Signs of the Times (12/26/14)

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.

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