Signs of the Times (2/12/15)

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. (Matthew 24:6-8)

Islamic State

On Tuesday, the family of American Kayla Mueller being held hostage by ISIS, revealed devastating news. They received it, officials said, in a message from her captors. “We are heartbroken to share that we’ve received confirmation that Kayla Jean Mueller has lost her life,” the family said in a statement. ISIS sent the family a private message over the weekend, National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said. “Once this information was authenticated by the intelligence community, they concluded that Kayla was deceased,” Meehan said. She apparently died in a Jordanian, airstrike. Kayla might have been an ISIS ‘bride’ during her captivity, U.S. intelligence and government officials said Wednesday.

In its short, bloody existence, ISIS has taken dozens of international hostages. Often it has sought ransoms for them to swell its coffers, and some governments have reportedly handed over hefty sums of cash. In other cases, where money isn’t forthcoming, the Islamic militant group has publicized its barbaric killings of the hostages, in an effort to score propaganda points with its extremist followers. However, the number of foreign captives killed by ISIS is dwarfed by the masses of Iraqis and Syrians slaughtered under the militants’ murderous rule over parts of the region.

Judicial Defiance in Alabama: Same-Sex Marriages Begin, but Most Counties Refuse

On the day that same-sex unions became legal in Alabama, local officials in dozens of counties on Monday defied a federal judge’s decision and refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, casting the state into judicial chaos. Gay couples were able to get licenses in about a dozen places, including Birmingham, Huntsville and a few other counties where probate judges complied with the judge’s decision. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled early Monday that it would deny Alabama’s request to put the marriages on hold. But in the majority of counties, officials said they would refuse to license same-sex marriages or stop providing licenses altogether, confronting couples — gay and heterosexual — with locked doors and shuttered windows.

Hundreds of Churches Observe ‘Evolution Sunday’ as Others Celebrate ‘Creation Sunday’

Some 500 churches in the U.S. will celebrate “Evolution Sunday” this coming week to recognize Charles Darwin’s birthday. In response, other churches will celebrate “Creation Sunday” instead. Darwin’s birthday, which is Feb. 12, is called International Darwin Day by the atheists that celebrate the occasion. Congregations who have pledged to celebrate “Evolution Sunday” have the most participants in California, Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. Tony Breeden, the founder and organizer for Creation Sunday, says “If I can’t trust the plain meaning of the Bible in Genesis because of the all-natural presuppositions of science, why should I trust it when it speaks of a Virgin birth, water turning into wine, the resurrection of Christ, or any other supernatural claim in the Bible?” Breeden told Christian News Network. “It’s a slippery slope and it undermines the foundational basis of the Gospel itself.”

New Jersey Teen Wins Court Case against Atheists

A New Jersey teenager who stood up against atheists seeking to legally remove the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, declared victory in court last Friday after a state judge dismissed the case. The teenager, Samantha Jones, a senior at Highland Regional High School celebrated what she describes as the right of her fellow students to keep reciting the pledge of allegiance in its entirety according to a release from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented her. A state judge dismissed the case brought by the American Humanist Association seeking to gut “one nation under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance after hearing Jones and her family’s testimony against it. This is the second time a state court has stopped the American Humanist Association from outlawing the federal pledge. Their first state-level suit, raising identical claims, was unanimously rejected by Massachusetts’ highest court last year, according to the Becket Fund.

University of Vermont adds ‘Neutral’ as Third Gender

The University of Vermont now officially recognizes “neutral” as a “third gender” option for its students who’ll also be allowed to be referred to with “gender neutral” pronouns, The New York Times reports. The university, a public institution of some 12,700 students, allows students to select their own identity, which includes a new first name even if they have not legally changed it, as well as a chosen pronoun. The school records such details concerning students’ preferences in its information system to enable professors to use the “right” terminology. Just as the transgender community has increasingly been using the pronoun “They” instead of “he” or “she,” the school wants to use the same. School officials say the university is the first school in the United States to allow students to choose their own pronouns.

  • Absurd just got absurder.

President Obama has Asked Congress to Approve Military Force against ISIS

President Barack Obama asked Congress on Wednesday to formally authorize the use of military force in the war against ISIS. Lawmakers on Wednesday morning received a draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force a resolution that would formally authorize a six month U.S. military effort against the militant group. There is broad support in Congress for a formal AUMF, though lawmakers disagree on the scope of the military powers that should be handed to the President.

Avowed Atheist Kills Three Muslims

A man who portrayed himself as an avowed atheist on social media was in custody early Wednesday after allegedly gunning down three Muslim students in a condominium complex near the University of North Carolina hours earlier. Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, was charged with three counts of first-degree murder after turning himself in to police in Chapel Hill overnight. a Facebook page in Hicks’ name described him as a supporter of “Atheists for Equality” and in a recent post he asked “why radical Christians and radical Muslims are so opposed to each others’ influence when they agree about so many ideological issues.” The victims’ religion and Hicks’ outspoken beliefs fueled broad online speculation that the murders were a hate crime.

  • Atheists typically blame religious zealots for the world’s violence, but now it seems that their own brand of blind faith produces the same result.

300 Migrants Dead or Missing in Mediterranean Crossing

Around 300 migrants are thought to have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, the United Nations refugee agency said Wednesday. The incident happened off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. Survivors coming ashore Wednesday reported that four rubber boats attempted to make the journey from Libya to Europe in frigid temperatures. Another 29 people died from hypothermia Monday off Lampedusa — which is about 70 miles from Tunisia — in what the UNHCR said was the first major maritime loss of life this year. They, too, were traveling from North Africa to Italy. A significantly higher number of migrants have tried to cross the sea on smugglers’ boats in the first few weeks of 2015, compared with the same period last year. More than 218,000 people crossed the Mediterranean through irregular routes last year and about 3,500 people died trying, the UNHCR said.

Two Australian Men Arrested before ‘Imminent’ Terror Attack

Two Sydney men were charged on Wednesday with planning to launch an imminent terrorist attack, after police seized a homemade flag associated with the Islamic State group, a machete and a hunting knife in a counterterrorism raid. The men, aged 24 and 25, would have carried out the attack on Tuesday if they had not been arrested that day in the raid in the Sydney suburb of Fairfield, New South Wales state Deputy Police Commissioner Catherine Burn told reporters. A video that was seized in the raid showed one of the men making threats while kneeling in front of the Islamic State flag.

  • Such ‘lone wolf’ attacks are on the rise worldwide at the urging of the Islamic State

Congress Approves Keystone XL Pipeline Bill, Setting up Veto Showdown

The House gave final congressional approval Wednesday to legislation to complete the Keystone XL oil pipeline — setting up the first veto showdown between President Obama and the new, Republican-controlled Congress. The 270-to-152 vote showed broad bipartisan support for the legislation, but not enough to reach the two-thirds majority, or 281 votes, needed to override a presidential veto. Obama is vowing to veto the bill if delivered to him before all of the pending studies and court cases are completed. “As we have made clear, the president will veto this bill,” a White House official told Fox News Wednesday night.

World’s Largest Solar Plant Opens in California Desert

The Southern California desert is now home to the world’s largest solar power plant. U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell joined state officials on Monday to open the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight solar project in the town of Desert Center, Calif., near Joshua Tree National Park. Built by First Solar, the project generates enough electricity to power 160,000 average California homes. Desert Sunlight received a federal loan of nearly $1.5 billion, and Jewell called its completion an example of the loan guarantee program’s importance. “When you are stepping out with new technology, when you are trying something that has been untested before, a loan guarantee program from an organization like the Department of Energy is what provides you, as a lender, that certainty that you can step up and support the project,” Jewell told The Desert Sun.

Apple to Build $848 Million Solar Plant

Apple CEO Tim Cook on Tuesday announced Apple’s “biggest and boldest project ever,” a partnership with First Solar to build an $848 million, 1,300-acre solar plant in Monterey County. The plant will power Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., its data center in Newark, Calif., and all Apple offices and 52 Apple stores in California, resulting in significant energy cost savings for Apple. The solar project is part of the California Flats project on Hearst’s 73,000-acre Jack Ranch in Monterey County and may be one of the largest ever built for a commercial user.

Nearly One Billion Monarch Butterflies Have Vanished

Threatened animals like elephants, porpoises and lions grab all the headlines, but what’s happening to monarch butterflies is nothing short of a massacre. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service summed it up in just one grim statistic on Monday: Since 1990, about 970 million have vanished. The cause: farmers and homeowners sprayed herbicides on milkweed plants, which serve as the butterflies’ nursery, food source and home. In an attempt to counter two decades of destruction, the Fish and Wildlife Service launched a partnership with two private conservation groups, the National Wildlife Federation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, to basically grow milkweed like crazy in the hopes of saving the monarchs. Fish and Wildlife is reviewing a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity to list monarch butterflies as an endangered species that requires special protection to survive. The agency is providing $2 million for on the ground conservation projects.

One-Third of Americans Use Alternative Medicine

About a third of Americans seek help for their health in a place that is outside their doctor’s office, according to two new studies from the National Institutes of Health. Fish oil, probiotics, melatonin, deep breathing, chiropractors and yoga were among some of the alternatives Americans use to feel better. Most Americans who use these nontraditional approaches do so as a complement to conventional care. Only about 5% of Americans use alternative medicine exclusively. People seek this extra help to relieve pain from chronic conditions, to improve their health overall, and to relieve stress, according to the report.

Economic News

Manufacturers will significantly accelerate their use of robots in U.S. factories over the next decade as they become cheaper and perform more tasks, constraining payroll growth, according to a study out Tuesday. The development is expected to dramatically boost productivity and slow the long-standing migration of factories across the globe to take advantage of low-cost labor, says the Boston Consulting Group report. A handful of nations, including the U.S. and China, are poised to reap the biggest benefits of the automation wave. About 1.2 million additional advanced robots are expected to be deployed in the U.S. by 2025, BCG says.

China fined chipmaker Qualcomm 6 billion yuan ($975 million) in the biggest of a wave of anti-monopoly penalties that have rattled foreign companies. Qualcomm Inc. abused its dominance in wireless technology to charge manufacturers “unfairly high” licensing fees, a Cabinet agency announced Tuesday. Qualcomm, one of the biggest makers of chips used in mobile phones, said Monday it also agreed to change some of its practices for licensing technology to Chinese companies. China is the world’s biggest producer of mobile phones and other wireless devices, and Beijing has complained about the high cost of technology licenses. China has launched a series of anti-monopoly investigations over the past two years against foreign automakers, technology suppliers and other companies in an apparent effort to force down prices.

The U.S. oil boom is slowing down as drillers cut back in response to lower crude prices, according to new data set to be released on Wednesday. Companies drilled 28% fewer oil wells in January across the continental U.S. that they did last June before crude oil prices dropped precipitously from over $100 per barrel to under $50. Oil service giant Halliburton (HAL) said Tuesday that it is laying off as many as 6,400 workers, becoming the latest such company to slash staff amid tumbling crude prices.

The former Federal Reserve Chairman told the BBC that Greece’s best course of action is to leave the Eurozone. But Greenspan didn’t stop there. He predicts Greece’s exit is the beginning of the end for the euro. “Short of a political union, I find it very difficult to foresee the euro holding together in its current form,” Greenspan said. He says the currency union is too complex unless Europe decides to have one unified governing body to call all the shots.

  • Which would constitute the prophesied end-time emergence of the revived Roman Empire (Daniel 7:7-8,23-24; Revelation 17:12-13)

Ukraine

The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany on Thursday announced a comprehensive peace deal for eastern Ukraine following marathon talks in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said the agreement envisages a cease-fire starting Sunday, a special status for rebel regions, provisions on border controls and humanitarian issues. But Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the talks did not include any agreement on autonomy or federalization for eastern Ukraine, a longtime demand of Russia. The deal requires the Ukrainian parliament to give wide powers to the eastern regions as a condition for restoring Ukraine’s full control over the border — a provision certain to trigger heated political debate in Ukraine.

War-torn Ukraine has secured a new $40 billion international bailout package, a deal which should help stabilize the country’s reeling economy. Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, announced the deal at a press conference in Brussels. The agreement covers four years and includes $17.5 billion from the IMF, complemented by other organizations and countries.

Iran

US President Barack Obama told a news conference at the White House on Monday that he will not approve of more extensions in nuclear talks with Iran. He said that Iran must make a decision about its renegade nuclear program, adding that he had “very real differences” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding the best approach to the problem. Obama added that the only question remaining is, “Does Iran have the political will and desire to get a deal done?” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif spoke at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday, signaling his government’s readiness to accept a deal. However, Israeli officials and the Republican opposition in the US Congress have strongly disagreed with Obama’s optimistic appraisal of the situation, saying the threat posed by Iran has not diminished and the agreement currently nearing final approval leaves many key issues unresolved.

Lake Urmia in northwest Iran, once supported farmers and thousands of tourists. The extreme salinity of what used to be the largest lake in the Middle East allowed people to swim and relax without sinking. Over the last 20 years, however, the salt lake has almost completely dried up along with the area’s agriculture and economy. According to the United Nations Development Program, the lake has shrunk by two-thirds since 1997 due to Iran’s water crisis and detrimental agricultural policies.

Yemen

The United States and Britain abruptly closed their embassies in Yemen on Wednesday, while France announced it would close its embassy on Friday, amid deteriorating security conditions after the takeover of the country by Shiite rebels. In a separate travel warning, the State Dept. said it currently had no plans for a government-sponsored evacuation of American citizens but urged extreme caution amid an ongoing risk of kidnapping. In a statement Wednesday on its website, the French embassy said the offices would close as of Friday, and told French citizens to leave the country “as soon as possible.” Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest country and it has been in crisis for months as fighters led by Iran-linked Abdel-Malek al-Houthi last week dissolved parliament and claimed formal control of the government.

China

A majority of American companies operating in China are having trouble recruiting senior executives from abroad due to rising concerns over intense air pollution. Fifty-three percent of firms are having trouble filling executive roles, according to a survey released Wednesday by Bain & Company and the American Chamber of Commerce in China. Some of the world’s most polluted cities are located in China, and residents are speaking out in greater numbers about choking air pollution, contaminated food, and water that is unsafe to drink. American businesses also complained of receiving a chilly welcome in the world’s second-largest economy. Forty-seven percent of respondents said they felt less welcome in China than before, and only 10% said they felt more at home.

Earthquakes

According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, Oklahoma had three times as many earthquakes as California and remains well ahead in 2015. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure to fracture shale rocks to release natural gas inside, is believed to be the major factor in increasing seismic activity in the Midwest. Though earthquakes have proven more deadly on the West Coast, none in the Midwest have resulted in deaths. The largest Midwest quake in recent years – a magnitude 5.7 – was centered near Prague, Oklahoma, on Nov. 5, 2011, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Weather

After nearly 6 feet of snow in 17 days, transportation infrastructure in parts of New England reached a breaking point Tuesday, particularly in Massachusetts, where the governor declared a state of emergency. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) suspended all rail service through Tuesday, saying the snow was making it “virtually impossible” to keep its trolleys, commuter trains or subway lines safely running. More than 2,000 domestic flights were canceled Monday. As of Tuesday morning, Boston has received 77.3 inches of snow this season. More than 72 inches of snow have fallen in the last 17 days at Boston Logan International Airport, shattering the old 30-day record of 58.8 inches. A Valentine’s weekend snowstorm is increasingly possible in New England, with the potential to dump a foot or more of additional snowfall on snow-weary locations such as Bangor, Maine and Boston.

While parts of the East will see some of the coldest temperatures in years in some cases, the West will experience record warm temperatures. A ridge of high pressure will keep temperatures warm from the Rockies to the West Coast through this weekend. Much of the West and even parts of the Plains have seen warm conditions so far this month with many record warm temperatures broken and more record-breaking warmth is on the way. High temperatures will be 10 to 20 degrees above average in many locations west of the Rockies through Sunday. High temperatures will climb into the 60s as far north as Seattle and in parts of Montana. Parts of the western United States are struggling with only paltry amounts of snow this winter. The snowpack is extremely low at many locations in the Cascade Range and California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Underwater volcanoes could have a long-term effect on Earth’s climate cycles. A new study out of Columbia University shows that these hidden giants are not only tied to the Earth’s orbit and tidal cycles, but also trigger climate swings. The study, published recently in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, analyzed 25 years of seismic data from submarine volcanoes. The study found that underwater volcanism affects the climate by emitting varying levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, then, could trigger a cycle of global warming. While the link between marine volcanism and global climate cycles is not definite, the study opens the way for other scientists to explore the relationship between the Earth’s crust and the ozone layer.

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