Signs of the Times (7/25/15)

Another Planned Parenthood Video Shows Doctor Haggling Price of Organs

A second video featuring a Planned Parenthood doctor allegedly selling aborted baby organs has surfaced online. Fox News reports the video was released by the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the same pro-life advocacy group that posted a similar video showing a Planned Parenthood executive seemingly explaining how abortionists can remove specific organs without “crushing” them so they can be sold. In the new video, Planned Parenthood official Dr. Mary Gatter is heard talking about prices of organs, and settles at $100 for “intact tissue.” CMP project lead David Daleiden said the video proves Planned Parenthood was acting illegally. Others have criticized the videos released by CMP for heavy editing. Planned Parenthood insists that they only donate tissue to medical research legally and with patient consent.

Obama First President to Visit Kenya

Obama will be presented with a long wish list by locals hoping the U.S. president is bringing lots of gifts on his trip to Kenya this weekend — everything from increased American investment to an end to travel advisories to help combating youth unemployment, corruption, terrorism and human rights violations. At the top of Obama’s itinerary in Kenya, the birthplace of his father, is an address at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit on Saturday, which President Uhuru Kenyatta said will highlight the “progress and potential” of the country. Still, huge economic problems persist. The situation for youth unemployment is dire: Kenya’s unemployment rate is estimated at 40%. The United Nations Development Program estimates the rate for those under 35 — about 80% of the population — is even higher. Kenya’s well-developed tourism sector with its safari parks — a lure for those wanting to see lions and giraffes in the wild — has been hurt in recent years by violence, down 17%. A 2013 terrorist attack at the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi left 67 people dead in a four-day siege by al-Shabab militants, a Somali-based group linked to al-Qaeda. The group attacked again this past April, killing nearly 150, mostly students, at a northeastern Kenyan university.

Kenyan Pastors Warn Obama Not to Push for Gay Rights during Visit

About 700 Kenyan pastors are urging President Obama not to push the gay agenda during his visit to the country. Christian Today reports the pastors are led by Bishop Mark Kariuki, head of the Kenya Evangelical Alliance, a network of 38,000 churches and 10 million Christians. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya, as well as over 30 other African nations. Homosexual activity carries a punishment of prison time in Kenya; some offenses can result in a 21-year sentence. Bishop Kariuki said that Kenya is 82 percent Christians and most civilians do not support gay rights.

Another Healthcare Data Breach

Following close on the heels of the massive data breach at health insurer Anthem, the parade of hackings at major health care providers continues with the recent announcement of a data breach at UCLA Health System affecting 4.5 million people. The hacking appears to have gone on undetected since September of 2014 until its recent discovery. The compromised information is a treasure trove of personal data for identity thieves. It included names, Social Security numbers, medical records, ID numbers and addresses. The stolen data was totally unencrypted making the threat to the people whose data was in the UCLA Health Systems computers more serious. Medical identity theft is a bad problem that is only getting worse. While the financial liability of credit card identity theft is limited by federal law to $50, the majority of victims of medical identity theft paid an average of $13,500 to resolve the crime.

Hack of Connected Car Raises Alarm over Safety

In an article published Tuesday, Wired magazine reports on how it engaged two hackers to see if they could take control of a Jeep Cherokee from the comfort of their living room while writer Andy Greenberg sat nervously at the wheel while the SUV cruised the highway at 70 mph. The security experts, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, accessed the Jeep’s computer brain through its Uconnect infotainment system and rewrote the firmware to plant their malicious code. Once in, the duo began blasting hip-hop through the stereo system, turned the AC to maximum and, ultimately, killed the transmission and brakes. Greenberg was unharmed in the demonstration, which took place on a highway in St. Louis, but eventually wound up stranded in a ditch. But the experiment highlights a concern that often isn’t addressed head-on in the growing excitement over the prospect of roads dominated by either autonomous or heavily driver-assisted vehicles.

Many Urban Roads in Poor Condition

More than one-fourth (28%) of urban interstates, freeways and arterial routes with at least two lanes were paved in “poor” condition in 2013, according to the report from TRIP, a non-profit transportation research group. The poorly maintained roads cost the average motorist $516 per year in added maintenance, the report estimated. Among places with at least 500,000 people, the cities with the greatest share of damaged roads are San Francisco (74%), Los Angeles and Long Beach (73%) and Detroit (56%). The highest costs for maintenance, fuel and tire wear from bad roads totaled $1,044 per year for motorists in San Francisco. Among cities with 250,000 to 500,000 people, the worst roads are in Flint, Mich. (54%); Antioch, Calif. (52%); and Santa Rosa, Calif. (49%).”The deteriorating condition of our nation’s urban roads threatens the health of the nation’s economy, reducing the efficiency of a region’s businesses and employers,” said Janet Kavinoky, executive director for transportation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Economic News – Domestic

Sales of new homes dropped 6.8% from May to June, due largely to sliding sales in the West. New single-family homes were sold at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 482,000 in the U.S. in June. The price of new houses also dropped to a median $281,800., down from May’s median of $282,800. The survey also showed that May’s home sales were revised significantly downward, to 517,000, from 546,000.

U.S. retail sales fell 0.3% in June compared to May. That’s a red flag because economists had expected consumers to open up their wallets after a cold shaky winter. Retail sales for April and May were also revised down. The majority of America’s economic growth comes from consumer spending. Retail sales were negative or flat in just two of the first six months last year. This year, so far, sales have been negative or flat in four out of six months.

The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment aid plunged last week to the lowest level in nearly 42 years, evidence that employers are holding onto their staffs and hiring at a steady pace. Weekly applications for unemployment benefits fell 26,000 to 255,000, the lowest level since November 1973. One reason for the drop, however, is that auto plants and other factories close briefly in July to prepare for next year’s models. Applications have been below 300,000, historically a very low level, since March.

Oil prices tumbled below $50 a barrel Wednesday for the first time since April as bloated U.S. inventories and the prospect of increased Iranian crude shipments fueled concerns about swelling supplies even as demand is waning. The Obama administration’s proposed nuclear deal with Iran would lift sanctions and could allow that country to ship significantly more oil, adding to a recent surge in supplies from Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Also contributing to Wednesday’s oil-price decline was the U.S. dollar hitting a nearly four-month high as speculation grew that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates as early as September. A stronger dollar can hurt demand abroad because it makes U.S. oil more expensive for buyers paying in foreign currencies.

Seattle’s $15 minimum wage law is supposed to lift workers out of poverty and move them off public assistance. But there may be a hitch in the plan. Evidence is surfacing that some workers are asking their bosses for fewer hours as their wages rise – in a bid to keep overall income down so they don’t lose public subsidies for things like food, child care and rent.

Social Security’s Disability Insurance trust fund will run out of reserves next year without congressional action, trustees said, urging U.S. lawmakers to address the nation’s unsustainable entitlement programs. Beyond 2016, continuing income will be sufficient to pay 81 percent of scheduled disability payments, trustees said in an annual report released in Washington on Wednesday. “Social Security as a whole as well as Medicare cannot sustain projected long-run program costs under currently scheduled financing,” the trustees said in a statement released with the report. One solution mentioned is Congress shifting funds from the larger Social Security retirement fund to shore up the disability fund.

  • Here we go, shifting chairs on the Titanic as the ship of state begins to sink under the heavy debt load and entitlement obligations.

Economic News – International

Japan’s debt will be three times the size of its economy by 2030 unless the government acts now to control spending, the International Monetary Fund has warned. Japan’s debt is already at about 245% of its annual gross domestic product — or more than 1 quadrillion yen ($11 trillion). The IMF has repeatedly urged Japan to control its gigantic debt. The country is still recovering from a decades-long deflationary period, during which Tokyo borrowed ambitiously to fund programs aimed at boosting growth. Going forward, the IMF says the world’s third-largest economy needs to strike a balance between growth and debt reduction.

Many Greeks blame their economic plight on austerity-minded Germans. s this economically distressed nation faces even more austerity measures, many citizens are taking their frustration out on hard-nosed Germany. The hashtag #BoycottGermany has been trending in the country since Germany took the lead in demanding tough bailout terms that have hiked taxes and slashed pensions. Tourist agencies report vacation cancellations to Germany. In Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, a dealership selling German cars was spray-painted with disparaging slogans. Lidl Hellas, a German supermarket chain operating here, took the unusual step of vowing to absorb the 10-percentage-point increase in taxes, in part to avoid a backlash.

After years of getting richer, millions of Russians are now sliding back into poverty. During 15 years of Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia saw its official poverty rate drop steadily to 11% in 2014. That trend has been reversed — 16% of Russians are now officially poor. And with no end in sight to the crisis in Ukraine, the misery is unlikely to ease soon. The number of Russians living on less than 9,662 rubles ($169) a month — the official poverty line — surged to nearly 23 million at the end of March, according to official data. That’s three million more than last year, when the combination of Western sanctions and tumbling oil prices triggered a sharp recession. A collapse in the value of the ruble sent inflation soaring — prices rose by an annual rate of 16% in the first quarter of 2015. Meanwhile, wages fell 14% in May and 7% in June.

Middle East

The leaders of Iran and the US both made high-profile speeches this week in an attempt to sell the recently sighed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal regarding the Islamic Republic’s renegade nuclear program to skeptical segments of their domestic audiences. The main point made by Khamenei’s speech, released on the Supreme Leader’s official YouTube page this week, is that the deal does not interfere with the Islamic Republic’s ability to annihilate Israel. The statement built on previous comments Khamenei and other senior officials that the deal would not compel Iran to stop supporting terrorist groups around the Middle East. Although the comments directly contradict assessments of the agreement made by senior US officials, US President Barak Obama gave his own speech at a veterans’ event in Pittsburg Tuesday in which he re-iterated earlier warnings about “dishonest” arguments against the deal and assured his audience that the deal represents the best possible plan moving forward.

Islamic State

Turkish fighter planes bombed Islamic State positions in neighboring Syria for the first time in a predawn attack Friday, a significant expansion of the battle against the extremist group, the Turkish government announced. In another sign of Turkey’s new aggressive stance against the Islamic State, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed Friday that his country has agreed to allow U.S. aircraft use of the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey “within a certain framework” to launch airstrikes against the militants. Erdogan also said that Friday’s airstrikes were just the “first steps” in combating the Islamic State. On Saturday, Turkish jets struck camps belonging to Kurdish militants in northern Iraq. The strikes in Iraq targeted the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, whose affiliates have been effective in battling the Islamic State group. The strikes further complicate the U.S.-led war against the extremists, which has relied on Kurdish ground forces making gains in Iraq and Syria.

Many Christians who fled ISIS violence in Iraq last year are becoming hopeless as they face a long term future in refugee camps. Christian Today reports one camp in near Irbil houses 1,700 Syriac Catholic families living in cramped tents and trailers. The refugees live with no money and few possessions. They rely on overseas and church aid for survival.

Syria

The leader of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria with a history of attacks against U.S. targets was killed in a U.S. airstrike on July 8, the Pentagon announced Tuesday. Muhsin al-Fadhli, who led the Khorasan Group in Syria, was killed when the vehicle he was riding in northwest Syria near the Turkish border, was destroyed by a drone strike. The group’s sophisticated bomb-making acumen has been a particular concern of military officials. Al-Fadhli had deep roots with al-Qaeda, having been one of the few operatives who had received advance notice of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

A new report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) claims that over 1,000 children have been killed in airstrikes during the nation’s ongoing civil war. An additional 1.5 million people have been wounded for life in the airstrikes that have been carried out by Syria’s government. The Christian Post reports the children are extremely vulnerable in the conflict. An attack in Aleppo left children “burned beyond recognition” in May, as barrel bombs were used.

Afghanistan

After suffering setbacks and heavy casualties at the hands of the Taliban in 2014, Afghan security forces came into this year with what Afghan and Western officials acknowledge were relatively modest goals: hang on till the end of the fighting season without major collapses, reports the New York Times. But with months of heavy fighting still ahead, 2015 is already shaping up to be worse for the Afghan Army and the national police, even as President Obama is set to begin deliberating this year on whether to follow through with a complete withdrawal of the United States military assistance mission here in 2016. The forces are struggling just to maintain a stalemate. After a casualty rate last year that the previous American commander called unsustainable, the numbers this year are even worse: up more than 50 percent compared with the first six months of 2014.Several Afghan officers described desertion as such a problem that soldiers and police officers in some critical areas have simply been barred from returning home on leave, keeping them on the front lines for months straight.

Cameroon

Nine students were burned to death and at least 14 others were killed when suspected Boko Haram militants from Nigeria attacked the Cameroonian village of Kamouna. Christian Today reports 80 militants overpowered the few troops in the area and attacked, burning homes and buildings, and killing civilians. Resident Bachirou Ahmad claimed that some people living in Kamouna had asked the government for greater protection after a nearby village was raided, but additional troops were not sent.

Russia

Vladimir Putin has fired 110,000 government officials at a stroke. The Russian president signed a decree last week limiting the number of staff employed by the Interior Ministry to just over one million. That requires massive layoffs that will bring total headcount down by 10%.Administrative staff will bear the brunt of the cuts at the ministry, which controls the Russian police, paramilitary security forces and the road traffic safety agency. Putin took a pay cut of 10% in March, shortly after demanding every government department — except defense — reduce spending.

Earthquakes

Authorities in Pakistan say an earthquake that jolted the country early Saturday has killed three people. The U.S. Geological Survey says the magnitude-5.1 quake rocked Islamabad and elsewhere in northwest Pakistan at 2 a.m. The tremor was so strong that people came out of their homes and started reciting verses from the Quran. T Pakistan and the Himalaya region, along an active continental plate boundary, is often hit by earthquakes. In September 2013, a magnitude-7.7 quake struck Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, killing at least 376 people. The roofs of three homes caved in because of the earthquake in a village on the outskirts of Abbottabad, killing three people.

Volcanoes

Eruptions of ash at five volcanoes shrouded the skies over parts of the Indonesian archipelago Wednesday, forcing three airports to close. Mount Raung on Java island blasted ash and debris up to about 6,560 feet into the air after rumbling for several weeks. Ash erupted also from Gamalama and Dukono mountains on the Moluccas islands chain, Sinabung volcano on Sumatra island and Mount Karangetang on Siau island. A total of more than 13,000 people have been evacuated due to the volcanic eruptions since last month, mostly from around the slopes of Sinabung in Tanah Karo District. Jember and Banyuwangi airports closed late Tuesday and Bali’s international airport was closed for several hours on Wednesday.

Wildfires

A fast-moving wildfire in Glacier National Park torched a car and forced tourists to abandon their vehicles on the Montana park’s most popular roadway while officials evacuated hotels, campgrounds and homes. Visitors left their vehicles along the Going-to-the-Sun Road and were shuttled out by officials Tuesday. The two-lane road that carries thousands of vehicles on peak days in July and August was shut down for 21 of its 50 miles. Park officials were helping tourists retrieve their cars Wednesday, while rangers searched the backcountry for any remaining hikers after the blaze doubled in size overnight to more than 3 square miles. Some worried tourists have canceled their trips at the height of the park’s busiest season.

A wildfire grew rapidly in Northern California Wednesday, covering hundreds of acres in just a few hours and forcing evacuations. The Wragg Fire started around 2:30 p.m. local time and quickly jumped to cover 1,000 acres by Wednesday evening. Cal fire rescued three hikers and ordered evacuations around Cold Canyon and the Canyon Creek Campground. Additional evacuations were ordered for the Qual Ridge community and Mix Canyon area of Solano County. Part of Highway 128, a shortcut into Napa Valley, was also closed. Gusty, erratic winds combined with low humidity were making it tough for firefighters to get a handle on the blaze. Residents of about 50 of the 200 homes evacuated from of a wildfire burning near Northern California’s Napa Valley wine country were allowed to return home Thursday night. Calmer winds help contain the blaze. The blaze has charred 10 1/2 square miles.

Environment

New research from the University of British Columbia offers a sad look at what is happening to marine life around the globe. The Sea Around Us project found that the world’s monitored seabird populations have fallen nearly 70 percent since the 1950s. That marks a loss of around 230 million birds in 60 years. Researchers believe that the dramatic population decrease is due to several alarming factors such as oil and plastic pollution, environmental changes brought on by climate change and the overfishing that has wiped out much of their food supply. According to Science Daily, “Seabirds are particularly good indicators of the health of marine ecosystems. When we see this magnitude of seabird decline, we can see there is something wrong with marine ecosystems. It gives us an idea of the overall impact we’re having.”

Like a scene straight out of a horror film, a Turkish lake known for its salinity turned a deep shade of red recently. The country’s Tuz Gola – nicknamed “Salt Lake” by the locals – turned red because of a large Dunaliella salinas algae bloom. The lake is Turkey’s second largest, spanning more than 600 square miles. Because the lake is losing water, the salinity is getting higher and higher, which kills off a lot of the plankton that normally eat this red algae. As the lake dries out, it becomes a walkable salt flat, the New York Daily News said. Toxic algae can pose a threat to local residents if it gets into the drinking water supply, as it did for some Ohio towns during a bloom at Lake Erie last year.

Nothing seemed unusual Wednesday when the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Norman, Oklahoma, picked up what appeared to be rainclouds over western North Texas. Nothing unusual … except the clouds weren’t rain. What the radar was picking up was bugs, lots and lots of them. Grasshoppers and beetles were flying between the ground and 2,500 feet, covering an area of about 50 miles. Meanwhile, drivers on the Savanna-Sabula Bridge near Sabula, Iowa, encountered thousands of mayflies which covered cars and the bridge on Saturday. There were so many that a snowplow was called in to clear the roadway.

Weather

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says this year’s El Niño is triggering a higher likelihood for above-normal rain, with higher amounts expected come winter. Wildfires could exacerbate the situation. Such blazes accelerate flood risk because scorched soil doesn’t retain as much water as healthy soil, meaning runoffs occur more easily. This year has seen an above-average number of fires burn areas on the West Coast — about 1,000 more fires than usual in California alone — where El Niño rains would have a significant impact. This year’s El Niño is forecast to be a record-setting one by the National Weather Service. An El Niño is a weather phenomenon marked by warmer Pacific Ocean temperatures that produces severe weather throughout the world. A warmer ocean transfers more water vapor into the air which, when shaken loose by storms, results in heavier and more concentrated precipitation.

Heavy rain drenched cities along Florida’s Gulf Coast Friday, and authorities continued to search for two teens missing in heavy seas along the state’s Atlantic coast. Seas are rough off Florida’s Atlantic coast due to a storm system that also dumped more than 8 inches of rain in parts of Pasco County through Friday night. In Tarpon Springs, a public works yard was under water and vehicles were stuck in 2 feet of water on MLK Jr. Drive west of U.S. 19. Flooding was also reported on the east coast of Florida in St. Augustine Friday evening. Several cars were stranded and water was up to the doors of cars on side roads in the area.

California’s historic drought could spell drastically reduced production and much higher prices for lettuce in the not-too-distant future. Often called the “salad bowl of the world” for the amount of lettuce it grows; the state is responsible for more than two-thirds of the nation’s lettuce production every year. California’s Salinas Valley also produces a huge share of the nation’s artichokes, broccoli, strawberries, mushrooms, spinach and celery. Because the Salinas relies entirely on water from a deep groundwater basin, it’s been shielded from the drought’s harshest impacts – till now. The valley’s aquifers are in a state of “long-term overdraft” as a result of the drought resulting in falling groundwater levels. While farmers there are experiencing few problems now, “they’re standing over a ticking time bomb according to a report by the California Water Foundation.

Fed-up police in the Canada’s Newfoundland and Labrador have become so desperate about the lack of good weather in recent weeks that they have issued a plea to locate the missing season. “SUMMER was last seen in early August of 2014,” said a press release from the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC). “When last seen, SUMMER was described as being between 20-30 degrees Celsius (68-86 degrees Fahrenheit), blue skies with a bright and warm source of light in the sky. There have been sporadic sightings of this bright object, but these sightings have been rare since May 2015.” Local meteorologist Ryan Snoddon of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) said that it has been the worst summer in more than 20 years.

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