Signs of the Times (6/5/15)

Faith Groups hold Prayer Rally at Phoenix Mosque

Three days after a rally outside a Phoenix mosque pitted freedom of speech against freedom of religion, faith groups from across the area held a prayer rally at the very place where protesters clashed. Their purpose was to show that “when one of us is mistreated, our community responds with a message of love and not hate.” The “Love is Stronger than Hate” rally Monday evening at the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix gathered members of the Arizona Faith Network, the Women’s Jewish Learning Center and the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Arizona, among others. Attendees were asked to bring flowers, which were placed on the window sills of the mosque as a sign of solidarity and peace, according to program moderator Dr. Mounib Shaban.

  • But let’s not forget that this is the mosque that produced the terrorists who were foiled in an attack in Garland, Texas. We must also pray against extremist Islamic violence.

Federal Court Strikes Down Idaho Law Banning Abortions after 20 Weeks

A pro-life law in Idaho that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks has been struck down. A federal appeals court ruled that banning abortions after 20 weeks is unconstitutional. The ruling comes just weeks after the House of Representatives approved a bill that banned abortions after 20 weeks. In the ruling, Judge Harry Pregerson wrote that the Idaho law “places an arbitrary time limit on when women can obtain abortions.” Pro-life activists have said that the time limit is not arbitrary and that the law is poised to go before the Supreme Court. New studies reportedly have shown that babies can survive even earlier in pregnancy and that unborn babies feel pain at 20 weeks.

Millennials May Be the Least Religious Generation in American History

According to new research led by San Diego State University, millennials may be the least religious generation in the history of America. For the study, the team looked at how more than 11 million teens responded to questions about faith, religious organizations, spirituality, prayer and meditation, dating back to the mid-1960s. They found that the group who are now millennials are the least religious ever recorded. “Millennial adolescents are less religious than Boomers and GenX’ers were at the same age,” states the report. “More of today’s adolescents are abandoning religion before they reach adulthood, with an increasing number not raised with religion at all.”

Homeland Security to Beef up Airport Security after 95% Failure Rate

Random covert testing, intensive training and equipment checks are among several changes Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced Monday after an internal investigation found flaws in the nation’s airport security screening system. ABC News first reported Monday that undercover agents were able to smuggle prohibited items, such as mock explosives or weapons, through TSA checkpoints in 67 out of 70 attempts. Among the Transportation Security Administration changes proposed include: revising procedures to directly address the vulnerabilities cited in the report; sharing the results of testing with airport officials across the country; training for all transportation security officers at every airport; testing and retesting of equipment used at airports; requesting that inspector general and the TSA to conduct ongoing “random covert testing” of security practices; and appointing a team of TSA and DHS leaders to make sure the changes are implemented. Johnson also announced Monday that, effective immediately, TSA acting administrator Melvin Carraway is being reassigned

Bill to Resume, Overhaul NSA Surveillance Enacted

President Obama Tuesday night signed legislation that passed Congress only hours earlier, restarting — but also overhauling — controversial government surveillance programs that went dark over the weekend after lawmakers missed a key deadline. In a 67-32 vote, the Senate approved the so-called USA Freedom Act. The legislation had already won approval in the House. The vote came after key surveillance programs — most notably, the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records — were suspended Sunday after Congress missed the deadline for reauthorization. The USA Freedom Act would resume the NSA data collection program, but only for a transition period of six months. After that, the legislation would no longer allow the NSA to sweep up Americans’ records in bulk, leaving the records with phone companies and giving the government the ability to seek access with a warrant; the legislation also calls for the creation of a panel to provide the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court with guidance on privacy and civil liberties matter. And, it will increase transparency for the surveillance court’s decisions.

FBI Conducting Aerial Spy Flights over U.S. Cities

The FBI is operating a small air force with scores of low-flying planes across the country carrying video and, at times, cellphone surveillance technology — all hidden behind fictitious companies that are fronts for the government, The Associated Press reported Tuesday. The planes’ surveillance equipment is generally used without a judge’s approval, and the FBI said the flights are used for specific, ongoing investigations. In a recent 30-day period, the agency flew above more than 30 cities in 11 states across the country, an AP review found. Aerial surveillance represents a changing frontier for law enforcement, providing what the government maintains is an important tool in criminal, terrorism or intelligence probes. But the program raises questions about whether there should be updated policies protecting civil liberties as new technologies pose intrusive opportunities for government spying.

Health Insurers Seek Big Premium Hikes for ObamaCare Plans in 2016

Dozens of health insurers selling plans under ObamaCare have requested hefty premium increases for 2016, according to preliminary information published Monday by the White House. The insurers have cited higher-than-expected care costs from customers they gained under the ObamaCare’s coverage expansion and the rising cost of prescription drugs and other expenses as reasons for proposing the big increases. Among the market leaders, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina is seeking a roughly 26 percent premium increase, while plans in Illinois and Florida, among other states, are asking for hikes of 20 percent or more. In Pennsylvania, Highmark Health Insurance Co. is asking for a 30 percent increase.

  • Healthcare cost containment was one of Obamacare’s touted benefits, yet another false government promise

South Korean MERS Outbreak Likely to Spread

A MERS outbreak in South Korea — the largest outside Saudi Arabia, where the disease first emerged in 2012 — is likely to grow, the World Health Organization said Tuesday. MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, has infected at least 35 people in South Korea and killed three, according to the World Health Organization. South Korean officials have isolated 1,369 people in quarantine to limit the spread of the disease, which spreads when sick people cough. There have been at least 1,154 lab-confirmed cases of MERS worldwide since 2012, along with 431 deaths — a mortality rate of 37%.MERS belongs to the same family of viruses as SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which was identified in 2003.

Major U.S. Government Hack, China Suspected

Four million current and former federal employees, from nearly every government agency, might have had their personal information stolen by Chinese hackers, U.S. investigators said Thursday. U.S. officials believe this could be the biggest breach ever of the government’s computer networks. The breach was initially thought to have impacted the Office of Personnel Management and the Department of Interior. But government officials said nearly every federal government agency was hit by the hackers. An assessment continues, and it is possible millions more government employees may be affected. U.S. investigators believe they can trace the breach to the Chinese government. Hackers working for the Chinese military are believed to be compiling a massive database of Americans, intelligence officials say. China, of course, denies the allegations.

IRS: Cyber-Thieves Stole Up to $39M

Cyber-thieves responsible for a large IRS data breach stole as much as $39 million by filing fraudulent tax refunds after gaining access to taxpayer information, the IRS reported Tuesday. The federal inspector general who oversees the IRS predicted the agency could face additional computer attacks as preliminary investigation results show the cyber-thieves were part of an effort operated from Internet domains in Russia and other countries. The cyber-thieves made approximately 200,000 attempts to get taxpayer data via the IRS “get transcript” application — an interactive program that enables legitimate taxpayers to access copies of their own federal tax returns from previous years. Roughly half of an estimated 200,000 “get transcript” attempts cyber-thieves launched between mid-February and mid-May succeeded in gaining illegal access to taxpayer data.

The U.S. and World Economies are Slowing Down

The world economy is on track to grow less this year than last year, according to the latest forecast from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In March, the OECD was projecting 4% global economic growth for 2015. On Wednesday, it slashed that to 3.1% — which would be less than the 3.3% growth the world saw last year. Two of the largest engines of the world economy — United States and China — have already slowed down. The OECD slashed its U.S. 2015 growth projection from 3.1% to 2%. If that comes to pass, it would be a dip from last year’s 2.4% GDP. In the U.S., the strong dollar has been a drag on growth. American companies are losing money overseas and foreigners aren’t buying as many U.S. goods since they appear more expensive. China simply wasn’t able to sustain its incredible growth, and that has had ripple effects around the world. Manufacturing and exports have cooled.

Economic News

The labor market’s spring rebound strengthened in May as U.S. employers added 280,000 jobs, soundly topping economists’ estimates. America has now added over a million new jobs so far in 2015. The unemployment rate rose to 5.5% from 5.4%, the Labor Department said Friday. That’s largely because an improving market drew an additional 400,000 Americans into the labor force, which includes those working and looking for jobs. Businesses added 262,000 jobs last month, led by solid gains in professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, and health care. Federal, state and local governments added 18,000. But oil companies continued to lay off workers in response to low crude prices. The mining and logging industry lost 18,000 jobs.

The U.S. trade deficit declined sharply in April as exports posted a modest gain and imports fell. The April deficit dropped 19.2 percent to $40.9 billion after surging to $50.6 billion in March, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. The March deficit had been the highest level since late 2008. In April, exports edged up 1 percent to $189.9 billion, led by a big rise in commercial airplane sales. Imports fell 3.3 percent to $230.8 billion. For the first four months of the year, the deficit is running 1 percent higher than the same period a year ago. American manufacturers have been hurt by a rise in the value of the dollar over the past year. The stronger dollar makes American goods more expensive on overseas markets and makes imports cheaper for U.S. consumers.

U.S. factory orders fell 0.4 percent in April, marking the eighth decline in nine months, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. Manufacturers have struggled in recent months with a pair of global economic pressures. The stronger dollar has increased the cost of U.S.-made goods overseas, cutting into sales in Europe and parts of Asia. At the same time, cheaper oil prices have slashed demand from energy firms for pipelines and equipment.

Construction spending surged 2.2% in April after slumping through the harsh winter. Outlays for home building increased 0.6%, and non-residential projects jumped 3.2%.An index of manufacturing activity, meanwhile, rose to 52.8 from 51.5 in April, the Institute for Supply Management said, the first increase since October. A reading above 50 indicates that the sector is expanding.

The world has too much oil. Don’t expect that to change any time soon. OPEC decided Friday morning not to cut oil production despite the fact that prices have tumbled 40% from a year ago. Analysts believe the cartel had no other choice but to keep pumping oil because of its fading grip on the market. OPEC used to make up about 60% of the global oil market. Today that number has shrunk to 40%, largely because of surging U.S. production. The good news for American drivers is that prices at the pump are likely to stay relatively low — the national average is currently $2.75 for a gallon of regular gas, versus over $3.60 a gallon a year ago.

New-car sales are running at near-peak levels, partly because many consumers are financing their purchases for longer terms. The average new car loan has reached a record 67 months, reports Experian. The percentage of loans with terms of 73 to 84 months also reached a new high of 29.5% in the first quarter of 2015, up from 24.9% a year earlier. Long-term used-vehicle loans also broke records with loan terms of 73 to 84 months reaching 16% in the first quarter 2015, up from 12.94% — also the highest on record.

  • Along with student loans, another consumer debt bubble is forming

Eurozone

Greece remains at loggerheads with its creditors over key economic reforms after a meeting between Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the head of the European Union’s executive arm failed to yield a breakthrough on the release of vital bailout loans. And with senior members of Greece’s governing radical left Syriza party stressing that they cannot accept a package of measures proposed by the country’s creditors, markets across Europe sank Thursday. With time running out, there are real fears that Athens won’t secure a deal that will see it get remaining bailout funds to avoid going bankrupt.

In a surprise, Eurozone inflation in May came in stronger than expected, rising 0.3% from a year ago. Core inflation, which excludes volatile energy prices, rose even more, jumping 0.9% . The quicker-than-expected spike in inflation, despite still being well below the 2% European Central Bank mandate, had some investors worrying that the ECB might cut short its bond buying program before September 2016.

  • The U.S. style government bond program is essentially propping up the economy be infusing it with government debt.

Middle East

U.S President Barack Obama gave an interview with Israeli Channel 2 TV’s investigative program Uvda broadcast Monday evening in which he said, among other things, “the best way to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon is a verifiable, tough agreement. A military solution will not fix it. Even if the United States participates, it would temporarily slow down an Iranian nuclear program but it will not eliminate it.” Analysts in Israel and the US were quick to bemoan the fact that Obama is once again providing a potential adversary with reassurance that they will face no military consequences for their actions, undercutting his own diplomatic strategy and emboldening bad actors on the international stage.

The “Red Alert” siren was heard on Wednesday night at around 11:00 p.m. (local time) in some communities in southern Israel. Two rockets from Gaza exploded in the Sdot Negev region. There were no physical injuries or damages. Terrorists from Gaza fired a Grad rocket towards southern Israel last week as well, with no injuries reported. The IDF retaliated for the attack by launching airstrikes on terrorist infrastructures in Gaza.

  • It’s good that the Gaza terrorist have really bad aim or inferior rockets or there would soon be another military confrontation looming

Islamic State

ISIS has closed off a dam to the north of the Iraqi city of Ramadi — seized by its forces last month — cutting water supplies to pro-government towns downstream and making it easier for its fighters to attack forces loyal to Baghdad. ISIS officials and residents said. This was to prevent river water overflowing from ISIS’ side of the dam, and also allow some water to flow downstream toward ISIS-held Falluja. The level of water in the Euphrates was now low enough that the river could be walked across, and that this would make it easier for ISIS militants to cross the river and attack the pro-government towns of Husaybah and Khalidiyah, as well as the large security forces base at Habbaniya.

The U.S.-led coalition against ISIS has recorded more than 10,000 ISIS deaths since the campaign against the extremist group began nine months ago, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said Tuesday. The coalition also declared Tuesday that it has a winning plan in Iraq despite recent setbacks, including the fall of Ramadi last month. The 25 nations offered few specifics after their conference and indicated no major strategy shift. The coalition met in Paris as Iraqi security forces attempted to retake Ramadi, a key Sunni city west of Baghdad that fell to Islamic State militants. The Islamic State also has made significant inroads in neighboring Syria, where militants seized the ancient city of Palmyra last month and advanced on Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. The United States recently rushed 2,000 AT-4 anti-tank missiles to Iraq and promised to ease the process for getting ammunition and weapons to Iraq’s armed forces.

Syria

In Syria, an unheralded combination of Kurdish and Assyrian Christian fighters in recent weeks have managed to recapture a string of villages along the Khabur River from the Islamic State. The victories came three months after ISIS swept into the area, taking command of 14 villages and kidnapping several hundred Assyrian Christians who lived there. They went unnoticed as ISIS made gains elsewhere, chiefly in taking Palmyra further south in Syria, and capturing Ramadi in central Iraq. But as local forces reenter the Khabur River villages, they are finding a swath of devastation in the Islamic militants’ wake. “All the Christian Assyrian villages in Khabur are re-controlled and IS is pushed out,” said Emanuel Youkhana, an Assyrian priest and head of the relief group CAPNI.

Close to 200 civilians in Syria have died from barrel bomb attacks throughout last weekend allegedly carried out by the army of President Bashar al-Assad, activists have said. While Assad has continuously denied responsibility, a U.N. envoy has condemned the bombings as “totally unacceptable.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday that at least 184 people were killed in several provinces over the weekend, though the actual death toll is believed to be higher. The activist organization said that 71 civilians, including women and children, were killed by bombs dropped by Assad’s helicopters on Saturday in the northern province of Aleppo alone.

Nigeria

Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the main market in Nigeria’s northeastern city of Yola, killing 31 people and themselves, officials said Friday, blaming the extremist Boko Haram group. Another 38 victims, some with serious injuries, are being treated in the hospitals in this city already swollen with refugees from the conflict. The explosion was timed to go off as merchants were closing shop, others were hurrying to make last-minute purchases and commuters were catching tricycle taxis home. It is the first such attack on Yola, which has had its population doubled by some 300,000 refugees fleeing the insurgent violence in the northeast that has killed some 13,000 people and forced 1.5 million from their homes. Boko Haram has been fighting for nearly six years to impose Shariah law across Nigeria. Half the population of 170 million is Christian.

Kenya

At least 95 schools in Kenya were forced to shut their doors after 2,000 teachers quit over fears of Islamic extremist attacks. The Christian Post reports that most of the teachers were Christians and feared being targeted by terrorists after al-Shabaab militants attacked Christian students at Garissa University in April. The 95 schools in northern Kenya will be closed indefinitely; and 500 other schools are at risk of closing as they suffer from the lack of faculty members. Additional schools are trying to remain in operation with fewer students and teachers.

Ukraine

Heavy artillery fire was reported around Donetsk city in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, in what observers described as some of the worst fighting in the months since a shaky ceasefire was declared. The Ukrainian General Command media office said that separatists fired heavy artillery from Donetsk city toward Mariinka early Wednesday. Mariinka has been controlled by Ukrainian government forces and sits on a strategically vital western highway to the city’s west, where checkpoints mark the end of separatist-controlled territory.

Russia

For a second year in a row, the annual summit of major world economies will exclude Russia when the group’s leaders convene Sunday in a German castle. The Kremlin’s absence from the two-day meeting of the Group of Seven or G-7 underscores a widening East-West split prompted by the conflict in Ukraine. A year ago, Russia was to host what was then the G-8. But the other seven members — Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan and the USA — bailed to protest Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 and its alleged involvement in a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin denies providing troops, arms or funds to support the separatists, who have been fighting Ukrainian troops. This year’s host, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told her parliament recently that Moscow’s return to the summit is “unimaginable” unless Russia were to “recognize the basic values of international law and act accordingly.”

Argentina

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Argentina on Wednesday to protest recent violence against women in a region where the abuse has been endemic. Men, women and children in the main square of the presidential palace held banners with the names and pictures of women who have been killed. Violence against women has been a major problem in Argentina. Nationwide, there was a femicide — the killing of women because of their gender — every 35 hours from 2007 to 2012, according to La Casa del Encuentro in Buenos Aires. In 2014, there were 277 murders of women in Argentina, the group estimated.

Environment

Carbon monoxide in the atmosphere has decreased significantly around the globe in the last 14 years. Human activity is responsible for a portion of the carbon monoxide in the atmosphere due to the burning of carbon-based fuels such as oil, natural gas, coal and wood. A decline in the pollutants released by vehicles and industries makes up a significant chunk of the carbon monoxide decrease. The decrease is likely tied to both improvements in technology and regulatory changes, experts say. Carbon monoxide is not considered a direct greenhouse gas, and therefore doesn’t affect climate change directly.

Earthquakes

A magnitude-5.9 earthquake that struck near Southeast Asia’s highest peak early Friday injured 11 climbers and left about 130 people stranded, officials said. The quake struck northwest of Ranau district in Sabah state on Borneo early Friday at a depth of 34 miles. Climbing routes are apparently blocked or made dangerous by rocks and boulders loosened by the quake and small aftershocks. Helicopters can’t land due to bad weather and the high altitude, but park rangers and mountain guides are trying to bring down the climbers.

Weather

Several tornadoes struck Colorado Thursday night. Six homes were damaged in Elbert County as a pair of twisters were reported in the town of Simla. At least three homes were damaged by a tornado near Berthoud. The National Weather Service reported that as much as 7 or 8 inches of rain fell in the area Thursday night. Flood emergencies were issued by authorities in Boulder and Larimer counties when the floodwaters covered streets and threatened to invade homes. Heavy rainfall prevented officials from surveying the damage in some areas Thursday night, so they will head back to the damaged homes to investigate further on Friday.

Alaska just can’t shake an unusual cycle of out-of-season weather. First, record warmth owned much of the state during May. Now it’s June and snow is falling in the interior. About an inch of snow was reported in Delta Junction and Salcha, southeast of Fairbanks Monday.

Dallas did not hit 90 degrees in 2015 until Wednesday, June 3 — typically, that happens around April 19. The lack of 90s extends into parts of the Southeast, where Atlanta has not yet officially hit 90 degrees.

A relentless heat wave in India has now claimed more than 2,300 lives. The days-upon-days of temperatures near 120 degrees now marks the fifth deadliest heat wave in Earth’s recorded history, according to Weather Underground. The heat became so extreme in Dehli last week that it melted some of India’s roadways. Most of the deaths occurred in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where dehydration and heat stroke have been the biggest threats.

 

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