Signs of the Times (6/16/15)

Christian Officials may Opt Out of Gay “Weddings,” Rules NC State Senate

Christians may not be forced to preside over Homosexual “Marriage” ceremonies in North Carolina, after the State Senate voted to override the Governor’s veto. “A measure that would allow some public officials in North Carolina to opt out of performing gay marriages moved closer to becoming law on Monday, when lawmakers voted to override Republican Governor Pat McCrory’s veto of the bill.” “The Republican-led state Senate reached the three-fifths majority needed to override McCrory’s veto in a 32-16 vote. The legislation now goes back to the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives, which passed it last week by a margin wide enough to override the veto.”

If You Can be Transgender, Why Can’t You be Transracial?

Rachel Dolezal is president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP. For years, she has passed herself off as black. Now her parents have told the press that she is their birth daughter was born white. Dolezal admits that but says “I identify as black.” In the last week, a steady stream of articles has drawn comparisons, both positive and negative, between transgender Bruce Jenner and Dolezal. Dr. Michael L. Brown writes in OneNewsNow.com, “Some people are genetically and biologically male while others are genetically and biologically female, and to alter their physical appearance through cosmetic surgery no more changes their real identity than wearing leopard skins transforms a human being into a big cat. The same is true when it comes to hormonal treatments: You can pump up Bruce Jenner with all the female hormones in the world but that does not make him into a woman.” In the words of Dr. Paul McHugh, one of the nation’s most respected psychiatrists yet a man despised by many in the transgender community as out of date and out of touch, “Transgendered men do not become women, nor do transgendered women become men. All (including Bruce Jenner) become feminized men or masculinized women, counterfeits or impersonators of the sex with which they ‘identify.'”

  • This whole business of deciding your sex, despite conclusive physiological evidence, opens a big can of worms. Next transracial, then what, transnational? Transhuman?

FDA Moves to Ban Trans Fat from U.S. Food Supply

The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday finalized a plan to essentially rid the country’s food supply of artery-clogging trans fats, a move the agency estimates could reduce coronary heart disease and prevent thousands of heart attack deaths a year. Companies will have three years to remove partially hydrogenated oils from their products. Products with trans fats, which are derived from partially hydrogenated oils, have increasingly vanished from grocery stores and restaurant menus in recent years amid widespread agreement about the risks they pose to public health. Since 2006, food companies have been required to include trans fat content information on the Nutrition Facts labels. And between 2003 and 2012, the FDA estimated, consumption of trans fat has fallen nearly 80 percent. As recently as the 1980s, many scientists and public health advocates believed that partially hydrogenated oils, which occur when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil to make a more solid substance, were actually healthier than more natural saturated fats. By the mid-1990s, more and more studies showed that trans fats were a key culprit in the rising rates of heart disease

Voting Machines Easy Targets for Hackers

The recent cyber theft of millions of personnel records from the federal government was sophisticated and potentially crippling, but hackers with just rudimentary skills could easily do even more damage by targeting voting machines, according to security experts. They found that the AVS WINVote machines Virginia has used since 2002 have such flimsy security that an amateur hacker could change votes from outside a polling location. The report was commissioned after one precinct in Virginia reported “unusual activity with some of the devices used to capture votes,” during last November’s statewide elections. Mississippi and Pennsylvania decertified the machines years ago, because they used an outdated version of Windows that had not been updated since 2004 and had default passwords that could allow for Wi-Fi access. Similar vulnerabilities have been previously discovered in machines from Diebold, Premier Elections Solutions, Sequoia, Hart, ES&S and others.

Vast ObamaCare Data Warehouse Raises Privacy Concerns

A government data warehouse stores personal information forever on millions of people who seek coverage under President Obama’s health care law, including those who open an account on HealthCare.gov but don’t sign up for coverage. At a time when major breaches have become distressingly common, the vast scope of the information — and the lack of a clear plan for destroying old records — have raised concerns about privacy and the government’s judgment on technology. Electronic record-keeping systems are standard for businesses and government agencies. But they are supposed to have limits on how long data is kept. Before HealthCare.gov went live in 2013, Obama administration officials assured lawmakers and the public that an individual’s personal information would be used mainly to determine eligibility for coverage, and that the nation’s newest social program would have a limited impact on privacy.

Password-Storage Company Hacked

No one’s safe from hackers — not even LastPass, a company that stores people’s passwords. LastPass lets people store passwords online so they can access them all with a single master password. On Monday, LastPass announced that hackers broke into its computer system and got access to user email addresses, password reminders, and encrypted versions of people’s master passwords. So keeping all your passwords in a single place on the Internet might not be such a great idea. It’s still very early in its investigation, but if LastPass is right, hackers didn’t manage to grab plain text versions of the all-powerful master passwords. But if your master password is simple and common, like Password123, these hackers can crack it in no time.

Americans’ Generosity Greater than Ever

Americans gave away a record amount of money to charity last year: nearly $360 billion. The Giving USA Foundation said in its annual report Tuesday that the 2014 tally of $358.38 billion donated is the largest in the 60 years the organization has been tracking charitable activity. The prior record was $355.17 billion in 2007, right before the country sank into the Great Recession. Religious institutions received $114.9 billion, also breaking a record.

MERS Update

The MERS virus in South Korea, which has killed 16 people and infected nearly 150 in the largest outbreak outside the Middle East, hasn’t spread outside hospitals among the wider community or become easier to transmit between humans, the World Health Organization said. After a weeklong review of the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, experts from WHO and South Korea told reporters Saturday there was no evidence to suggest the virus, currently confined around health facilities, is spreading. It has been occurring among hospital patients, visiting family members and medical staff. About 120 people are still undergoing treatment. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has recorded five cases of MERS in the past week.

Economic News

Housing starts slowed in May, coming off an 8-year high April. Builders broke ground on 1.04 million new single family homes in May, down 11.1% from April’s 1.35 million, according to the Commerce Department. Applications for new building permits, on the other hand, heated up 11.8%, ending just under 1.3 million in May. The housing market index, pending home sales index, new home sales, and mortgage applications have all been moving up.

In becoming the largest city in the country to mandate a $15-an-hour minimum wage, Los Angeles could put the pressure on other cities in what is sure to become a potent issue in next year’s presidential election. Mayor Eric Garcetti signed the measure into law Saturday. It will require employers to gradually raise minimum wages until they reach $15 an hour. The first step comes in July, 2016, when the minimum wage becomes $10.50. Then, each following year, it will rise another another step — $12, $13.50, $14.25 and then $15. Los Angeles follows Seattle and San Francisco, among others, in raising the minimum wage. Last year, Chicago passed a phased-in minimum wage increase to $13 an hour.

The auto industry is looking south for new factories, and the farther south, the better, reports USA Today. Canada is struggling when it comes to retaining auto jobs, the U.S. is a house divided with most of the new automotive investment and jobs headed south of the Mason-Dixon line and Mexico is the auto industry darling. The three countries are a united trading block under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, but they’re fierce rivals in the boardrooms where auto executives decide where to invest in the latest equipment and additional jobs. Of the vehicles built in North America last year, Mexico produced about one in five, or double the rate from 2004. WardsAuto, which tracks production data, expects the rate to increase to one in four by 2020.

Puerto Rico is on the brink of default — and a massive population drain. In total, the Puerto Rican government is $73 billion in debt, and there’s a solid chance it could default this summer. Its economy has been spiraling downward for years now, and Puerto Ricans of all social classes have had it. They are moving to the United States in rising numbers in search of jobs. “We’re in unprecedented territory because this is, in recent memory, the biggest out-migration that Puerto Rico has experienced,” says Mark Lopez, director of Hispanic research at Pew. There are now more Puerto Ricans in Florida than in Puerto Rico, according to Pew.

Greece is running out of time. It has three more days to accept the conditions creditors have attached to more bailout cash, or risk a financial crisis that could force it out of the Eurozone. Greece needs to find 1.54 billion euros ($1.7 billion) to pay the International Monetary Fund by June 30 to avoid default. To do that, it needs the last portion of its $262 billion bailout. But that will only be released if the newly elected anti-austerity government agrees to economic reforms, something it has resisted since February. Eurozone finance ministers will try again on Thursday but the omens are not good, and if a deal is further delayed, there may not be enough time to implement it before the end of the month.

Middle East

In a move meant to preemptively tell Israel’s side of the story about last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s Foreign Ministry released a comprehensive report on the conflict Sunday. The 277 page report includes photographs, diagrams and testimony by eyewitnesses documenting the conflict. “The report proves unequivocally that the actions carried out by the IDF and the security forces during the operation were in accordance with international law,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The report is being issued days before a report by the UN Human Rights Council which Israeli officials have said is certain to be filled with accusations and slander against the Jewish State, given the longstanding tradition of anti-Israel activity at the Council.

Israel went out of its way to minimize civilian casualties and observe international law during last summer’s crackdown in Gaza, even to the point of costing the lives of its own soldiers and citizens, according to a coming report by international military experts. Despite a daily barrage of rockets, often launched from schools, mosques and hospitals within Gaza, Israel went to great lengths to follow laws governing armed conflict after launching “Operation Protective Edge” on July 8, 2014, according to the High Level International Military Group, a consortium of some of the world’s leading military experts. The fighting, sparked by daily rocket and tunnel attacks mounted from Gaza, as well as the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens by Hamas operatives, lasted for seven weeks and left more than 2,000 dead.

Islamic State

Kurdish fighters took full control on Tuesday of the border town of Tal Abyad, dealing a major blow to the Islamic State group’s ability to wage war in Syria by cutting off a vital supply line to its self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa. A senior Kurdish commander, Haqi Kobane, told The Associated Press that Kurdish units known as the YPG that he leads along with their allies from the Free Syrian Army were starting to clean up the town along the border with Turkey from booby traps and mines planted by the extremists so that residents can return. The militants had been in control of the key town for more than a year.

Libya

The U.S. launched airstrikes in eastern Libya targeting a terrorist leader who was behind a 2013 attack on a gas plant in Algeria that killed at least 38 hostages, including three Americans, the Pentagon said Sunday. The Libyan government said the strikes were successful and killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar and several others in Ajdabiya. An Islamist with ties to extremists, however, claims the strikes missed Belmokhtar who was not at the site that was targeted, and instead killed four militants.

Yemen

Al-Qaeda’s second in command has been killed in a U.S. airstrike, the extremist group said Tuesday. Nasir al-Wahishi was also the leader of its Yemeni branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), considered the most dangerous al-Qaeda affiliate by U.S. officials. In a video statement released early Tuesday by AQAP’s media wing, the group confirmed his death and said his deputy, Qassim al-Rimi, has been named its new leader. Once bin Laden’s personal secretary in Afghanistan, al-Wahishi returned to Yemen and was jailed — only to escape in a massive breakout of al Qaeda prisoners in 2006. Under his leadership, al Qaeda in Yemen soon became al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and attracted Saudi recruits — some of them former detainees at Guantanamo Bay. His successor, Qasm al-Rimi, was considered the brains of the operation.

Egypt

An Egyptian court has confirmed a death sentence handed to ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi over a mass prison break during the 2011 uprising that eventually brought him to power. Judge Shaaban al-Shami confirmed the ruling Tuesday after consulting with the country’s religious authority as required by Egyptian law in cases involving the death penalty. The religious authority issues non-binding opinions on such sentences. The ruling will automatically be appealed. The judge also confirmed death sentences for five other jailed leading members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group. The military overthrew and detained Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, in July 2013 amid massive protests demanding his resignation.

China

China will complete land reclamation projects on its disputed South China Sea territorial claims as planned within days, the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday, in an apparent bid to reassure its neighbors over moves seen as sharpening tensions in the strategically vital region. Apart from satisfying defense goals, it said the main purpose of such projects was civilian in nature and not targeted at any third parties. It said the projects fell within the scope of Chinese sovereignty and were “lawful, reasonable and justified,” while causing no harm to the marine environment. The disputed islands lie amid some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, rich fishing grounds and a potential undersea wealth of oil, gas and minerals. China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, while Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan also say they own parts or all of it.

Volcanoes

Indonesia’s hyper-active Mount Sinabung volcano exploded again Saturday, sending a plume of ash more than a mile into the air and super-heated rocks and gases up to two miles down its slopes. In total, up to 11 avalanches of rock and ash have been reported as of Saturday night. No injuries were reported in the latest eruption, but more than 3,000 people located within a 4-plus mile radius of the volcano have been displaced from their homes so far this month due to the volcano’s activity. The volcano, located on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, has been one of the most active volcanoes in the world since it awoke from a 400-year-old slumber in 2010, killing two people. The volcano hasn’t really stopped erupting since an eruption in September 2013, including at least two deadly eruptions in 2014.

Earthquakes

More than a dozen weak earthquakes have shaken western Alabama’s Greene County. Geologists are now working to find out what has caused this swarm over the last seven months, in an area of the South that’s used to large tornadoes but not earthquakes. There has been more earthquake activity there in the past few months than in the last four decades. Records from the U.S. Geological Survey show the first of 14 earthquakes occurred on Nov. 20, when a magnitude 3.8 earthquake was recorded. The tremors have continued ever since, with the most recent occurring June 6, when a magnitude 3.0 quake rattled the area. Experts have installed a seismic monitor in a field to enable them to get better information about the quakes, none of which has caused major damage.

Wildfires

Heat, gusty winds and low humidity worked against firefighters at the scene of a growing wildfire near Willow, Alaska, Monday, as the blaze grew larger, prompting hundreds of families to evacuate. The human-caused fire started only about 2 acres large Sunday, but ripped through 10 square miles by early Monday, chewing through forest brush around Willow. At least 25 homes and up to 20 other structures including sheds and outhouses were consumed. Voluntary evacuations applied to the 1,700 residential structures in the Willow area.

So far this year, wildfires are down from 24,209 large (over 100 acres) wildfires compared to a 10-year average of 32,339 through June 15. Total acres burned is 507,284 versus 1,616,598 over the last ten years.

Weather

Tropical Storm Bill is on a crash-course for the Gulf coast of Texas, and residents are preparing for yet another round of flooding that could be devastating to parts of the Lone Star State. Weeks of rising floodwaters washed away homes and roads, and local officials warned that another big rain event could be “possibly catastrophic.” Monday afternoon, the Galveston County Office of Emergency Management issued a voluntary evacuation order for residents of Bolivar Peninsula, where parts of State Highway 87 near High Island were already flooding. Summer school was canceled for Texas City ISD, and Houston ISD announced all district schools and offices will be closed Tuesday.

May rainfall was the most ever in that month for the contiguous United States. In 121 years of record keeping, never had an average of 4.36 inches of precipitation fallen on the contiguous United States. It beat the old mark by .07 inches. The number was 1.45 inches above the long-term average for the month. Three states — Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas — set record totals for rainfall in May.

Already the third tropical cyclone in the young Eastern Pacific hurricane season, Tropical Storm Carlos didn’t come crashing ashore, but its impacts were still felt along the coast of western Mexico. Carlos’ heavy surf and rainfall were a major concern for the country’s Guerrero state. The state’s biggest city, Acapulco, closed its port and schools as residents were urged to stay home Monday and out of the severe weather. More than 500 shelters were opened for people at risk.

The first significant heat wave of the year swept into the Desert Southwest this week, possibly pushing temps above the 120 degree mark by mid-week. High and low temperatures will be up to 15 degrees above average for much of the region. Desert locations below 3,500 feet will see temperatures rise well into the 100s, while the Colorado River Valley will be even hotter with highs in the 110s likely. The hot spot as usual will be Death Valley which may see temperatures over 120 degrees.

A 22-year-old man was killed by lightning Saturday afternoon while fishing on a northwestern Arkansas lake, authorities confirmed. Seven people have been killed by lightning in five states so far in 2015. During the 10-year period of 2004-2013, 33 people were killed and 234 were injured in the U.S. by lightning strikes annually.

Ten people have been killed in a flood disaster in the European country of Georgia, including three workers at a zoo where several animals escaped when their enclosures were destroyed by the floods. One of those animals was a hippo, which was cornered in one of Tbilisi’s main squares, but it was subdued with a tranquilizer gun, the zoo said. Lions and tigers were still on the loose as of Sunday. Heavy rains and wind hit Tbilisi during the night, turning a normally small stream that runs through the hilly city into a surging river. The flooding also damaged dozens of houses.

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