “enhanced interrogation techniques” like water boarding and sleep deprivation, which were the subject of the report released Tuesday, soon after taking office in 2009. The debate over interrogation techniques has left Obama facing an uncomfortable rift between two allies, the C.I.A. director and Democrats on the committee that produced the report. Republican senators and former C.I.A. officials say the agency was advised that its methods were not torture, and that the program played a critical role in dismantling Al Qaeda. All U.S. facilities around the world are being urged to review security and brace for potentially explosive reaction, with concern particularly high in the Middle East and North Africa.

Police Brutality Protests Continue

More than 1,000 protesters marched for hours on city streets, shutting down Interstate 80 and stopping a train in the third night of demonstrations Monday over police killings in Missouri, New York and Phoenix. They confronted a line of police officers in riot gear outside police headquarters before heading to a BART train station, prompting authorities to close it. Protesters then headed west on University Avenue, a four-lane divided street to shut down Interstate 80 in both directions. Dozens of protesters also marched to the railroad tracks, blocking an Amtrak train. A protester held up a sign “Black lives matter” in front of the stopped train. Hundreds of protesters rallied in London Wednesday at one of Europe’s largest shopping malls to show solidarity with U.S. demonstrations over the killing of unarmed black men by white officers.

95 School Shootings in Two Years since Newtown

School shootings in the USA during the two years since the Newtown, Conn., massacre often involved a minor taking a gun from home and using it in a confrontation that started out as an argument, according to a new report by two groups who went to Washington, D.C., Tuesday seeking political action to prevent gun violence. The two groups, whose definition of school shootings includes those involving gang violence, unintentional shootings and suicides, used news accounts to compile a list of 95 shootings that occurred in 33 states; 23 of the incidents resulted in at least one death. All told, the shootings caused 45 deaths and 78 gunshot injuries, according to the report from Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Forty-nine of the shootings occurred at K-12 schools and 46 on college or university campuses. Of the 40 K-12 shootings in which the shooter’s age was known, 28 were committed by minors. Of the 16 K-12 shootings where it was possible to determine the source of the firearm, 10 of the young perpetrators got their guns from home. Critics say that most if not all of the 24 cases where gun origin could not be determined were from sources outside the home.

Americans Worried about Obama’s Use of Executive Orders

Majorities of American voters think President Barack Obama exceeded his authority with recent executive actions on immigration and are worried he may be permanently altering the system of checks and balances established by the Constitution, according to a new Fox News poll released Wednesday. By an 8-point margin, more voters disapprove (51 percent) than approve (43 percent) of the specific policy changes Obama made that will, among other things, allow millions of illegal immigrants to remain temporarily in the United States to work. Meanwhile, nearly three quarters think this easing of immigration laws will encourage more people to enter the country illegally (74 percent). Even more voters are unhappy with how Obama made these changes. By a 60-38 percent margin, voters disapprove of the president bypassing Congress to change how the government deals with illegal immigration. More than two-thirds — 68 percent of voters — are concerned that Obama’s use of executive orders and unilateral actions may be “permanently altering” our country’s system of checks and balances.

Court Decision Allows Driver’s Licenses for ‘Dreamers’ in Arizona

Barring intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court, Arizona “dreamers” may be able to get driver’s licenses as early as next Tuesday, ending a ban imposed two years ago by Gov. Jan Brewer. On Tuesday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a request by Brewer to keep on hold that panel’s July ruling against her ban while the state’s attorney general prepares a U.S. Supreme Court appeal. Gov.-elect Doug Ducey has said he supports Brewer’s policy of denying driver’s licenses to dreamers but will follow whatever the final court mandate may be on the matter. Unless the Supreme Court issues a stay, the 9th Circuit’s July ruling will take effect next Tuesday. At that point, U.S. District Judge David Campbell in Phoenix can issue an injunction that would require the Arizona Department of Transportation to issue driver’s licenses to dreamers who otherwise qualified.

“Dreamers’ are unauthorized immigrants who are under the age of 31; entered the United States before age 16; have lived continuously in the country for at least five years; have not been convicted of a felony, a “significant” misdemeanor; and are currently in school, graduated from high school, earned a GED, or served in the military. Immigrants who meet these criteria are commonly referred to as “DREAMers” because they comprise most (though not all) of the individuals who meet the general requirements of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

Congress Reaches Spending Deal

Top lawmakers agreed to $1.1 trillion government funding bill late Tuesday, just two days before federal agencies are due to run out of money. The negotiating breakthrough likely means the government will stay open as usual, avoiding a potential shutdown. The release of the bill was held up until late Tuesday night as negotiators haggled over a series of controversial policy provisions. “While not everyone got everything they wanted, such compromises must be made in a divided government,” Congressional negotiators said.

The measure bars the District of Columbia from using any money to implement a law the city recently passed to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Many Democrats on Capitol Hill maintain that Washington city leaders should be able to carry out a policy voters supported, but Congress has authority over the city’s finances. One of the provisions will allow for increased political donations, specifically the amount donors can give to national parties to help fund conventions, building funds and legal proceedings, such as recounts. Rather just giving the current cap of $32,400, donors would be able to give up to $97,200 for each of those actions — for a total of $324,000 annually

Some Democrats are already expressing opposition to a provision that repeals what they view as a key financial regulation that was part of a package of reforms for Wall Street banks. The spending bill does away with a rule that prevented banks from using funds backed by taxpayers to trade derivatives, which they argue contributed to the financial collapse in 2008. The resolution of many of these policy issues is critical to the bill’s prospects for passing the House and Senate.

Economic News

Crude oil prices accelerated their six-month slide Monday, plunging to fresh five-year lows. Oil prices have dropped 40% since June. A major energy company slashed its drilling and exploration budget by more than 20% and fresh reports pointed to slowing global economic growth. The latest drop in oil is likely to fuel fresh cuts in gasoline prices in the weeks ahead, saving consumers, shippers and airlines billions. Oil prices have yet to find a bottom. With oil prices in free fall, the fear is that hunting for new shale in the U.S. may just not be that profitable. ConocoPhillips became the first major U.S. oil company to reveal that it is slashing spending for 2015. There are expectations that more energy companies will follow.

The Energy Department again slashed its prediction for next year’s average price of gasoline across the U.S., this time to $2.60 a gallon. That would be 23% below this year’s projected average and the lowest full-year average since 2009.

Retail sales in November beat analyst expectations with a jump of 0.7% to $449.3 billion, the largest monthly gain since March. Sales excluding autos increased 0.5%. October’s sales increase was revised up to a jump of 0.5% from 0.3%.

The Labor Department says weekly applications fell 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 294,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, ticked up a slight 250 to 299,250. Over the past 12 months, the four-week average has declined by 10 percent.

The federal debt has risen 70 percent under President Obama, and when it hit $18 trillion last week, it meant that each household in the U.S. now carries the burden of $124,000 in national debt alone — or $56,378 per individual. David Stockman, White House budget chief under President Reagan, notes it took the United States 205 years to reach $1 trillion in debt, but only 33 more years to get to the current $18 trillion debt mountain. And he says things are about to get worse. Stockman estimates that today’s federal debt amounts to 106 percent of Gross Domestic Product, and when state and local debt is factored in, total government debt is 120 percent of GDP – a load that would put many Americans in a homeless shelter if they owed it money on an individual basis. He further estimates that the U.S. will generate at least $15 trillion of new public debt in the decade ahead. At that point, Stockman estimates America’s public debt will total a whopping 140 percent of GDP.

Persecution Watch

A government official in France maintains the number of anti-Semitic threats and incidents has more than doubled during 2014. France’s Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve shared the staggering numbers during a rally on Sunday to protest a violent attack on a young Jewish couple, according to Christian Today. Recently, a 19-year-old Jewish woman was raped. Approximately 550,000 Jews live in France, the largest Jewish population base in Europe. “We feel that something has changed: it’s no longer just graffiti or minor incidents, these are death threats [against the Jewish community],” Roger Cukierman, the head of Conseil Représentatif des Institutions.

An eighth grade student in Texas was repeatedly slammed to the ground by police after he refused to remove his rosary beads at a football game. Sam Houston Middle School student Jacob Herrera had been given permission to wear the beads for religious and sentimental reasons: his older brother had given Herrera the beads before his death. The Christian Post reports police told Herrera to remove the rosary because it was a gang symbol. Herrera refused, telling the officer that he had permission to wear the beads. The officer ordered Herrera to put his arms behind his back, which the student refused. Herrera also refused other orders from the officer which led to his arrest and physical mistreatment. The Rutherford Institute founder and attorney John Whitehead said it was “excessive force” and “is a matter of religious freedom and a First Amendment right.”

Middle East

Palestinian Authority minister without portfolio Ziad Abu Ein died on Wednesday following a confrontation with Israeli soldiers during a protest in the West Bank village of Turmusiya. The IDF says they believe he died of a heart attack following a shouting match with the soldiers but Palestinian officials insist he died as a result of inhaling tear gas fired by the soldiers in an effort to break up the unauthorized protest and a Reuters photographer who was present said he saw IDF soldiers striking him shortly before he collapsed, after which he was put in an ambulance and rushed to a hospital in Ramallah but died en route. In comments echoed by other PA officials, President Mahmoud Abbas, in a statement, called Abu Ein’s death “a barbaric act which we cannot be silent about or accept.” Security forces were bracing for more violence in the wake of the incident.

Islamic State

ISIS has released a set of photos on social media featuring young children learning to use assault rifles such as AK47s. The children appeal to be about 10 years old and are shown wearing full combat gear and masks as they are trained to kill. The terrorist organization is reportedly using the children in battle in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’ abuse of children has been documented for months. In September, CNN released a report of a 13-year-old boy who had escaped an ISIS camp and said he had been force to witness beheadings, stonings and a crucifixion. “When we go to the mosque, they order us to come the next day at a specific time and place to [watch] heads cut off, lashings or stonings. We saw a young man who did not fast for Ramadan, so they crucified him for three days, and we saw a woman being stoned [to death] because she committed adultery,” he said.

Syria

As winter approaches, United Nations funds to feed Syrian refugees had dried up. According to Christian Today, the World Food Programme petitioned donors for funds to ensure refugees can survive the harshest months of winter. A week after launching its social media campaign to raise emergency funding for food assistance aimed at Syrian refugees, WFP announced recently that it had not only reached its initial goal of $64 million, but also exceeded it thanks to a “massive expression” of support from the public, the private sector and donor countries. “This outpouring of support in such a short time is unprecedented,” said WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin, in a statement.

Afghanistan

A suicide bomber targeted a vehicle carrying Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers in Kabul on Thursday morning. The ensuing blast killed five and wounded 12 others, the defense ministry said. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

Mali

French troops, in coordination with Malian forces in northern Mali, killed a senior jihadist leader wanted by the United States, the French military announced Thursday. Ahmed el Tilemsi was the head and co-founder of a jihadist group called the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa. The U.S. government had formally designated el Tilemsi a terrorist and offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to him. A French military spokesman, Col. Gilles Jaron, told CNN that about 10 suspected terrorists were “neutralized” — which means killed or taken captive, according to the French military — in the operation in al-Mourabitoun.

Hong Kong

Police arrested dozens of pro-democracy protesters Thursday as teams with sledgehammers and chainsaws demolished camps and tore down tents and supply stations established by activists as part of a mass civil disobedience movement that has lasted more than 10 weeks. The police clearance marked the end of the pro-democracy occupation that has paralyzed parts of the south China city. Among those arrested was popular singer Denise Ho, who led the crowd in chanting “civil disobedience, we are fearless!” reported the South China Morning Post newspaper. Four members of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the key campaign organizers, also were arrested, the group tweeted.

China

China’s skyrocketing appetite for ivory is leading to the unsustainable slaughter of African elephants. As prices for precious ivory goods have surged in China, the number of poached elephants has also escalated. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, said 100,000 African elephants have been killed for their ivory in just the past three years. “African elephants could disappear from the wild within a generation,” unless China does more to end the sale of ivory, said Douglas-Hamilton. China is the world’s largest consumer of ivory as newly-wealthy Chinese consumers have developed a taste for exotic luxury goods. The wholesale price of raw tusks has tripled in just four years since 2010, while retail prices for finished ivory have increased exponentialy. Retail prices in Beijing, for example, have increased more than 13 times since 2002.

Weather

A powerful storm packing heavy rain, high winds and snow for higher elevations was pushing through northern California Thursday, threatening to trigger flash floods and landslides in the drought-plagued state. The worst of the storm will be in northern California on Thursday where widespread rainfall totals of 3 to 5 inches are expected. Meanwhile, the peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains are expected to get up to 2 feet of snow. Sustained winds of 25 to 35 mph will be found in the lower elevations with wind gusts over 50 mph possible. The higher elevations may see gusts up to 80 mph and blizzard warnings are in effect for parts of the Sierra Nevada above 6,500 feet. The storm was expected to be one of the strongest in terms of wind and rain intensity in more than five years for parts of northern California. Three lanes of eastbound I-80 six miles north of El Cerrito, California, were blocked just after 6 a.m. ET after a semi-truck crashed into a 2,000-pound Eucalyptus tree blown onto the road by wind gusts. The California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) said that it had activated more than 3,000 employees and more than 1,500 pieces of equipment to deal with road-related hazards from the storm.

A winter storm dumped snow and rain on the Northeast and New England for several days this week, causing big problems in some areas. The fierce nor’easter also brought strong winds and flooding to coastal areas. Two people died in crashes on slippery roads during the storm. Snow totals have inched toward the two-foot mark in some parts of upstate New York.

A massive storm system is hitting parts of Europe, bringing plenty of headaches to the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The storm has already whipped up tremendous winds, including a pair of 96-mph gusts in Iceland Monday night and sustained hurricane-force winds at a major natural gas platform off the North Sea coast of Norway. Some 17,000 homes in the Western Isles lost power Wednesday, according to the BBC. The huge area of winds with this system whipped up seas as high as 35 feet northwest of the British Isles. Those waves are expected to grow even larger thanks to the storm’s slow eastward movement.

Signs of the Time (12/8/14)

December 8, 2014

Florida Capital Gives Satanic Temple Space for Holiday Display

A holiday display by the Satanic Temple will be permitted inside the Florida capitol building after the group threatened to sue after its display was rejected last year. The display features Satan as an angel descending into Hell with the words, “Happy Holidays from the Satanic Temple.” The display will be one of five displays on the first-floor rotunda of the building for the Festivus celebration. It joins a nativity scene and a menorah, as well as secular displays.

Atheists Bully Town to Eject Christ from Christmas Parade

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, one of the nation’s premiere hate groups, threatened expensive legal action because a community allowed Christ to be mentioned in public This time, the victims are the residents of a small town called Piedmont, Alabama, and the crime scene was the annual Christmas parade, reports Godfather Politics. But this particular assault on religious freedom by the FFRF was a revenge attack. Earlier this year, the FFRF and Piedmont tangled over prayers at football games. Following their usual strategy, the FFRF bullied Piedmont into officially cancelling prayers at the start of games. But the people of Piedmont wouldn’t back down and crowds began a new tradition of gathering to pray out loud without official sanction. The atheists then set their sights on the Christmas parade after the parade committee chose the theme of “Keep Christ in Christmas.” FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel complained that the sentiment of ‘Keeping Christ in Christmas’ does not qualify as a secular celebration. Fortunately, the townsfolk of Piedmont aren’t the sort to back down from a fight. While the city felt forced to officially not have a parade theme, that didn’t stop people from contributing religious-themed floats or from printing up and carrying a whole lot of signs with “Keep Christ in Christmas.”

Minnesota Schools to Allow Transgender Students to Play Sports on Teams of Sex They Identify With

Minnesota passed a new policy that will allow transgender high school students to play on the sports team of the sex with which they identify. According to the policy, “When there is confirmation of a student’s consistent and uniform gender-related identity…the student will be eligible to participate in MSHSL activities consistent with the student’s gender identification for the balance of the student’s high school eligibility.” The new set of rules has prompted concerns and criticism about safety and privacy from parents and officials. Some are concerned that larger biological males who identify as females could potentially harm smaller girls.

  • God made it very easy to identify males from females – this kind of confusion is typical of Satan’s corruption of Biblical order

Multistate Coalition Sues over Obama’s Immigration Orders

Texas is leading a 17-state coalition suing over President Barack Obama’s recently announced executive actions on immigration, arguing in a lawsuit filed Wednesday that the move tramples key portions of the U.S. Constitution. Many top Republicans have denounced Obama’s order, which was designed to spare millions living illegally in the United States from deportation. But Texas Gov.-elect and current Attorney General Greg Abbott took it a step further, filing a formal legal challenge in federal court in the Southern District of Texas. His state is joined by 16 other mostly conservative states, largely in the south and Midwest, such as Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana and the Carolinas. They aren’t seeking monetary damages, but instead want the courts to block Obama’s actions.

Tensions Spike as AG Holder Takes on Cleveland Police

The Obama administration on Thursday issued a report accusing the Cleveland police department of using excessive and deadly force against citizens in violation of their constitutional rights, the latest development in a growing national debate over the fairness of local police tactics, especially in minority communities. According to the Justice Department report, Cleveland police engaged in a “pattern or practice” of unnecessary force — including shooting residents, striking them in the head and spraying them with chemicals. The Justice Department and the city agreed to establish an independent monitor to oversee changes in the police department, including better training and supervision of officers. And the Justice Department urged Cleveland civic leaders to hold police accountable for their improper actions when necessary. Attorney General Holder’s announcement came amid growing public anger over the decision that no criminal charges will be filed against the officer in

the Garner chokehold case on the heels of another grand jury’s decision not to charge white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in Michael Brown’s shooting death. Both decisions triggered nationwide protests. After a season of high-profile police shootings that did not result in indictments, critics have come to challenge the largely internal reviews, saying the process all but guarantees the officers’ actions will be uniformly deemed justified.

Protesters March in Phoenix

What started as a crowd of 40 or 50 people walking along a sidewalk carrying signs grew to several hundred people emboldened by their growing ranks. Protesters decrying police brutality marched in downtown Phoenix on Friday night, at times pausing to lie down in the middle of streets lined by police officers in riot gear. The scene mimicked the unrest that has played out in Ferguson, Mo., New York City and elsewhere following the deaths of unarmed Black men at the hands of White officers. In Phoenix this week, drug suspect Rumain Brisbon, a 34-year-old father of four, was fatally shot by an officer who says he mistook a pill bottle Brisbon was gripping in his pocket for the butt of a gun. “I’m hoping some change comes from tonight,” protester Leandra Swanner said. “I hope police realize protesters aren’t anti-police; they are anti-brutality.

Chokehold Protest Turns Violent

A peaceful protest in the university town of Berkeley, Calif., Sunday night over police killings of black men was overtaken by a group vandalizing police cars and stores and briefly shutting a local highway. It was the second day of violence. On Saturday masked protesters smashed windows and threw objects at police. Some protesters broke business windows while others implored them to stop the violence, CNN reported. A police officer received hospital treatment for a shoulder injury, while another sustained minor injuries after some of the protesters threw rocks and other projectiles. Several businesses on University Avenue were looted and damaged. About 300 people were taking part in the fourth day of protests in the city after a grand jury decided that a Staten Island, N.Y., police officer would not face charges in the July death of Garner, 43, a black asthmatic who died after apparently being put in a chokehold.

Poll: Race Relations Worse Under Obama

Many hoped the election of the first black president would improve race relations in America, but six years into the administration of Barack Obama, a new poll shows them worsening. According to a Bloomberg Politics poll, 53 percent believe race relations have worsened under Obama, 36 percent think they are unchanged, and only 9 percent believe they have improved. 45 percent of black people surveyed believe race relations have gotten worse, while 56 percent of white people do. 64 percent of whites and just 4 percent of blacks either agreed or strongly agreed with the Ferguson Grand Jury decision.

Flu Shot Bad Match for This Season’s Virus

A sampling of flu cases so far this season suggests the current flu vaccine may not be a good match for the most common seasonal flu strain currently circulating in the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced. The U.S. health agency issued an advisory to doctors noting that flu virus samples the agency took from Oct. 1 through Nov. 22, showed that just under half were a good match for the current influenza A (H3N2) component contained in flu shots for the 2014-2015 season. According to the CDC, flu activity has been low but is increasing and influenza A (H3N2) viruses appear to be the predominant strain, with cases having been detected in almost all U.S. states. Flu seasons dominated by influenza A (H3N2) strains tend to have higher overall hospitalization rates and more flu-related deaths, especially among older people and very young children compared with flu seasons dominated by the influenza A (H1N1) virus or influenza B viruses.

Corporations, U.S. Join Forces to Aid African Farmers

President Barack Obama is counting on an unusual mix of taxpayer dollars and investments from profit-hunting agribusiness giants such as DuPont to feed the globe’s growing population. For the plan to work, small-scale Ethiopian farmers will need to greatly increase their paltry yields of corn and other crops. That will be no small achievement in a country where farmers typically plow by hand or with oxen and still plant their crops by tossing the seed willy-nilly out on the ground instead of placing it in rows. DuPont’s Iowa-based seed business, DuPont Pioneer, and the U.S. Agency for International Development are testing a new approach to improve the production of corn among the millions of poor, small-scale farmers who dominate African agriculture. The plan, part of the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative, is to give farmers bags of non-biotech hybrid seed and train them on how to properly plant the seeds and apply chemical fertilizers.

Utah to Seize Own Land from Federal Government

In three weeks, Utah plans to seize control of 31.2 million acres of its own land now under the control of the federal government. In an unprecedented challenge to federal dominance of Western state lands, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in 2012 signed the “Transfer of Public Lands Act,” which demands that Washington relinquish its hold on the land, which represents more than half of the state’s 54.3 million acres, by Dec. 31. So far, however, the federal government hasn’t given any indication that it plans to cooperate. We’re going to move forward and use all the resources at our disposal,” said state Rep. Ken Ivory, who sponsored the legislation. Mr. Ivory also heads the American Lands Council, which advocates the relinquishing of federal lands to the control of the states.

Mishaps at Nuke Repository Lead to $54M in Fines

New Mexico on Saturday levied more than $54 million in penalties against the U.S. Department of Energy for numerous violations that resulted in the indefinite closure of the nation’s only underground nuclear waste repository. The state Environment Department delivered a pair of compliance orders of more than 30 state-permit violations at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico and at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The orders and the civil penalties that come with them are just the beginning of possible financial sanctions the Energy Department could face in New Mexico. The focus has been on a canister of waste from Los Alamos that ruptured in one of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant’s storage rooms in February. More than 20 workers were contaminated, and the facility was forced to close, putting in jeopardy efforts around the country to clean up tons of Cold War-era waste.

Huge L.A. Fire Shuts Down 2 Freeways

A massive fire at a Los Angeles construction site the size of a city block shut down sections of two major freeways for hours early Monday. Hundreds of firefighters battled the blaze, which broke out about 1:10 a.m. and could be seen for miles. “This is a historic fire, what we as firefighters would call a career fire. It’s huge,” Fire Department spokesman David Ortiz told NBC News. The fire, which shut sections of the 110 and 101 freeways, was being fed by wood framing at a planned seven-story luxury apartment complex. Fire officials said two other buildings were also damaged, including several floors of a 16-story office tower. The fire started at the Da Vinci apartment complex, billed on its website as providing a “world class resort apartment home.” Construction has been underway for more than two years. The structure appeared to be “completely lost.”

Economic News

Employers added 321,000 jobs in November, a healthy showing that echoes other positive economic data recently. The unemployment rate remained unchanged from last month at 5.8 percent, the Labor Department said Friday. However, the Labor Force Participation rate is at a 36-year low. This means that over 92 million Americans are NOT working at all – almost 1/3 of the entire nation.

A Federal Reserve survey of economic conditions across the country released Wednesday reported healthier consumer spending in many regions, likely as a result of lower gas prices, as well as gains in hiring. Two sectors with many low-wage workers, retail and leisure and hospitality, were among the biggest gainers, adding 50,000 and 32,000 jobs, respectively, including many seasonal employees.

Stocks rose Friday — with the Dow and S&P 500 notching record highs — after November’s jobs gains blew way past estimates. The Dow Jones industrial average ended up 0.3%, a gain of 59 points, to its new closing high of 17,958.79. Climbing 0.2%, or about 3 and a half points, was the S&P 500. Its new high is 2,075.37.

Japan’s Takata Corp. is struggling with one of the worst safety recall crises in decades. More than 16 million cars have been recalled worldwide due to defective air bags made by Takata. Five deaths have been linked so far to defective air bag inflators that can explode with too much force, shooting metal and plastic shrapnel at the vehicle occupants. More than 130 others have been injured. Reports of exploding air bags first surfaced in the mid-2000s. Honda announced the first U.S. recall for faulty Takata bags in a nationwide action in 2008. About 5 million of the 8 million U.S. vehicles being recalled are Honda products. Tokyo-based Takata declined to meet a deadline Tuesday set by U.S. regulators to expand into a nationwide recall the ongoing regional recalls of the suspect air bag inflators by 10 of its automaker customers. The current recalls are limited to regions where high humidity is thought to increase the chances of degradation of the propellant used in the inflators.

Six Guantanamo Bay Detainees Transferred to Uruguay

The U.S. government said early Sunday that it had transferred six detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for over 12 years to Uruguay for resettlement as refugees. All six men had been detained as suspected militants with ties to Al Qaeda, but had never been charged. A Pentagon statement on Sunday identified the men as four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian. They are the first Guantanamo Bay prisoners to be sent to South America. They had been cleared for release since at least 2010 but they could not be sent home and languished as the U.S. struggled to find countries willing to take them. Among those transferred is 43-year-old Syrian Abu Wa’el Dhiab, who was on a long-term hunger strike at Guantanamo to protest his confinement. He was at the center of a legal battle in U.S. courts over the military’s force-feeding of prisoners who refuse to eat.

Middle East

Syrian state television said on Sunday that Israeli jets had bombed targets near Damascus International Airport and in the town of Dimas, near the border with Lebanon, reports the Jerusalem Post. A Lebanese TV correspondent reported that Israel struck 10 crucial intelligence-linked locations in Syria that belong to Iran. The IAF has struck Syria several times since the start of the three-year conflict, mostly destroying weaponry such as missiles that Israeli officials said were destined for their longtime foe Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon. “The Israeli enemy committed aggression against Syria by targeting two safe areas in Damascus province, in all of Dimas and near the Damascus International Airport,” state television said, adding that there were no casualties.

Afghanistan

The U.S. will keep a larger force in Afghanistan for the first few month of 2015 than it initially planned to, outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Saturday. During a joint press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Hagel said that up to 10,800 troops will remain in the country at the start of next year; a previous announcement called for 1,000 fewer troops. Hagel arrived in Afghanistan on Saturday in order to assess the nation as the United States begins the drawdown of its forces in the New Year. Kabul has seen an uptick in Taliban attacks in recent weeks.

Syria

The main al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria is extending its control over a swath of territory that was until recently held by the collapsing moderate opposition, jeopardizing U.S. plans to form a new rebel force to fight extremists. Since routing two of the biggest Western-backed rebel movements last month from the province of Idlib, Jabhat al-Nusra has been steadily consolidating its position as the single most powerful military force in northwestern Syria. The group has overrun towns and villages throughout the province, secured supply routes into neighboring Turkey and potentially paved the way for the establishment of an Islamic “emirate” — a competing entity to the “caliphate” declared last summer by the Islamic State in northeastern Syria and western Iraq.

Pakistan

Key al Qaeda figure Umar Farooq was killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan on Sunday, Pakistani intelligence officials told CNN. Farooq was believed to be in charge of al Qaeda’s operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He also served as a spokesman for al Qaeda. The attack took place when two missiles struck a compound in Datta Khel, killing Farooq and four suspected militants.

Yemen

Al Qaeda militants killed American hostage Luke Somers and a South African captive in Yemen during a raid conducted by U.S. forces to rescue Somers, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Saturday. President Barack Obama ordered Friday’s raid because “there were compelling reasons to believe Mr. Somers’ life was in imminent danger,” he said. “Earlier this week, a video released by his terrorist captors announced that Luke would be killed within 72 hours,” the statement said. “I also authorized the rescue of any other hostages held in the same location as Luke.” Unfortunately, during the botched raid, the militants with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula also killed South African hostage Pierre Korkie, according to his employer, the relief group Gift of the Givers. Korkie was to be released on Sunday, the group said in a statement. On Friday, a team of local leaders was finalizing arrangements to reunite Pierre Korkie to his wife and children, the statement reads.

United Arab Emirates

The State Department is warning American citizens traveling or living in Abu Dhabi to keep “awareness” levels high after the slaying of an American teacher last week. The security warning from the State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council reminded Americans to be “vigilant” of their surroundings and encouraged them to vary routines and schedules. The warning comes after Abu Dhabi police on Thursday detained a woman in connection with the stabbing death of kindergarten teacher Ibolya Ryan, whose body was found Monday in the bathroom of the Reem Island mall in the United Arab Emirates.

Weather

At least twenty-two people were left dead Sunday, more than 1,500 homes were destroyed, trees were mowed down and power knocked out in entire coastal provinces as Typhoon Hagupit lashed the Philippines. More than one million people fled to emergency shelters and to safer ground before the typhoon made its first landfall in the eastern Philippines late Saturday. As of Sunday morning U.S. time, Hagupit had sustained winds of about 100 mph and was slowly slogging to the northwest at 8 mph. Hagupit, known locally as Ruby, slammed into Eastern Samar and other island provinces, before weakening Sunday, leaving no major destruction, the Associated Press said. The strong storm comes barely one year after Super Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the island nation. Schools, government offices and stock markets closed Monday as a weakened Typhoon Hagupit approached the Philippines capital after lashing outer provinces.

Record rains fell in California last week, but they’re not enough to change the course of what scientists are now calling the region’s worst drought in at least 1,200 years. Modern measurements had already shown the drought has been drier than the 1930s dustbowl. New research going back further than the Viking conquests in Europe still can’t find a drought as bad as this one. By working with California’s exceptionally old trees, researchers from University of Minnesota and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute were able to reconstruct a chronology of drought in southern and central California. They identified 37 droughts that lasted three years or more, going back to the year 800. None were as extreme as the conditions we’re seeing now.

Signs of the Times (12/4/14)

December 4, 2014

Atheists Use Children To Bash Christmas In Billboard Campaign

A national atheist organization has put up a billboard in Springdale, Arkansas depicting a little girl writing to Santa saying she wants to skip church on Christmas because she’s too old for fairy tales (but not too old to believe in Santa, apparently). The billboard is part of a “firebrand-style” campaign launched in multiple Bible Belt cities including Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis and Fort Smith, according to a post on the American Atheists website. The group also plans to put up a billboard in Milwaukee. Danielle Muscato, public relations director for American Atheists, told 5NEWS the billboards are aimed at in-the-closet atheists who are pressured to observe religious traditions during the holidays.

  • Why are atheists so intolerant of others’ beliefs? No one is forcing them to do anything. Why aren’t they protesting about Santa? Perhaps it’s because they fear God is real but know Santa is the fairy tale.

200 Babies Are Aborted for Every 1,000 Births in America

A new study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that for every 1,000 births in the United States, 200 babies are aborted. The report was an analysis of information from 2011. According to the report 730,322 women had abortions in 2011, with 333,964 of the abortions performed by Planned Parenthood doctors. The abortion ratio was 43 abortions per 1,000 live births for married women and 373 abortions per 1,000 live births for unmarried women. The CDC also found that women in their 20s were most likely to obtain an abortion. Adolescents aged 15–19 years accounted for 13.5% of all abortions and had abortion rates of 10.5 abortions per 1,000 births. The abortion rate was down 4 percent from 2010, when there were 228 abortions performed for every 1,000 births.

Healthcare Cost Increases Slowing Down

U.S. health spending grew 3.6% in 2013, the lowest annual increase since 1960, when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services began tracking the statistic, officials said Wednesday. Consumer out-of-pocket spending — including co-payments and deductibles or payments for services not covered by a consumer’s health insurance — grew 3.2% in 2013, down from the 3.6% growth in both 2011 and 2012. Spending slowed for private health insurance, Medicare, hospitals, physicians and clinical services and out-of-pocket spending by consumers. However, it accelerated for Medicaid and for prescription drugs, according to the report, published online by the journal Health Affairs. Premiums for private health insurance grew 2.8% last year, compared to a 4% increase in 2012. Low overall enrollment growth, greater usage of high deductible plans and other benefit design changes and the health law’s medical loss ratio and rate review provisions contributed to the decline, the Centers found. Nearly 190 million people — or 60% of the population — were covered by private health insurance in 2013. Enrollment increased 0.7% last year, the third straight annual increase.

Gun Sales Boomed in November

Gun sales boomed in November, apparently fueled by Black Friday sales and stoked by Ferguson-related fears. FBI background checks, which are required for most gun purchases, jumped by about 12% compared to October. The bureau said it performed 1,803,397 checks in November. This includes Black Friday, which set a record for gun sales, with 175,000 background checks just on that one day, according to the FBI. Gun sales are often driven by fear and anxiety. December of 2012 remains the record month for background checks, at 2,783,765. Midway through that month, a gunman killed 26 people, mostly kids, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. The massacre led to calls to restrict the availability of firearms. A jump in sales, particularly of assault rifles, was attributed to fear of those tighter gun restrictions taking effect; they eventually stalled in Congress.

No Indictment in Chokehold Death Leads to Protests

After a New York grand jury failed to indict a police officer in the death of a Staten Island unarmed black man, protesters hit the streets of Manhattan and at least seven other U.S. cities. There were no reports of unrest, in contrast to the looting and arson that broke out Nov. 24 in Ferguson, Mo., after a grand jury there declined to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot unarmed teen Michael Brown on Aug. 9. A wave of protests erupted from Manhattan to Oakland, Calif. Thousands in New York marched in support of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old asthmatic who died after being put in a chokehold by officer Daniel Pantaleo on July 17. Protesters in NYC shut down the Lincoln Tunnel, the West Side Highway and the Brooklyn Bridge

Black Suspect Unarmed when Killed by Phoenix Officer

In Phoenix on Tuesday evening, a White police officer who was feeling threatened used lethal force on an unarmed Black man. The incident left the officer unharmed and Brisbon, 34, with two bullet wounds in his torso at a north Phoenix apartment complex. Phoenix police quickly released a detailed account of the killing for the media on Wednesday morning in what officials said was an effort to promote transparency, especially in light of the unrest that has played out in Ferguson and New York City following the deaths of unarmed Black men at the hands of White officers. But portions of that account have already been challenged by some witnesses and community activists who say that the officer’s use of force was excessive and that Brisbon’s death was unwarranted.

More Police Uniforms Include Body Cameras

Several makers of police body cameras say their orders have grown in recent months, particularly since a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot 18-year-old Michael Brown. Taser, best known for the line of stun guns bearing its name, said sales of its body cameras were up 30% in the third quarter. Last week, the company said the San Francisco police department had ordered 160 cameras. The Los Angeles police department recently decided it would arm officers with Taser-brand cameras as well. In all, over 1,200 police agencies are now using Taser cameras, said Sydney Siegmeth, and the company has sold over 100,000 of them. The body cameras record interactions with the public and would help resolve what actually happened in incidents like the Ferguson shooting and the two incidents above.

Designer Drugs from China Flood U.S.

Following the deaths of two North Dakota teens from a mysterious white powder, authorities say the U.S. is being bombarded with constantly changing designer drugs, much of which comes from China. Some of these synthetic designer drugs are so potent that a dose the size of a few grains of salt can be enough to get high – and a few grains more can kill. In the past four years, more than 300 synthetic designer drugs with names such as Spice, N-bombe and K2, have flooded into the United States. “These drugs are being marketed and sold as legal alternatives to marijuana, cocaine, meth and heroin,” said John Scherbenske of the DEA. As states and the federal government race to “schedule” or ban chemical compounds, the manufacturers are staying one step ahead of the law by constantly changing the drugs’ chemical composition. According to the DEA, the majority of the chemical companies manufacturing synthetic drugs are in China.

World’s Most Corrupt Industries

Drilling for oil and digging for minerals can be dirty, in more ways than one. Known as the extractive sector, oil and mining tops a new list of the world’s most corrupt industries. Construction and transportation make up the top three, according to a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD analyzed 427 cases of bribery in international business. Two-thirds of the cases occurred in just four industries: oil and mineral extraction (19%); construction (15%); transportation and storage (15%); and information and communication (10%).Senior executives were involved in more than half the cases, with chief executives playing an active role in 12%. They either paid the bribes themselves, or authorized them, the OECD found.

Hackers Devastate Sony Pictures

Sony Pictures’ computer network was taken down a week ago Monday by hackers believed to come from North Korea. As of this Wednesday, some staffers were still having to use cellphones and texting to communicate as e-mail was not available.      Five Sony movies, four of which have not yet been released, were posted online and are being widely distributed on pirating sites. In addition, a huge, 27-gigabyte stash of files was stolen from the company’s network and put online. The stash contained sensitive company files, ranging from HR documents with employee info, to legal paperwork, to confidential company meeting notes and documents.

Tumbling Oil Prices Causing Historic Shift of Wealth

Tumbling oil prices are draining hundreds of billions of dollars from the coffers of oil-rich exporters and oil companies and injecting a much-needed boost for ailing economies in Europe and Japan — and for American consumers at the start of the peak shopping season. The result could be one of the biggest transfers of wealth in history, potentially reshaping everything from talks over Iran’s nuclear program to the Federal Reserve’s policies to further rejuvenate the U.S. economy. The price of oil has declined about 40 percent since its peak in mid-June and plunged last week after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries voted to continue to pump at the same rate. That continued a trend driven by a weak global economy and expanding U.S. domestic energy supplies. At current prices, the annual revenue of OPEC members would shrink by $590 billion, money that will instead stay within the borders of the world’s biggest oil importers, led by the United States, China and Japan. Every day, American motorists are saving $630 million on gasoline compared with what they paid at June prices, and they would get a $230 billion windfall if prices were to stay this low for a year.

Economic News

Online spending on Cyber Monday climbed 17% over last year to just over $2 billion nationwide, online analytics firm comScore said. Shoppers spent $6.5 billion online over the five-day period from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday, according to comScore. That’s an increase of nearly a quarter from last year. Overall this season — since Nov. 1 — online spending is up 16%.

Chicago became the latest city to raise its minimum wage Tuesday. The wage hike will be phased in gradually. Chicago’s minimum wage workers will get their first raise on July 1, 2015, when the rate goes from $8.25 to $10 an hour. After it hits $13 in 2019, it will be pegged to inflation. Many states and cities have approved local increases this year, while federal-level discussions about raising the minimum wage for all Americans have stalled.

Overall it was a great month for auto sellers in October. It was the best monthly sales November since 2001, up nearly 5% from year-earlier sales. Declining gasoline prices helped boost demand for SUVs and crossovers. October sales were about 16.4 million on an annualized basis.

The Russian government has for the first time acknowledged that the country will fall into recession next year, battered by the combination of Western sanctions and a plunge in the price of its oil exports. The economic development ministry on Tuesday revised its GDP forecast for 2015 from growth of 1.2 percent to a drop of 0.8 percent. Disposable income is expected to decline by 2.8 percent against the previously expected 0.4 percent growth.

Persecution Watch

The parents of three young children are petitioning child protective services, saying the state of Washington unlawfully removed the children from their home after the mother gave birth to the two youngest in an unassisted home delivery. Parents Erica May Carey and Cleave Rengo decided to give birth at home without assistance or prenatal medical care, a decision influenced by their Christian beliefs. The couple, which does not have a Washington state marriage license but says they took their vows in the eyes of God, had a 10-month old son when Carey gave birth to twins. Soon after, however, paramedics showed up when someone reported the birth. According to Carey and Rengo, the paramedics suggested taking the newborns to the hospital for a checkup, but they refused, worrying about the twins’ health with fragile immune systems among patients fighting disease. The next day, CPS showed up for the first of several visits. Officers noticed the 10-month-old’s eczema, the couple says, which they treated with natural remedies like probiotics and coconut oil. They say CPS pushed them to switch to steroid creams, which the couple refused as well. Soon after, CPS took all three children.

Todd Starnes reported on CNN.com that the Disney Channel is blocking messages that contain the word God. A North Carolina ten-year-old responded to an online Disney request for messages of thankfulness on Thanksgiving. She entered that she was thankful for “God, my family, my church and my friends.” Her entry was blocked and Disney responded, “Please be nice!” When she removed the word God, it was posted. The family contacted Starnes whose entry with the word God was also blocked. He contacted Disney and was told they would look into the problem.

  • Intolerance of God and Christianity has become pervasive in our increasingly secular socialistic society

Middle East

Another suspected “lone wolf” terror attack occurred in the West Bank on Wednesday evening, as a 16 year old Palestinian teenager walked into a grocery store in the community of Mishor Adumim, near Jerusalem, and stabbed two Israelis before being shot in the leg by an off-duty security guard from the Prime Minister’s Office. The two victims were treated for moderate wounds while the attacker was taken to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in the capital in stable condition.

Islamic State

ISIS has reportedly been converting churches into prisons in Mosul, an Iraqi city that was once largely a Christian community. According to reports, detainees have been sent to the ancient Chaldean church of the Immaculate Conception. ISIS took control of Mosul in June, forcing Christians in the city to convert to Islam, pay a tax or be killed for their faith. About 60,000 Christians lived in the city before 2003.

Four young Christians were recently killed by ISIS after the militants demanded that they convert to Islam. Canon Andrew White, the so-called Vicar of Baghdad said, “Islamic State turned up and said to the children, you say the words that you will follow Mohammed. The children, all under 15, four of them, said no, we love Yesua (Jesus), we have always loved Yesua, we have always followed Yesua, Yesua has always been with us. They said, ‘Say the words.’ They said, ‘No, we can’t.’ They chopped all their heads off.”

The Pentagon says that Iran has launched airstrikes against Islamic State militants in eastern Iraq. Rear Adm. John Kirby says the U.S. believes this may be the first time Tehran has launched manned aircraft from inside Iran to strike targets in Iraq. Iranian military leaders have acknowledged that dozens of their forces have been in Iraq fighting alongside Kurdish troops battling extremists.

Iran

For at least two years, Iranian hackers have penetrated the computer networks of government agencies and major energy, transportation and infrastructure companies in the United States and 15 other countries, a security-services firm reports. The intruders have stolen “highly sensitive materials” from at least 50 firms worldwide, including 10 U.S. companies, according to Cylance. Targets have included “military, oil and gas, energy and utilities, transportation, hospitals, telecommunications, technology, education, aerospace, defense contractors, chemical, companies, and governments. The security firm warns that “the probability of an attack that could impact the physical world at a national or global level is rapidly increasing.”

Iraq

In a far-reaching deal with the potential to unite Iraq in the face of a Sunni insurgency, the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi agreed on Tuesday to a long-term pact with the autonomous Kurdish region over how to divide the country’s oil wealth and cooperate on fighting the extremists of the Islamic State. The deal unites Baghdad and Erbil, the Kurdish capital in the north, over the issue of oil revenues and budget payments, and is likely to halt a drive — at least in the short term — by the Kurds for an independent state. Iraq’s central government and its Kurdish minority had long been at an impasse over how to share oil revenue, an issue that had threatened to tear the country apart. “Now the priority really is to confront ISIS,” Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s finance minister, said in an interview on Tuesday

Syria

More than 1.7 million Syrian refugees will face a food shortage due to a “funding crisis,” the United Nations World Food Program said Monday. The WFP had to suspend its program providing food vouchers, which refugees use in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt, the agency said. The program needs $64 million “immediately,” it said, adding that the repercussions of suspending the vouchers “will be disastrous.”

United Arab Emirate

An American school teacher was fatally stabbed in a public restroom at a shopping mall in Abu Dhabi by a suspect wearing a black robe and full-face veil, police said. The stabbing happened on Reem Island in the United Arab emirate on Monday afternoon. The woman’s attacker was reported to be wearing the traditional cloak and face cover worn by many women throughout the Arab Gulf region, and black gloves.

Kenya

Al-Shabaab militants raided a quarry in Kenya, separating non-Muslim workers from their Muslim counterparts and executing them. At least 36 bodies were found Tuesday dumped in the quarry in the village of Kormey, near the Somali border, the Kenyan Red Cross said. Al-Shabaab said the attack was retaliation for mosque raids that Kenyan security forces carried out last month to weed out extremists. Kormey is about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the border city of Mandera, in an area where the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab militants are known to operate. Last month, the Islamist militants ambushed a bus in Kenya and sprayed bullets on those who failed to recite Quran verses, killing at least 28 people.

Ukraine

International monitors in eastern Ukraine say government troops and Russian-backed separatist forces in the Luhansk region have agreed on a new cease-fire. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in a statement late Monday that hostilities will cease Friday along the line of contact between the warring sides. The OSCE said it was agreed at negotiations that took place Saturday that heavy weapons will start being withdrawn from the front at the weekend. An earlier cease-fire had been signed in September, but hundreds have been killed since then amid daily violations of that truce.

Hong Kong

Three co-founders of a civil disobedience campaign were turned away by police in Hong Kong on Wednesday after they tried to surrender in an effort to end increasingly violent street demonstrations. The SCMP said the three leaders arrived with a signed letter saying they had taken part in a rally from Sept. 28 and might have broken laws under the Public Order Ordinance. In a post on the movement’s Twitter page Wednesday, Tai said: “We’ve been allowed to leave with no restrictions, not arrested… We may still be arrested later and charged with more serious offences,” Tai added.

Weather

The drought-parched state of California definitely needed a soaking rain event, but all this precipitation has also had negative consequences. Mudslides, rockslides and sinkholes have all been reported following days of rainfall across the state, leaving some streets flooded and residents in wildfire-scarred areas reaching for sandbags. Rain caused problems along the Pacific Coast Highway as early as Sunday, where rockslides were reported, but the Bay Area began seeing the heaviest precipitation on Tuesday. Street flooding was reported Tuesday morning in Mill Valley as vehicles tried to drive through the floodwaters. Nearly six inches of rain had fallen in parts of Monterey County by midday Wednesday. Flooded streets were also observed in parts of San Mateo, San Francisco, Alameda and Santa Clara counties Tuesday morning.

Rain is making an absolute mess in San Francisco. Street flooding has been reported. Public works says manhole covers are floating off sewers. Now a gaping sinkhole has formed in the city’s Richmond district. The large hole opened Wednesday morning at 6th and Lake, closing the intersection and causing an old water main to give way. The Associated Press reports the hole is at least 10-feet-wide and 8-feet-deep. Through Wednesday afternoon, San Francisco International Airport had reported 3.71 inches of rain since Sunday, which was more than the hub recorded in all of 2013. The airport received just 3.38 inches of rain last year

Signs of the Times (12/1/14)

December 1, 2014

UK Uncovers al-Qaida Plot to Blow Up Planes in ‘Christmas Spectacular’

Great Britain has discovered an al-Qaida terror plot to blow up five European passenger jets in a ‘Christmas spectacular,” according to a London newspaper. Quoting security sources, the newspaper said the threat was discovered about two months ago and would have involved militants smuggling bombs onto planes. It was taken so seriously that the government considered banning all luggage. According to the U.K.’s Sunday Express, the threat of a September 11-style attack on London and other major cities is considered imminent. “We’ve been told that five planes are being targeted in a high profile hit before Christmas. They’ve been waiting for the big one,” an airport security source told the newspaper. “High level negotiations are continuing at the governmental level but at the moment there has been little done to respond. There is paralysis because of the difficulty of banning hand luggage which is one of the strongest weapons we have against the new threats,” the source said, according to the Express. “The threat is aimed at Europe. The U.S. has improved their security over the summer but we have not. Everyone is expecting something catastrophic very soon,” the source said.

Majority of Americans say Things are Going Well

For the first time since 2007, a majority of Americans think things are going well in the nation, a new CNN/ORC International poll found. It’s a slim majority — just 52 percent of Americans said things are going well, while 48 percent said things are going badly — but it’s the most positive appraisal of the state of the nation that the poll has found since January of 2007. And it marks consistent improvement in the mood of the nation over the past few months, despite a series of national security crises and continued gridlock in Washington. Though just one-third of Americans believe the nation’s economy is starting to recover, it marks an 8-point increase from a year ago, when 24 percent said the same. A plurality, 41 percent, say the economy has stabilized, a 5-point improvement from November of 2013. And just 26 percent of Americans say the country’s economic conditions are getting worse, a decline from the 39 percent who said so in 2013.

Protesters Target Black Friday/Ferguson

One of the St. Louis area’s most popular shopping malls was closed for more than an hour on Black Friday when people protesting the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case marched into the Galleria and lay down on the third floor. It was one of several protests around the country that targeted the rush of crowds in downtown shopping centers and suburban malls, some causing temporary or early closures and leaving broken storefront windows. Protests in the San Francisco area shut down a key commuter train for about an hour, while those in Seattle attempted to stop the city’s tree-lighting ceremony. At least three dozen people were arrested. Activists are calling for students to walk out of school and employees to walk off the job nationwide at 1 p.m. ET Monday to protest police violence.

The St. Louis Police Organization is demanding ‘a very public apology’ from the National Football League and the St. Louis Rams after five Rams players stood with hands raised before Sunday’s game in a so-called ‘don’t shoot’ protest over Ferguson grand jury decision to not indict the police officer who shot a Ferguson teenager. The group called the display ‘offensive and inflammatory.’

ObamaCare’s Small Business Site Opens to Scant Interest

A long-delayed section of the federal health care exchange website intended to help small business owners enroll their employees in health insurance plans for 2015 has drawn relatively little interest compared to the site’s plans for individuals. The Washington Post, citing data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, reported Sunday that the home page for the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) drew 200,000 visits during its first week. By contrast, more than 1.5 million people visited Healthcare.gov’s plan page for individuals over the same period. It was not immediately clear how many employers have offered health coverage to their employees through the plans or how many employees have bought them. The Post also reported that insurers are having trouble accessing their accounts on the site and are not appearing in the system’s master lists of professionals available to advise small businesses.

Fewer Shoppers Hit the Stores on Black Friday

The National Retail Federation, which tracks customer visits to stores as well as sales, reported that 5.1 million fewer people were out shopping on Black Friday than last year. That was a decline of about 7%.On Thanksgiving Day itself, when many of the largest retailers opened with door-buster deals between 6 and 8 p.m., the retail group found that around 1.8 million fewer shoppers went out than last year. Overall, traffic was also down over the long weekend: About 5% fewer shoppers visited stores from Thanksgiving through Sunday. More people are shopping online, and the holiday deals (in stores and online) are less concentrated on the one four-day weekend than they used to be.

Ebola Update

The number of confirmed, probable and suspected cases of Ebola in the current outbreak has surpassed 16,000, according to the World Health Organization, with nearly 7,000 deaths from those cases. Liberia has been hit hardest, with the WHO reporting 7,244 confirmed and potential cases as well as 4,181 deaths. Both numbers reported Friday are significantly higher than those released earlier in the week. The WHO and other health agencies have long said the scale of the Ebola outbreak is likely significantly worse than even the current high numbers indicate, because many people died before they could be diagnosed and many contracted the disease in remote areas without ready access to health care.

The head of the UN Ebola response mission in West Africa has told the BBC there is still a “huge risk” the deadly disease could spread to other parts of the world. Two months ago, the World Health Organization launched an ambitious plan to stop the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa, aiming to isolate 70 per cent of the sick and to have 70 per cent safe burials in the three hardest-hit countries— Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — by December 1st, marking another failure in attempts to slow the biggest-ever outbreak of the deadly disease.. Only Guinea is on track to meet the goal, according to an update from WHO released Monday. In Liberia, only 23 per cent of cases are isolated and 26 per cent of the needed burial teams are in place. In Sierra Leone, about 40 per cent of cases are isolated while 27 per cent of burial teams are operational.

26th World AIDS Day

People around the world Monday will join forces to show their support for those living with the AIDS virus, as well as those who have died from the disease, when the 26th World AIDS Day is marked. An estimated 34 million people are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and more than 35 million have died from the disease. This year’s theme is “Focus, Partner, Achieve: An AIDS-free Generation.” Ahead of World AIDS Day, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) urged more investment and access to treatment for children. The group said that 1.1 million infections among children under 15 have been averted, but that more needs to be done. UNICEF said that while all other age groups have experienced a decline of nearly 40% in AIDS-related deaths between 2005 and 2013, those ages 10-19 are the only group in which AIDS-related deaths are not decreasing.

Economic News

OPEC’s decision to maintain oil-production levels could threaten financing for some U.S. oil industry expansion and trigger market consolidation in an only-the-strong-survive scenario, economists and analysts said Friday. Much of the recent increase in U.S. oil production, the product of fracking and drilling in North Dakota, Colorado and elsewhere, is funded with borrowed money, said Philip Verleger, an economist and energy industry consultant who forecast an abrupt end to the trend. U.S. oil production won’t necessarily fall sharply in the short term, because companies with existing wells can survive even if oil prices drop to $50 to $55 a barrel.

Oil prices plunged to their lowest level in five years Monday, piling pressure on Russia and other producers and raising the risk of deflation in Europe. Crude oil collapsed below $65 per barrel as new data confirmed a slowdown in manufacturing activity in Europe and China, and as OPEC’s decision not to cut output continued to roil markets. Russia depends heavily on oil revenue, and stands to lose billions from the market rout. The ruble plumbed new depths, tumbling more than 4% to hit a fresh low against the dollar. Slower global growth is one reason for the oil supply glut. The U.S. energy boom is another.

Crude oil’s latest plunge hit the energy sector hard again Friday, but consumers are likely to see a new round of softening gasoline prices well into the holiday season. Pump prices, already 49 cents lower than year-ago levels to a national average of $2.79 a gallon Friday – are expected to come down at least another 19 cents, to $2.60. But a handful of states, including Missouri, Oklahoma and South Carolina, could soon see sub- $2 gas, says Tom Kloza, senior analyst with the Oil Price Information Service.

Middle East

A Palestinian teenage girl with a knife assaulted an Israeli man Monday in the West Bank, adding another attack to a chain of ethnic violence. Israeli security officers opened fire on the Palestinian teenager. She sustained “serious injuries.” The knifing victim was “lightly wounded.” In recent weeks, Palestinian attackers killed and injured Israelis in gun, knife and car attacks. Israeli police have responded by shooting dead most of the assailants. Similar tensions over the killings of Israeli teens and Palestinian boys marked the run-up to the military conflict between Israel and Gaza in the summer, which took dozens of Israeli lives and more than 2,500 Palestinian lives.

Islamic State

As United Nations statistics estimate that over 5 million children’s lives have been affected in Syria as a result of the Islamic State’s ongoing jihad, U.N. officials are saying that ISIS has created new and more barbaric ways to utilize children in the conflict, including using them as human shields and forcing them to donate blood to injured militants. Although some children are used in more civil and “domestic” roles like “cooking, cleaning, bringing water or providing medical aid to the wounded,” some children are thrust to the front lines and used in military roles like combatants or human shields. According to testimony from an escaped 15-year-old former ISIS fighter, the militant leaders are also forcing child fighters to take anti-anxiety pills in order to make them more likely to follow through on a suicide attack.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria has stepped up its attacks on the militant Islamist group’s de facto capital, with 30 airstrikes targeting Raqqa overnight, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday. Last week, almost 100 people were killed in Syrian government airstrikes in Raqqa, the observatory said. Many more were critically injured. Extremists have made the city, which sits on the banks of the Euphrates River, the de facto capital of their self-declared “Islamic State” that stretches across large areas of Syria and Iraq. The city is known as a place where ISIS puts training centers, weapons depots and accommodations for fighters.

The Islamic State group launched an attack Saturday on the Syrian border town of Kobani from Turkey. The assault began when a suicide bomber driving an armored vehicle detonated his explosives on the border crossing between Kobani and Turkey in order to attack Kobani from four sides. Turkey, while previously backing the Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad in that country’s civil war, has been hesitant to aid them in Kobani because it fears that could stoke Kurdish ambitions for an independent state.

Iraq

In its fight against Islamist terror militia ISIS, the Iraqi army may be weakened from within by corrupt soldiers not showing for duty — 50,000 of them. Maybe more. “Ghost” soldiers are members of the armed forces, who pay off their commanders with a portion of their salaries, so they don’t have to man their posts. Investigators are looking for additional cases, and expect many more to turn up. The Prime Minister vowed to punish those responsible. ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has captured and held broad swaths of territory in Iraq’s north and west. Iraqi military forces have often appeared in disarray while doing battle against the extremists.

Afghanistan

Violence raged yet again Saturday in Afghanistan, including a battle at a sprawling military base that British troops gave up last month and an attack on a home for aid workers in Kabul. Taliban insurgents began an assault Thursday night on Camp Bastion, a facility in Helmand province that Britain handed over to Afghan authorities on October 14. At least five Afghan troops and nine Taliban fighters have been killed.

Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen attacked a foreign guesthouse near parliament in the Afghan capital Saturday, the latest assault targeting foreigners as NATO troops withdraw from the country. Police and intelligence officers quickly surrounded the scene of the attack, a guesthouse home to Europeans working for the Afghan government. The Taliban said in a statement that it had launched the suicide attack on “a secret missionary center” in the city’s west. The militants have waged a series of large-scale attacks on Kabul in recent days, including an assault in the upscale Wazir Akbar Khan district home to embassies and international agencies and the suicide bombing of a British embassy vehicle. There have been about a dozen attacks in the past two weeks alone.

Egypt

An Egyptian court on Saturday dismissed murder charges against former President Hosni Mubarak in connection with the killing of hundreds of protesters in the 2011 uprising that ended his nearly three-decade rule, citing the “inadmissibility” of the case due to a technicality. The ruling marks another major setback for the young activists who spearheaded the Arab Spring-inspired uprising nearly four years ago — many of whom are now in jail or have withdrawn from politics. Saturday’s verdict concludes Mubarak’s retrial along with his two sons, his security chief and six top security commanders, who were all acquitted. Also acquitted was wealthy businessman Hussein Salem, a longtime Mubarak friend tried in absentia. Mubarak, 86, was also acquitted of corruption charges that he faced along with his sons Alaa and Gamal — his one-time heir apparent — over a statute of limitations. It will likely reinforce the perception that Mubarak’s autocratic state remains in place, albeit led by a new president, former military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. It was not immediately clear whether Mubarak would now be freed since he is serving a three-year jail term for corruption charges he was convicted of in May.

Nigeria

More than 102 people were killed in the bomb explosions at the central mosque in Kano, Nigeria. Hundreds had gathered in the mosque Friday to listen to a sermon in a region terrorized by attacks from the extremist group Boko Haram. Multiple explosions ripped through the mosque. Boko Haram has not claimed responsibility, but the attack bears the hallmarks of the militant group that has carried out numerous such attacks in northern Nigeria. More than 1,500 have been killed this year in the insurgency. It may seem counterintuitive that Islamist militants should attack a mosque, but since its early days, Boko Haram has targeted the Muslim “establishment” in Nigeria, accusing it of not defending the interests of Nigeria’s 80 million Muslims, of corruption and of “perverting” Islam.

China

An attack in China’s troubled western Xinjiang region left 15 people dead and 14 injured, state media reported Saturday, the latest in a wave of ethnic violence there that has claimed dozens of lives over the past year. 11 of the 15 people killed were assailants. The official Xinhua News Agency reported that the attack took place at a “food street” Friday in Shache County, the same region where state media said a series of attacks in July left 96 people dead, including 59 assailants. The assailants in Friday’s attack wielded explosives, knives and at least one vehicle. Members of the Muslim Uighur (WEE-gur) minority group have bristled under what they say is repressive Chinese government rule.

Hong Kong

Clashes between Hong Kong police and protesters overnight Sunday and Monday morning marked a violent escalation for the more than two month-old pro-democracy movement in the South China port city, where many residents resent the restrictions that Beijing has set on the territory’s next leadership elections in 2017. To increase pressure on Hong Kong authorities, who have refused to make any concessions to protesters’ demands, a leading student group urged protesters Sunday night to surround government headquarters in Admiralty, close to the main protest site in the city’s financial district. Running battles ensued for hours as riot police deployed pepper spray, batons and water hoses to stop activists storming government buildings and laying siege to the office of Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying.

Uruguay

Ruling party candidate Tabare Vazquez easily won Uruguay’s presidential election on Sunday, returning to power a left-leaning coalition that has legalized gay marriage and moved to create the world’s first state-run marijuana marketplace. The runoff vote had drawn international attention because Vazquez’s rival, center-right candidate Luis Lacalle Pou, had promised to undo much of the plan. Sunday’s win marked a reversal of roles for Vazquez, who shook up Uruguayan politics when he became president his first time, peacefully ending 170 years of two-party dominance.

Volcanoes

A moderate earthquake that struck northern Arizona was widely felt around the tourist town of Sedona, but there were no reports of injury or damage. The U.S. Geological Survey says the magnitude-4.7 temblor that hit Sunday night was centered 7 miles north of Sedona and 6 miles underground. Area residents reported feeling shaking and swaying. The USGS website recorded 1,000 responses within an hour of the quake from people — mainly in Flagstaff and Sedona — saying they felt the quake. The Arizona Department of Transportation says crews removed some rocks and debris from a highway connecting Sedona and Flagstaff.

Weather

The small town of Cody, Wyoming, was taken by surprise when hurricane-force winds whipped the area, causing power outages, uprooting a power pole and transformers and blowing out windows. Chinook winds developed along parts of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains on Friday. This strong downslope wind brought wind gusts of over 80 mph to some locations. The highest wind gust reported was 117 mph near Clark, Wyoming, and the high wind warnings continued into Sunday for parts of Wyoming and Colorado.

Days of heavy rain in the Mediterranean region of southeastern France triggered flash floods and severe flooding that killed at least four people and left two missing. The region has experienced rain off and on since Monday, with the heaviest rainfall on Thursday into Friday. More than 4 inches of rain fell on Hyères, France,; the area typically sees that much rain in a month. All of that rain has saturated the soil, leading to deadly flash flooding events and widespread river flooding.