Archive for May, 2016

Signs of the Times (5/28/16)

May 28, 2016

Eleven States Sue over Obama Administration’s Transgender Directive

Texas and 10 other states filed suit Wednesday against the Obama administration over its directive on transgender student access to public school facilities, firing the first shot in what is likely to be a protracted and messy legal battle over that guidance. The suit was filed in a Texas federal court in response to the directive handed down to schools earlier this month that said transgender students should be able to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said, “This represents just the latest example of the current administration’s attempts to accomplish by executive fiat what they couldn’t accomplish through the democratic process in Congress.” Joining Texas in the suit were: Alabama, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arizona’s Department of Education, Maine Gov. Paul LePage, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Utah and Georgia. Conservative states had vowed to defy the federal directive, calling it a threat to the safety of students. Texas’ lieutenant governor has previously said the state is willing to forfeit $10 billion in federal education dollars rather than comply.

S.C. Gov. Haley Signs Law Banning Abortion after 20 Weeks

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill into law on Wednesday that makes it illegal for a woman to obtain an abortion after her pregnancy reaches 20 weeks. The law takes effect immediately. Abortions may be performed after 20 weeks only if the mother’s life is in jeopardy. The bill does not provide exceptions for rape or incest. The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act says there is “substantial medical evidence” that fetuses can feel pain by 20 weeks. The Republican governor’s signature makes South Carolina the 13th state to enforce a ban, along with Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Any physician who violates the law is guilty of a misdemeanor offense and faces a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment plus a potential fine.

Americans Greatly Overestimate Gay and Lesbian Population

The American public believes that twenty-three percent of Americans are gay or lesbian, according to Gallup. In fact, only 3.8 percent of the adult population identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Our perception has been shaped by a decades-long strategy to normalize and then legalize same-sex relations and the LGBT agenda. Today it’s hard to find a movie or television show in which a homosexual couple does not appear or the LGBT agenda is not lauded. Now that this movement has been both normalized and legalized, we’re in the third phase: criminalizing opposition, notes ChristanHeadlines.com. In Sweden, pastors can be fined for preaching sermons or even citing biblical texts deemed to be “anti-gay.” A Christian preacher in the U.K. was recently fined for delivering “homophobic” sermons. Recent legislation in Canada forbids statements deemed to incite “abhorrence” of gay people, even if the speaker states demonstrable facts. The mayor of Houston, Texas, made headlines in 2014 when her office demanded that area pastors turn over all sermons dealing with homosexuality or gender identity. She backed down after her actions provoked a national public uproar.

America’s Infrastructure Crumbling

Nearly 40 million Americans will kick off one of the busiest travel seasons in history this Memorial Day weekend, jarred by potholes on America’s roads, crossing her aging bridges, riding her antiquated railways and taking off from airports that draw international scorn, reports CNN. Long a source of national pride, America’s infrastructure is in critical need of repair, but federal government spending on maintenance has gone down 9% in the past decade. As former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood says, “We’re like a third-world country when it comes to infrastructure.” Nearly 60,000 bridges across the country are in desperate need of repair.

  • Despite spending trillions in taxes and debt money, government bloat and inefficiency is reaching epic proportions, as further evidenced below

U.S. Still Using Antiquated Technology to Run its Nuclear Program

Want to launch a nuclear missile? You’ll need a floppy disk. That’s according to a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that the Pentagon was still using 1970s-era computing systems that require “eight-inch floppy disks.” Such disks were already becoming obsolete by the end the 1970s, being edged out by smaller, non-floppy 3.5 to 5.25-inch disks, before being almost completely replaced by CDs in the late 90s. Except in Washington. The GAO report says that U.S. government departments spend upwards of $60 billion a year on operating and maintaining out-of-date technologies. That’s three times the investment on more modern technology. The report says the Pentagon is planning to replace its floppy systems — which currently coordinate intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), nuclear bombers and tanker support aircraft — by the end of 2017. Other departments were also put on notice to update their systems. The U.S. Treasury for example, still depends on assembly language code “initially used in the 1950s.”

VA has Declared Thousands of Living Vets Dead

The Department of Veterans Affairs has mistakenly declared thousands of veterans to be deceased and canceled their benefits over the past five years, a new snafu to emerge at the embattled department. The VA has made the error more than 4,000 times over a half-decade because of employee mistakes or erroneous cross-checking of data by the department’s computers, among other reasons, reports the Wall Street Journal. The VA has changed its procedures to address the issue, but it isn’t yet clear whether the new system is effective. Every year, about 400,000 veterans or others receiving VA benefits die and their awards are canceled, according to department statistics. Of the roughly two million veterans declared deceased in the past five years, 4,201 cases involved incorrect declarations.

Americans are Fatter than Ever

The results from one of the largest and broadest surveys of health in the United States released Wednesday shows some encouraging results, but the gains were overshadowed by rising rates of obesity and diabetes. The latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contains data from the 2015 survey, which included more than 100,000 people. the big negative is that the rate of obesity in the United States is continuing its upward march. In 2015, 30.4% of Americans 20 and older were obese, up from 29.9% in 2014. It is a continuation of the trend that has been evident since at least 1997, when only 19.4% of Americans said they were obese. Other surveys say the problem is even worse. In 2012, the National Health and Nutrition Survey found that 34.9% of adults 20 and older were obese.

The CDC researchers found that rates of obesity were higher among blacks than Hispanic and white adults. Adults between the ages of 40 and 59 showed the highest level of obesity at 34.6%. The other discouraging finding from the report is that the number of Americans who said they had been diagnosed with diabetes continued to rise. Among people 18 and older, 9.5% said they had diabetes in 2015, compared with 9.1% in 2014. The increase between years was not huge, but as with obesity rates, it suggests a continuing upward trend. In 1997, only 5.1% of Americans had diabetes.

Pestilence Update

A study published Tuesday found that one-third of babies with a birth defect linked to the Zika virus also display eye abnormalities that could affect their vision. The 29 babies in the study were born with microcephaly, a condition that results in abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development. Brazil noted a sharp increase in microcephaly cases about six months after the first reported cases of Zika in that country. Ten of the 29 infants showed eye abnormalities, according to the study, led by researchers at the Federal University of São Paulo in Brazil and published in JAMA Ophthalmology. Nearly 80% of the babies’ mothers reported suspected Zika symptoms while pregnant, including rash, fever, joint pain, headache and itch. The World Health Organization said Friday that there is “no public health justification” for postponing or canceling the Rio de Janeiro Olympics because of the Zika outbreak. The statement came after 150 health experts issued an open letter to the U.N. health agency, calling for the games to be delayed or relocated “in the name of public health.”

The United States’ first known case of a superbug that cannot be killed by a last resort-style kind of antibiotic was detailed in a report by the U.S. Department of Defense on Thursday. A 49-year-old Pennsylvania woman showed the presence of a rare kind of E. coli infection that is resistant to antibiotics, even Colistin, which doctors sometimes use as a last resort when other antibiotics fail. No other details were available, including how the woman became infected. She has not traveled outside the United States within the past five months. The CDC and the Pennsylvania State Health Department mobilized immediately to investigate the case and to trace the contacts the patient may have had to see if the bacteria had spread.

G7 Leaders Vow Action on Economy, Climate Change

Group of Seven leaders on Friday expressed concern about the fragility of the global economy, pledging to address economic challenges, climate change and terrorism. The leaders, including President Obama, who met Thursday and Friday in Ise-Shima, Japan, issued a statement following their summit vowing to embrace their “special responsibility to lead international efforts to tackle these challenges.” “Global growth remains moderate and below potential, while risks of weak growth persist,” the statement said. “Escalated geo-political conflicts, terrorism and refugee flows complicate the global economic environment. Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe later said at a news conference that the world’s developing countries are hurting from sudden declines in commodity prices, including oil, steel and various raw materials. The leaders also reiterated their commitment to the global carbon emissions-reducing climate agreement struck last year in Paris.

Economic News

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said Friday that the central bank is likely to raise interest rates in coming months if the economy continues to improve as expected. Yellen did not say whether Fed policymakers are leaning toward hiking the central bank’s benchmark rate in June or July, but she said the economy is picking up after a weak first quarter, leaving a move in the next two months on the table. Fed policymakers have indicated they expect to raise interest rates twice this year, which would essentially require an initial hike no later than September.

U.S. benchmark oil prices on Thursday topped $50 per barrel in intraday trading for the first time since October as the commodity continued its upward momentum. Crude oil briefly slipped below $30 per barrel in early 2016 as a global glut of production cratered pricing, triggering bankruptcies of U.S. exploration-and-production firms and deficits in oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia. But a steady contraction in production among cash-strapped U.S. producers and a corresponding slide in inventories have fueled a rebound. Another factor bolstering prices was the massive wildfire that has undermined Canadian oil production in recent weeks.

Denmark has led the charge for renewable energy, but now the green policies have become too expensive. In 2015, Denmark set a new world record by generating the equivalent of 42.1% of the country’s total energy consumption by wind. Denmark is also the world’s largest exporter of wind power equipment. The cost of subsidizing wind power has become increasingly heavy as oil and natural gas prices in the Nordic countries have fallen dramatically over the last couple of years, making the renewable alternatives a lot less attractive. The Danish consumers and companies pay the highest prices for electricity within the European Union

Persecution Watch

A Muslim mob ransacked and torched seven Christian homes in a province south of the Egyptian capital, Cairo, after rumors spread that a Christian man had an affair with a Muslim woman, according to a statement by the local Orthodox Coptic church. Security officials said the woman was beaten and insulted while being paraded naked by the mob through the village. They said the mob was made of about 300 men. Police arrived at the scene nearly two hours after the attacks began and arrested six people. Minya’s top cleric, Anba Makarios, said the family of the Christian man had notified the police of threats against them by Muslim villagers the day before the attack.

Pakistan

The leader of a Pakistani Islamic council has proposed a bill that allows husbands to “lightly beat” their wives as a form of discipline. In the 75-page proposal, Mohammad Khan Sheerani suggests a light beating is acceptable should the need arise to punish a woman. The proposal bans forceful beating, saying only a small stick is necessary to instill fear. The Council of Islamic Ideology is a powerful constitutional body that advises the Pakistani legislature whether laws are in line with the teachings of Islam. Proposals by the Council of Islamic Ideology are recommendations and are not applicable unless passed by legislators.

Israel

The Lebanese Shi’ite terror militia Hezbollah announced this week that it has launched an effort to dig terror tunnels under the border with Israel similar to the tunnels dug by Hamas under the Gaza border. As part of a response, the IDF Homefront Command announced a number of steps this week to defend the border area, including the formation of civil defense units made up of civilian volunteers, both Jewish and Arab. The civil defense units are not given weapons or military training and do not wear uniforms. Their primary function would be to assist in medical evacuation, disaster relief and similar functions.

Just 15 years ago, Israel relied entirely on imported coal, natural gas and oil for its energy needs. All that could change in the next few years following the discovery of giant gas fields. In fact, Israel may have so much natural gas it has to export some to its neighbors. Since it was discovered in 2009, production at the Tamar natural gas field has risen steadily and now averages 1.2 billion cubic feet a day, enough for 40% of Israel’s power generation. In 2011, Noble Energy and Israel’s Delek discovered the Leviathan field. Until recently, it was the largest gas field ever discovered in the Mediterranean. It contains an estimated 22 trillion cubic feet of gas, enough to make Israel a major player in the regional market. More discoveries followed – the Tanin field in 2012 and Karish a year later. The gas fields added 3 trillion cubic feet to Israel’s gas reserves. If development of Leviathan begins this year, the field could be producing gas by 2019, but it remains untapped because of regulatory delays. Israel needs foreign investment to develop the gas fields. Leviathan requires an estimated $6 billion. The government this week approved plans for a legal framework that would encourage foreign investors to participate in the development of gas fields.

Islamic State

Iraqi security forces and supporting militias have retaken the key town of Karma from ISIS, the government’s first significant victory in its push to reclaim Falluja. The recapture of Karma, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) northeast of Falluja, brings most of the territory east of Falluja under government control. Meanwhile, thousands of Iraqi troops, police, Sunni tribal fighters and the country’s elite counter-terrorism force have converged on the outskirts of Fallujah. U.S. artillery batteries at a nearby base have lobbed shells onto Islamic State positions, and more than 20 airstrikes in and around the city have killed 70 fighters, Most of Fallujah’s 300,000 residents fled after Islamic State militants stormed into Iraq in 2014 and seized several major cities. About 50,000 civilians remain, and they are being asked to put white sheets on their homes to avoid shelling and bombing.

Iraq

Iraqi security forces and supporting militias have retaken the key town of Karma from ISIS, the government’s first significant victory in its push to recapture Falluja, a spokesman for Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said Thursday. Karma is about 16 kilometers (10 miles) northeast of Falluja, and its capture means Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units, or PMUs, now control most territory east of that city. Iraqi forces launched a campaign Monday to reclaim Falluja, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad. It remains, along with Mosul, one of the last two Iraqi cities under the Sunni terror group’s control.

France

Unions on Friday called for workers to step up protests that have crippled parts of France for the past week. Employees of oil refineries, nuclear power plants and some public transportation have left one in three gas stations dry, forcing vehicles to search for well-stocked stations and causing long lines at the pump. People are now hoarding gas, worried that it may be some time until supply levels are back to normal. The workers are protesting a labor reform bill put forward by the government that will make it easier for companies to hire and fire employees. The government’s argument is that restrictive laws make French workers among the best protected in the world, leaving companies in a difficult position having to carry underperforming employees.

Ukraine

Ukraine is showing signs of backsliding on reforms and a cease-fire agreement with Russian-backed separatist forces in the east as Europe weighs in June whether to continue sanctions against Russia for its role in the conflict. Germany, which has provided support to Ukraine since its conflict with Russia began in 2014, wants Ukraine’s government to implement a law governing elections in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which were seized in April 2014 by militants allegedly supplied and backed by Russian forces. Ukraine wants cease-fire violations by the militants to end before it passes the election law. Both Italy and Hungary, which seek to resume trade with Russia, have said the renewal of sanctions would not be automatic when the European Commission considers them at the end of June.

Russia

Romania and Poland are in the potential crosshairs of Russian rockets because they are hosting parts of the U.S. missile defense shield that Moscow considers a threat to its national security, President Vladimir Putin warned Friday. Putin warned the European nations that Moscow has repeatedly said it would have to retaliate if the missile defense shield was put into place, but U.S. allies have ignored Russia’s warnings. Earlier this month, the U.S. program was declared operational at a site in Romania, drawing an angry reaction from Russia. NATO said the system is purely defensive and a response to a growing capability of ballistic missiles globally. Washington has said that the shield is needed to protect Europe from Iran and is not a threat. Another part of the shield is getting ready to be implemented in Poland.

North Korea

Federal officials have opened a national security investigation into the recent $101 million hack of Bangladesh’s central bank amid suspicions that North Korea was involved, law enforcement officials told CNN Friday. The probe, launched by the FBI and federal prosecutors in Los Angeles, echoes the suspicions of private cybersecurity firms. The massive digital heist of Bangladesh Bank and at least three other banks could pose a serious threat to the global banking system. In recent months, a hacking team known as the “Lazarus Group” has broken into Bangladesh’s central bank and stolen $101 million. It has also slipped into banks in Ecuador, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Venezuela

Venezuela is drifting into complete chaos with hunger, blackouts and government shutdowns plaguing the country, reports the New York TImes. The courts? Closed most days. The bureau to start a business? Same thing. The public defender’s office? That’s been converted into a food bank for government employees. Step by step, Venezuela has been shutting down. Venezuela has grown accustomed to painful shortages, even of basic foods. But that is only the start of the country’s woes. Electricity and water are being rationed, and huge areas of the country have spent months with little of either. In recent weeks, the government has taken what may be one of the most desperate measures ever by a country to save electricity: A shutdown of many of its offices for all but two half-days each week. The growing economic crisis is fueled by low prices for oil, the country’s main export; a drought that has crippled Venezuela’s ability to generate hydroelectric power; and a long decline in manufacturing and agricultural production.

Wildfires

Over 1,575,000 acres of U.S. land have been consumed by wildfires this year through 5/27. This is more than four times the acreage last year over the same timeframe and is the most since 2011. Eight large (over 100 acres) wildfires are burning in Arizona, having already consumed about 15,000 acres.

Weather

One person drowned when a vehicle was swept off a road in central Oklahoma, and two people were critically injured after a tornado touched down near Dodge City, Kansas, as severe storms pummeled parts of the Plains Tuesday afternoon and evening. At least 26 tornadoes were reported from Colorado to Michigan. Several people in Ford County, Kansas, reportedly were hurt in Tuesday’s storms. A large, violent tornado narrowly missed a central Kansas town Wednesday night as another round of severe weather rolled across the Plains. Between 15 and 25 homes were hit, with damage ranging from minor to total destruction. Severe weather continued to spawn numerous tornadoes across large stretches of Kansas Thursday, prompting residents to anxiously watch the skies but causing only scattered damage in rural areas and no injuries or deaths.

Two people have died and three are missing in Texas after a storm system fired up once again in the Plains, bringing heavy rain and severe flooding to parts of the region. Numerous rivers in the state are heading toward historic crests, and a disaster declaration has been made for Bastrop County, Texas, as more rain is forecast over the holiday weekend. High waters covered roadways and prompted evacuations across the region Thursday and into Friday. Over 17 inches of rain hammered the official reporting station in Brenham, Texas, about 65 miles west-northwest of downtown Houston. Tornadoes that caused damage were also reported in the Lone Star State and Kansas, where twisters have been spotted for a third consecutive day.

Signs of the Times (5/24/16)

May 24, 2016

Obama to Hospitals: Do Abortions and ‘Sex Changes’ or Lose Federal Funding

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published the final rule for Obamacare’s Section 1557 last Friday, requiring healthcare providers receiving federal funds to perform “gender transition” services and abortions, or face termination of government aid, along with possible referral to the Department of Justice for legal action. HHS states the rule “will help to advance equity and reduce health disparities by protecting some of the populations that have been most vulnerable to discrimination in the health care context.” It encompasses any health program or activity, any part of which gets HHS funding, which would mean hospitals accepting Medicare and doctors who accept Medicaid, and any HHS-administered health program, as well as health insurance marketplaces and issuers that take part in those marketplaces. Ken Klukowski, attorney with First Liberty Institute and Breitbart News legal editor said, “It is an unconstitutional assault on the First Amendment that the Obama administration is forcing their rejection of biological fact onto people whose faith teaches that ‘man’ and ‘woman’ refer to what they have meant for thousands of years, and that God purposefully created them that way.”

Obama Appoints Transgender “Man” to Faith-Based Council

“President Obama has appointed a transgender man to a prominent faith advisory position, sparking a flood of outrage from conservatives,” reports WorldNetDaily.com. His recent announcement named Barbara Satin to be a member of the president’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a choice commentator Tim Brown at Freedom Outpost scorched as a “mentally sick transgender man.” Obama’s statement said Satin was the assistant faith work director for the National LGBTQ Task Force. Peter LaBarbera, head of Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, told OneNewsNow, “Obama is obsessed with promoting homosexualism and now transsexuality. He’s engaged in a war on normal for the last eight years, and it looks like he’s trying to do as much as he can to promote sexual and gender perversions as he can before he leaves office.’

Black Pastors Call Out Obama For Insulting African-Americans

The Coalition of African-American Pastors (CAAP) is challenging Obama on his illegal transgender mandate. They recently issued a statement, asserting: “The Obama administration’s assertion that single-sex bathrooms are discriminating against gender-confused individuals in much the same way that blacks experienced discrimination in the United States is a ‘gross insult’ to all who fought for equality for African-Americans.” Rev. Bill Owens, president of CAAP, said, “There is simply no relation between the struggles that Black Americans have faced and the desire of a tiny minority group to violate the dignity and privacy of women and girls.” Further, Owens says Obama and Loretta Lynch’s illegal mandate is “an affront to the Black Community and a theft of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.” And, “Black Pastors will not allow the homosexual and transgender communities to rob Black Americans of their battle for civil rights!”

Target Hit Hard over Transgender Bathroom Policy

According to Breitbart News “Target’s stock has fallen 20 percent – from $84 per share to $67 per share – since it imposed the pro-transgender policy on its customer base of families. In comparison to other major retailers, Target’s stock has dropped three and four times more than the stock of its competitors, as of Monday. That loss has chopped roughly $10 billion from the overall shareholder value of the company, according to a chart produced by Yahoo.com.” Over 1.25 million people have signed a pledge to boycott Target on the American Family Association website. AFA’s reason for boycotting is to see Target reverse their policy and send a message to other companies that it’s bad business to embrace this LGBT political agenda over common sense and safety.

Oklahoma Governor Vetoes Bill that would Criminalize Abortion

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin on Friday vetoed a bill that would criminalize abortion procedures in the state. The decision to veto the bill, which likely would have opened up the state to lawsuits from abortion rights supporters, comes at a time when Fallin is considered a possible running mate for presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. “The bill is so ambiguous and so vague that doctors cannot be certain what medical circumstances would be considered ‘necessary to preserve the life of the mother,'” Fallin, a Republican, said in a statement. Liberty Counsel, an evangelical group, called Fallin’s veto a “despicable betrayal.” “As one who proclaims to be pro-life, her actions run counter to her words,” Mat Staver, the group’s founder and chairman, said in a statement.

Judge Blasts Obama Attorneys for Lying

US District Judge Andrew Hanen has been at the center of the illegal and unconstitutional executive amnesty issued by Barack Hussein Obama Soetoro Sobarkah. On Thursday, Judge Hanen issued a scathing rebuke of Department of Justice attorneys for being “intentionally deceptive” regarding violations of a court order that no executive amnesty take place because it is unconstitutional, reports FreedomOutpost.com. The DOJ “has now admitted making statements that clearly did not match the facts,” he wrote in his opinion. “It has admitted that the lawyers who made these statements had knowledge of the truth when they made these misstatements … This court would be remiss if it left such unseemly and unprofessional conduct unaddressed. Such conduct is certainly not worthy of any department whose name includes the word ‘Justice,'” Judge Hanen added pointing to the administration’s violation of a federal court order and approving of thousands of amnesty applications. He ordered the attorneys to under ethics training.

Wave of Robo-Calls Shutting Down Schools Across the Nation

A wave of automated, threatening calls directed at schools across the nation forced authorities to lock down buildings or evacuate students. The calls were reported in California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin. Ken Trump, a national school security expert, said Monday’s nationwide bomb hoaxes have the hallmarks of swatting — highly disruptive hoax threats that are intended to trigger massive police response. Trump said swatting incidents have “skyrocketed” nationwide in the past two years. In the United Kingdom, at least 21 schools received bomb threats as well.

Facebook Makes Changes after Bias Investigation

Facebook is making changes to how it selects the most important news articles for subscribers on the giant social network after its internal investigation found no evidence of “systematic” bias. But they admitted that they could not rule out the possibility of rogue employees committing “isolated improper actions or unintentional bias.” They further admitted that but admitted that employees play a bigger role than previously acknowledged in determining what news is highlighted in the trending topics section. Facebook made the announcement after meeting last week with several prominent conservatives, including top Senate Republican John Thune of South Dakota, who chairs the Senate commerce committee. Thune sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, demanding to know how Facebook chooses trending topics after Gizmodo reported that Facebook’s news curators suppressed conservative articles and news outlets in the “Trending Topics” feature that highlights the most popular news on Facebook. Thune said: “The seriousness with which Facebook has treated these allegations and its desire to serve as an open platform for all viewpoints is evident and encouraging and I look forward to the company’s actions meeting its public rhetoric.”

Immigration Backlash Behind British Push to Leave the E.U.

For many in the U.K., Europe doesn’t represent a prosperous and peaceful continent. It is seen as the source of a mass influx of Eastern European immigrants across open borders that residents say has transformed British cities beyond all measure. “This used to be the posh part of Peterborough. Look at it now,” David Jackson, a 41-year-old teacher, said as he ruefully surveyed the scene on Lincoln Road, the commercial heart of the city’s multiethnic immigrant communities. “Romanians pissing in the park. Lithuanians out on the street drinking, doing drugs. Even the rats here are on heroin.”  If Britain does vote to leave the E.U. on June 23, analysts say, a powerfully emotional backlash against decades of immigration in cities such as Peterborough will be the primary driver.  Advocates for a British exit have hammered the point, arguing that getting out of the E.U. is the only way for the country to control its borders, because the 28-member club guarantees its citizens freedom of movement.

Economic News

Sales of newly built homes rose to the fastest pace in more than eight years in April while prices also increased, a sign of steady demand running up against limited supplies across the housing market, reports the Wall Street Journal. The Commerce Department said on Tuesday new home sales jumped 16.6 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 619,000 units, the highest level since January 2008. The percent increase was the largest since January 1992. With supplies tight, the median price for a new home increased 9.7 percent from a year ago to a record $321,100. New home sales represent around 10% of all home sales in the U.S.

More than 31% of auto borrowers have negative equity in their vehicles – meaning they owe more on their loans than their cars are worth. That’s up from 23% five years ago, and a record high. A whopping 29% of car loans now stretch out as long as six to seven years. That’s triple the level in 2010, and also a record high. Leasing now accounts for a record 33.6% of purchases, up from around 24% a half-decade ago, according to Money and Markets Newsletter.

U.S. companies are sitting on a record $1.8 trillion in cash and investments. One problem, though. They also are on the hook for $6.6 trillion in debt. U.S. companies only hold 28 cents in cash for every dollar they must repay in debt, the lowest cash-to-debt ratio since the financial crisis wound down in 2009. It’s even uglier situation if you exclude the 1% richest companies, The other 99% of the less fortunate companies only have 15 cents in cash for every $1 in debt they owe.

On May 11th, Portugal was fully powered by renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind and hydropower. This amounted to a total of 107 hours with no need to resort to any source of non-renewable energy, particularly the production of thermal power plants to coal or natural gas. And Portugal was still able to export a significant amount of electricity. Portugal has been very proactive when it comes to renewable energy. Portugal has a population of over 10 million and it’s a little larger than Maine at 35,603 square miles.

A South African bank became a victim of a bank heist 10,000 miles away, after a group of criminals stole $13 million out of cash machines on another continent using fake South African credit cards. The thieves used around 1,600 forged cards to withdraw the money from 1,400 individual cash machines across Japan. It took the group just over two hours to steal the money from the Standard Bank, withdrawing the maximum amount of 100,000 yen ($913) in 14,000 individual transactions. The thieves used a network of ATMs run by Seven Bank across Japan.

Middle East

The Palestinian Authority rejected a suggestion by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold direct talks in Paris under the auspices of the French government minutes after he made it Monday afternoon in a joint press conference with visiting French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. Valls is in Israel to brief leaders on a summit scheduled for 3 June in Paris to discuss a new French initiative on promoting an agreement between the two sides. Representatives from 20 countries, but not Israel or the Palestinian Authority, are set to attend the conference, which is designed to set up a more substantial conference later in the year. Israeli officials have expressed concerns that the conference will result in Israel having untenable demands dictated to it while the PA has welcomed the idea and has continuously refused Israeli offers of direct negotiations.

Islamic State

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi took to live television early Monday to announce the start of an operation to recapture the city of Falluja from ISIS. Abadi’s overnight announcement came hours after Iraq’s military implored residents of ISIS-held Falluja to flee their homes ahead of the operation to wrest the metropolis from the terror group. Abadi said Iraqi security forces would provide safe passage for civilians to leave the city during the operation. Iraqi planes have dropped thousands of leaflets — safe passage cards — on Falluja, which has been under ISIS control since January 2014. Human Rights Watch warned last month that ISIS was barring civilians from leaving Falluja and that residents faced starvation due to food shortages and exorbitant prices after an extended siege. The U.S. military launched airstrikes and provided guidance to Iraqi government forces in their push to recapture the city of Fallujah from Islamic State fighters Monday,

Iraq

Anti-government protesters stormed Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Friday, heightening concerns about political stability at a critical time in Iraq, Reuters reported. Iraqi security forces fired weapons in the air and used tear gas as hundreds of protesters breached the walls and rushed toward the prime minister’s office and the parliament building. Iraqi security forces fired weapons in the air and used tear gas as hundreds of protesters breached the walls and rushed toward the prime minister’s office and the parliament building, according to the Associated Press.  Some protesters had been wounded. The violence caused Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to impose a curfew in Baghdad. It was the second such protest in less than a month and comes amid growing violence in the capital. A spike in bombings attributed to the Islamic State has killed scores in recent weeks.

Syria

At least 161 people were killed and scores injured in a series of bombings in Syria on Monday, state media reported. The attacks — seven bombings altogether — targeted civilians in the coastal cities of Tartus and Jableh for the first time in the country’s five-year war, raising fears of more violence among residents living in government bastions who have enjoyed relative quiet. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. The wave of explosions also underlined the inability of world powers to jumpstart Syrian peace talks in Geneva as the violence worsens and reaches new areas. The official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported that 45 people were killed in twin bombings at the main entrance of the bus station in Jableh and in another attack on a city neighborhood. In a fourth bombing, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance of Jableh National Hospital’s emergency department, SANA reported. In Tartus, the news agency reported that 33 people were killed and 47 others wounded when a suicide bomber and a car bomber attacked a crowded bus station and another bomber blew himself up.

Afghanistan

Afghan authorities confirmed Sunday that the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour, was killed in a U.S. drone strike. Mansour was killed at 3:45 p.m. local time Saturday. The National Directorate of Security said in a statement that, “The attack happened on the main road while he was in his vehicle.” President Obama authorized the strike in a remote area along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It was carried out my multiple unmanned aircraft operated by U.S. Special Operations Forces. Officials said there was no collateral damage in the aftermath of the strike. The U.S. drone attack represents another escalation in U.S. involvement in the war in Afghanistan and signals a new willingness to target senior Taliban leaders on Pakistani soil, analysts and officials said Sunday. It is believed to be the first time that the U.S. military directly targeted the top leader of the Afghan Taliban. The killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour sets off a succession struggle and puts further pressure on a group riven by factional struggles.

Iran

The Iranian military warned that it could destroy the “Zionist entity” Israel within eight minutes if the Ayatollah issues the command. “If the Supreme Leader’s orders [are] to be executed, with the abilities and the equipment at our disposal, we will raze the Zionist regime in less than eight minutes,” Ahmad Karimpour said Thursday. Karimpour is a senior adviser of Iran’s elite Al Quds military unit. Khamenei has repeatedly stated his goal to destroy the State of Israel, which he refers to as the “Zionist entity,” and says that the Islamic Republic has been increasing its military and nuclear capabilities notwithstanding the nuclear deal that it concluded with the Six Global Powers, led by the Obama administration, in the summer.

Vietnam

President Obama lifted a decades-long American arms embargo on Vietnam Monday and touted a new friendship with the United States’ former enemy. “Just a generation ago, we were adversaries and now we are friends,” Obama said during a news conference in Hanoi with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang 41 years after the end of the Vietnam War. Other signs of cooperation between the former combatants include new business sales, more military cooperation, research programs involving universities in both countries, and cultural exchanges that include the introduction of the U.S. Peace Corps to Vietnam, Obama said. The lifting of the arms embargo is seen as an effort to shore up the communist country’s defenses against an increasingly aggressive China.

China

What China calls the “Golden Shield” is a giant mechanism of surveillance that blocks tens of thousands of websites deemed inimical to the Communist Party’s narrative and control, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and even Instagram, reports the Washington Post. China is trumpeting its vision of “Internet sovereignty” as a model for the world. Confounding Western skeptics, the Internet is nonetheless thriving in China, with nearly 700 million users, putting almost 1 in 4 of the world’s online population behind the Great Firewall. China is the world’s leader in e-commerce, with digital retail sales volume double that of the United States and accounting for a staggering 40 percent of the global total. Last year, it also boasted four of the top 10 Internet companies in the world ranked by market capitalization. After two decades of Internet development under the Communist Party’s firm leadership, China says they have struck the correct balance between “freedom and order” and between “openness and autonomy.” As it pursues a broad crackdown on free speech and civil society, China has tightened the screws on virtual private network (VPN) providers that allow people to tunnel under the Firewall.

Volcanoes

Seven people were killed and two others were critically injured after Mount Sinabung erupted in Sumatra Saturday. All of the victims of the eruption were working on their farms in the village of Gamber in Simpang Empat subdistrict, 2.5 miles away from the slope. This area is referred to as the “red zone,” and has been declared off-limits by government authorities for safety reasons, reports the Bangkok Post. Despite repeated warnings and government efforts to deter people from farming there, some still return to the area. The blast shot volcanic ash as high as 2 miles into the air and that ash tumbled down the slopes as far as 3 miles westward into a river.

Weather

A deadly cyclone struck Bangladesh’s southern coast on Saturday, killing at least 24 people and forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes. Local media say the deaths were caused by the collapse of houses in Bhola, Chittagong and Patuakhali districts. Cyclone Roanu crossed the southern coastal district of Cox’s Bazar and weakened after triggering rains. Dozens of villages were submerged by floodwaters.

India recorded its highest-ever temperature last Thursday when the heat in the town of Phalodi, in the western state of Rajasthan, shot up to a burning 51 degrees Celsius (123.8 degrees Fahrenheit). It was the second day in a row the town experienced temperatures in excess of 50 degrees Celsius. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the highest temperature ever was recorded at 56.7 degrees Celsius (134 degrees Fahrenheit) in Death Valley, California, on July 10, 1913.

Signs of the Times (5/20/16)

May 20, 2016

Oklahoma Legislature Criminalizes Performing Abortions

Oklahoma lawmakers have moved to effectively ban abortion in their state by making it a felony for doctors to perform the procedure, an effort the bill’s sponsor said Thursday is aimed at ultimately overturning the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. The bill, the first of its kind in the nation, also would restrict any physician who performs an abortion from obtaining or renewing a license to practice medicine in Oklahoma. It passed 33-12 Thursday and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, an anti-abortion Republican, has until next Wednesday to sign the bill into law or veto it.

Senate Approves 9/11 Legislation Despite Saudi Threats

The Senate passed legislation Tuesday that would allow families of Sept. 11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia, rejecting the fierce objections of a U.S. ally and setting Congress on a collision course with the Obama administration. The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, approved by voice vote, had triggered a threat from Riyadh to pull billions of dollars from the U.S. economy, if the bill is enacted. The legislation gives victims’ families the right to sue in U.S. court for any role that elements of the Saudi government may have played in the 2001 attacks that killed thousands in New York, the Washington, D.C. area and Pennsylvania. The House still must act on the legislation. Relatives of Sept. 11 victims have urged the Obama administration to declassify and release U.S. intelligence that allegedly discusses possible Saudi involvement in the attacks.

House Approves $602B Defense Bill despite White House Objections

The Republican-led House voted convincingly Wednesday to approve a $602 billion defense policy bill after rejecting attempts by Democrats to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to repeal the war powers President Barack Obama relies on to fight the Islamic State. The legislation, which authorizes military spending for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, seeks to halt a decline in the combat readiness of the U.S. armed forces by purchasing more weapons and prohibiting further cuts in troop levels. But in a 17-page statement on the policy bill, the White House detailed its opposition to numerous provisions and said Obama would veto the legislation if it reached his desk. The bill, approved 277-147, must be reconciled with a version the Senate is expected to consider by month’s end.

White House, Congress Reach Deal on Puerto Rico Rescue

Congress is trying to save Puerto Rico from “full scale economic collapse.” The Obama Administration called this latest plan to solve the island’s crisis “a fair, but tough bipartisan compromise.” The act is called PROMESA, the Spanish word for “promise.” It would create an Oversight Board to control the island’s finances. The board would also have special abilities to restructure the island’s whopping $70 billion in debt, but only as a last resort. The goal is to “bring lawful order to chaos in Puerto Rico and mitigate a looming humanitarian crisis,” the House Committee on Natural Resources said in a statement. There’s hope that the bill will pass before July 1, the date when Puerto Rico will almost certainly miss a nearly $2 billion debt payment to its creditors. Puerto Rico has already defaulted three times on its debt payments. Puerto Rico’s Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla has made it clear that if he has to choose between paying teachers and police or paying the Wall Street “vulture funds,” he’ll go with the first option.

GAO Study: Segregation Worsening in U.S. Schools

America’s public schools are increasingly segregated by race and class, according to new findings by Congress’ watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office. GAO investigators found that from the 2000-2001 to the 2013-2014 school year, both the percentage of K-12 public schools in high-poverty and the percentage comprised of mostly African-American or Hispanic students grew significantly, more than doubling, from 7,009 schools to 15,089 schools. The percentage of all schools with so-called racial or socio-economic isolation grew from 9% to 16%. Researchers define “isolated schools” as those in which 75% or more of students are of the same race or class. Such schools, investigators found, offered disproportionately fewer math, science and college-prep courses and had higher rates of students who were held back in ninth grade, suspended or expelled. The report, requested by Congress in 2014, on the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down the ‘separate but equal’ laws that segregated schools, was released on Tuesday, on its 62nd anniversary.

EEOC takes on tech diversity, or lack thereof

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held a rare public hearing Wednesday on a hot-button issue in Silicon Valley: the lack of women, minorities and older workers, particularly in technical roles. The anti-discrimination watchdog met at its Washington, D.C., headquarters to review the employment practices in an industry dominated by white and Asian men. Meanwhile, tech companies say they are launching a variety of hiring initiatives, from anti-bias training to partnerships with minority tech programs. The EEOC, which is charged with fighting systemic workplace discrimination, is jumping into the fray amid growing pressure from civil rights activists who have for years prodded the tech industry to hire more women and minorities and foster more inclusive corporate cultures.

Poll Finds 9 in 10 Native Americans Aren’t Offended by Redskins Name

Nine in 10 Native Americans say they are not offended by the Washington Redskins name, according to a new Washington Post poll that shows how few ordinary Indians have been persuaded by a national movement to change the football team’s moniker. The survey of 504 people across every state and the District reveals that the minds of Native Americans have remained unchanged since a 2004 poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found the exact same result. Responses to The Post’s questions about the issue were broadly consistent regardless of age, income, education, political party or proximity to reservations.

Zika Update

The number of pregnant women with the Zika virus in the United States has more than tripled, increasing from 48 to 157, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday. The report also says there are 122 pregnant women with the Zika virus in the U.S. territories. The report does not detail the outcomes of the pregnancies. It’s the first time the agency had disclosed the number of Zika-infected pregnant women in the U.S. and its territories.

Hackers Stole Millions in Third Attack on Global Banking System

The global banking system is under attack. A January 2015 attack on Banco del Austro is described in a recent lawsuit filed by the bank in a New York federal court. It ended with thieves transferring $12 million to accounts in Hong Kong, Dubai, New York and Los Angeles, according to court documents. The same methods used by hackers to attack banks in Vietnam and Bangladesh appear to have been deployed over a year ago in a similar heist in Ecuador. The existence of the lawsuit was first reported Friday by the Wall Street Journal, just one week after global banking communications network SWIFT instructed clients to secure their local computer networks. SWIFT, or the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, warned customers that two previous attacks against banks in Bangladesh and Vietnam appeared to be “part of a wider and highly adaptive campaign.” The hackers used malware to circumvent a bank’s local security systems to gain access to the SWIFT messaging network. Then fraudulent messages were sent via SWIFT to initiate cash transfers from accounts at larger banks.

Millions More Workers Now Eligible for Overtime Pay

Moving to fatten low- and middle-income paychecks that have languished for years, the Obama administration on Tuesday unveiled a long-awaited rule that will make millions of Americans newly eligible for overtime pay. While some businesses welcome the measure, many say it will simply force them to reshuffle salaries to get around the regulation. Others fear it will mean demoting white-collar workers and altering workplace cultures, reports USA Today. The new rule essentially doubles the threshold at which executive, administrative and professional employees are exempt from overtime pay to $47,476 from the current $23,660. That’s expected to make 4.2 million additional workers eligible to receive time-and-a-half wages for each hour they put in beyond 40 a week. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said the salary threshold was originally intended to exempt high-paid executives but instead has denied overtime to low-level retail supervisors and entry-level office workers who often toil 50 to 70 hours a week.

Economic News

Inflation accelerated in April as a result of rising gasoline prices, while core inflation increased modestly. The consumer price index rose 0.4%, the Labor Department said Tuesday, the largest increase in three years. The index was up 1.1% over the past year. Excluding volatile food and gasoline items, so-called core inflation increased 0.2%, up 2.1% the past 12 months. Gasoline prices jumped 8.1% in April. While still low, gas prices have been rising along with crude oil prices in recent weeks. Regular unleaded gas averaged $2.22 on Monday, up from $2.11 a month ago, according to AAA. Food costs increased 0.2%.

U.S. credit-card balances are on track to hit $1 trillion this year, as banks aggressively push their plastic and consumers grow more comfortable carrying debt. That sum would come close to the all-time peak of $1.02 trillion set in July 2008, just before the financial crisis intensified. The boom has been driven by steady economic conditions and an improving job market that have made creditworthy consumers less reluctant to take on debt. In addition, lenders have signed up millions of subprime consumers who previously weren’t able to get credit. Consumers are taking on other forms of debt, too. Auto-loan balances surpassed $1 trillion in the first quarter, a record for the industry.

  • And, once again, the debt bubble builds only to burst anew in the near future

Cash is piling up at U.S. companies – and just five tech companies have grabbed a third of it. About 87% of the cash is stashed overseas outside the long arm of Uncle Sam. Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet (Google), Cisco System and Oracle are sitting on $504 billion of the $1.7 trillion in cash held by U.S. non-financial companies, according to an analysis released Friday by ratings agency Moody’s Investors.  That’s even more cash concentration in previous years, as these five companies held 27% of cash in 2014 and 25% in 2013. Apple alone is holding more cash and investments than eight of the 10 entire industry sectors except for technology and healthcare.

For years, America’s college campuses swelled with more and more students. But enrollment peaked in 2010 at just over 21 million students. Attendance has dropped every year since. By the fall of 2014 — the most recent year government data is available — there were 812,069 fewer students on U.S. college campuses. College graduates make almost double the salary of those with only a high school diploma.

A trade spat between the U.S. and China boiled over on Wednesday, with Beijing demanding the removal of a new 500% duty on some of its steel products. Trade tensions between the U.S. and China have risen considerably this year — especially over steel. Last month, U.S. Steel accused dozens of Chinese producers of breaking trade rules, and asked the U.S. International Trade Commission to investigate. China produces half of the world’s steel, more than the U.S., European Union, Russia and Japan combined. But as the country’s massive economy slows, internal demand for steel is dropping. Beijing now stands accused of dumping its unwanted metal on other markets, forcing rivals to close their plants and killing thousands of jobs.

Bank of Spain figures show that the country’s public debt is now worth more than the value of the Country’s entire economy. The bank said Wednesday that Spain’s public debt stockpile stood at 1.09 trillion euros ($1.23 trillion) in the first quarter of the year. That represents 101 percent of the country’s annual GDP — 1.08 trillion euros — in 2015. Spain’s public debt has risen consistently since the beginning of the country’s economic crisis in 2008.

Persecution Update

In yet another disturbing example of the genocide facing Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, on 12-13 May a group from Islamic State entered a town near the city of Hama in Syria, populated only by Christians and Alawites, killing an as yet unspecified number of men, women and children. Prior to the women being killed they were first raped. Meanwhile in Aleppo, fighting continued during the truce agreed between the Syrian government and non-jihadist rebels, resulting in yet more deaths and injuries.

Hindu extremists incited a mob that targeted and assaulted Christians in the village of Katholi, located in Kanker District in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh. The Christians had to flee the village on April 24, along with their families in order to save their lives. Four days later they returned to their vandalized homes, after a formal reconciliation with the other villagers which had been brokered by the district authorities, but a night of rowdy death threats forced them to flee again. The district authorities intervened a second time and got a written undertaking from the villagers not to threaten or trouble the Christians. The Christians returned under police protection, but threats have re-started.

The wife and family of imprisoned Vietnamese pastor and religious freedom activist Nguyen Cong Chinh suffered beatings and mistreatment at the hands of the authorities on three occasions between May 11-13; their 18-year-old son was arrested when he tried to protect his mother. This continues a pattern of official harassment of the family which the pastor’s wife, Tran Thi Hong, describes as “intolerable.” Mrs. Hong is herself a member of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights (VNWHR). Her husband was jailed for eleven years in 2012, ironically accused of having “colluded with foreign reactionaries” in “anti-government activities” in order to “falsely accuse Vietnam of suppressing religious freedom.”

Middle East

France announced on Tuesday that it will delay a planned summit to launch a new “peace plan” for Israel and the Palestinians originally scheduled to take place on 30 May. The delay until an unspecified date later in the summer was explained as giving US diplomats, who have been cool to the idea, a chance to attend the conference after informing Paris earlier that scheduling conflicts made their attendance impossible. However, US officials remain officially cool to the French proposals.

Iraq

At least 54 people were killed in three bombings at markets in Shiite-dominated neighborhoods of the Iraqi capital on Tuesday. At least 28 people died and up to 65 were wounded when a bomb exploded at an outdoor market in the Shiite-dominated neighborhood of Shaab in northeastern Baghdad. A roadside bomb exploded before a suicide bomber targeted people who gathered to help the wounded. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, claimed responsibility. Elsewhere, a car bomb exploded at a fruit and vegetable market in the neighborhood of Dora in the south of the city killed at least eight people and wounded 22. A third bombing killed 18 people and wounded 35 others at an outdoor market in Sadr City, eastern Baghdad.

Syria

The Russian military is constructing a new army base in the central Syrian town of Palmyra, without asking for permission from relevant authorities. The site is within the protected zone listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site. Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus, said “We refuse to give permission even if it was for a small room to be built inside the site whether it is for the Syrian army, Russian army or anyone else. We will never give such permission because this will be in violation of the archaeology law.” Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes captured Palmyra in March and fighting continues miles away until this day.

The United Kingdom said Tuesday the World Food Program will begin airdrops to besieged areas of Syria on June 1, if humanitarian access is not provided. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime continues to remove medical aid from humanitarian convoys and to prevent convoys from reaching Syrians in need, said British Ambassador to the United States. If the practice continues, the World Food Program will create an airdrop program starting June 1st. The airdrops will be conducted by United Nations airplanes with security guaranteed by Russia.

Libya

U.S. Special Forces and surveillance flights are operating on the ground and over Libya as the West moves to boost security operations in the country to bolster Libya’s increasingly desperate fight against ISIS. Surveillance flights over the country’s coast have been in operation from the remote Sicilian island of Pantelleria for over a year, and Special Forces have recently increased their presence on the ground, CNN reports. The U.S. presence in Libya was acknowledged by Pentagon officials in the past few days. Special Forces teams are said to be in action around the capital Tripoli, as well as Misrata and the east of the country. The U.S. publicly only supports the latest of the three groups who claim the right to govern the country — the Government of National Accord, led by Fayez al-Sarraj and recently installed by the United Nations. But the presence of these Special Forces teams in the strongholds of the other two groups claiming to be the country’s legitimate government shows that America retains wider private contacts.

Egypt

Greek officials said Thursday that an EgyptAir flight that disappeared over the Mediterranean enroute from Paris to Cairo with 66 people aboard apparently made two sharp turns then suddenly lost altitude before vanishing from radar. Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathi said the possibility of a terror attack as the cause of the crash of flight MS804 was “stronger” than technical failure. However, EgyptAir has a long history of disastrous flights over the last 40 years. Egyptian and Greek authorities said the plane likely went down near the Greek island of Crete. Greek civil aviation authorities say all appeared fine with the flight until air traffic controllers were preparing to hand it over to their Egyptian counterparts. The pilot did not respond to their calls, and the aircraft then vanished from radar. Egyptian and Greek authorities found wreckage from EgyptAir Flight 804, including luggage, airline seats and body parts, about 180 miles off the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria on Friday. Unconfirmed reports indicate that the Islamic State terror group has taken credit for this brutal act of terror.

China

The Chinese government cranks out 488 million fake social media posts a year in an effort to divert attention away from sensitive issues, a new study estimates. The researchers describe a “massive secretive operation” carried out by government employees, highlighting just how far China is willing to go to control news and information. Many foreign websites and social networks, including Google and Facebook, are blocked in the country, and authorities closely monitor and censor activity on homegrown social media sites. The new study, led by Harvard University data scientist Gary King, looks at China’s “Fifty Cent Party,” referring to the people rumored to be paid 50 Chinese cents (US$0.08) by the government for each positive social media comment they write and post.

Earthquakes

At least one person died and 85 were injured after two earthquakes struck Ecuador’s coastal region within 12 hours Wednesday. They were aftershocks from the massive earthquake that killed at least 654 people and injured more than 4,000 in the same area last month. The quakes, with magnitudes of 6.8 and 6.7, hit at 2:57 a.m. and 11:46 a.m. local time. Two people were seriously injured and school has been canceled in the provinces of Manabi and Esmeraldas until Monday.

Wildfires

A massive wildfire continues to burn in Fort McMurray, Canada, and its push toward oil sands camps north of the Albertan city forced officials to evacuate 8,000 workers on Monday. The evacuation notice expanded to some 30 miles north of the city, which remains closed to the 88,000 residents and visitors who were forced out more than two weeks ago. The wildfire has burned at least 877,000 acres (1,370 square miles) of land and destroyed some 2,400 structures in Fort McMurray, many of which were homes. The fire remains at 0% containment as of Friday morning.

Weather

California on Wednesday suspended its mandatory statewide 25 percent reduction in urban water use, telling local communities to set their own conservation standards after a relatively wet winter and a year of enormous savings in urban water use. The new rules are a sharp change in policy for a state struggling to manage one of the worst droughts in its history. They came after a winter in which El Niño storms fell short of what meteorologists projected — particularly in the southern part of the state — but still partly filled parched reservoirs in Northern California and, more critically, partly replenished the mountain snowpacks that provide water into the spring and summer. The rules do not apply to agriculture, which is covered by different regulations and makes up the bulk of water use in the state. Cuts in supply based on seniority were imposed in the last year for the agricultural industry. Some of those cuts have been rolled back already as water has become more available.

  • This seems hasty given the duration and severity of the drought, with the rainy season coming to an end

Lake Mead’s water level reached a record low this week and is expected to drop further moving into 2016, as the drought stricken region shows no immediate signs of recovery. The elevation for the man-made reservoir was measured at 1,074 feet on Wednesday, according to the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lower Colorado Region. Multiple reports have confirmed that the lake is at its lowest level since the completion of the Hoover Dam amid the Great Depression in 1936. Lake Mead provides water for approximately 20 million residents in Arizona, California and Nevada, and is expected to drop by an additional 5 feet by the end of June, ABC News reports.

Vero Beach, Florida, shattered a long-standing, all-time rainfall record Tuesday as clusters of thunderstorms triggered significant flash flooding in parts of the Sunshine State. Vero Beach picked up 11.22 inches of rain Tuesday, crushing the previous wettest day record for the city, 8.82 inches, set on January 21, 1957. Several clusters of slow-moving thunderstorms with torrential rain pelted parts of Florida Tuesday afternoon and evening before a squall line rolled through Tuesday night. Winds were severe enough to flip a small single-engine plane at Treasure Coast International Airport Tuesday evening.

Floods and landslides across Sri Lanka have claimed the lives of at least 37 people, the government said Tuesday. At least 21 people are reported missing as a result of heavy storms in the past three days. More than 12 inches of rain has fallen in the last 48 hours in some locations. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed and 223,687 people have been evacuated to safe locations as heavy rains continue. The Meteorological Department has warned of more rain, rough seas and strong winds in most parts of the country.

Signs of the Times (5/16/16)

May 16, 2016

One in Four Worldwide Pregnancies End in Abortion

New research has revealed that one in four pregnancies now end in abortion, according to ChristianToday.com. The statistic comes from research conducted by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute. One in four pregnancies amounts to around 56 million abortions every year. The research also found that while the abortion rate in developed countries has declined in recent years, the abortion rate in third world countries has increased. There were about 50 million abortions every year between 1990-1994, according to the research, but that number has risen to 56 million between 2010-2014. In developed countries, the abortion rate has dropped 10 points, from 24 to 14 among 1,000 reproductive-age women. The research also found that the abortion rate remained mostly the same whether abortion was legal or not. “All too often, abortion is seen and sold as the only solution for mothers who are encouraged to view an unplanned pregnancy as a problem that needs solving. But we should be making sure mothers are fully aware that there are different options out there, other than termination,” said Nola Leach, chief executive of the Christian charity CARE.

Obama Administration Promotes Transgender Bathroom Policy in Public Schools

The Obama administration on Friday directed public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity. A joint letter from the Departments of Education and Justice was sent out Friday to public schools with guidelines to ensure that “transgender students enjoy a supportive and nondiscriminatory school environment.” The announcement comes amid heated debate over transgender rights in schools and public life, which includes a legal standoff between the administration and North Carolina over its controversial House law prescribing bathroom use based on biological gender. The guidance goes beyond the bathroom issue, touching upon privacy rights, education records and sex-segregated athletics, all but guaranteeing transgender students the right to identify in school as they choose.

Liberty Counsel reports that the directive also says that school cannot require transgender students to have a medical diagnosis, undergo any medical treatment, or produce a birth certificate or other identification document before treating them consistent with their gender identity – therefore, just take them at their word? The letter does not carry the force of law but the message was clear: Fall in line or face loss of federal funding. Conservatives called it an illegal overreach that will put children in danger while advocates for transgender rights hailed it as a breakthrough for civil rights. Prominent politicians across the nation are defiantly standing up against the guidance from Washington. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick accused the Obama administration of “blackmail” and called the directive “social engineering.” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, on Twitter, promised a fight: “Obama can’t rewrite the Civil Rights Act. He’s not a king.”

  • In a nation where civil rights supersede God’s law, judgment awaits

ObamaCare Pressures Insurers to Cover Sex Change Operations

The Department of Health and Human Services issued a final regulation Friday that will pressure health insurers to cover sex change operations, which would then be subsidized by taxpayers through Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare. The final rule came the same day the Obama administration ordered schools to let children use whatever bathroom or locker room matches “their chosen gender identity,” or risk losing federal funding. The agency released its final “Nondiscrimination in Health Programs and Activities” rule, which enforces Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act. The regulation “prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability; enhances language assistance for individuals with limited English proficiency; and protects individuals with disabilities,” the agency said in a release. Doctors and health insurers also cannot deny “health care or health coverage based on an individual’s sex, including discrimination based on pregnancy, gender identity, and sex stereotyping.”

 Judge Rules Obama Administration’s Obamacare Spending Unconstitutional

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled on Thursday that the Obama administration is unconstitutionally spending money to fund Obamacare. House Republicans brought the charges against the Obama administration, and Collyer ruled in their favor. The funding in question is about $175 billion that the Obama administration is paying health insurance companies to lower the co-payments for lower income customers. According to the Associated Press, the “disputed subsidies help lower-earning people afford out-of-pocket costs such as annual insurance deductibles and co-payments when they visit doctors.” But House Republicans say they never allocated money in the federal budget to fund this initiative, and that they even denied an Obama administration’s request for it. However, the Obama administration spent the money regardless of Congress’ decision. Collyer ruled that was illegal, since it is the House’s responsibility to establish budgets and spending limits. The ruling was the latest indication that the eight-member Supreme Court is exploring every avenue to avoid 4-to-4 deadlocks, even if the resulting action avoids deciding the question it had agreed to address, notes the New York Times.

Supreme Court sends ObamaCare Contraception Mandate Case Back to Lower Courts

The Supreme Court punted Monday on a challenge by religious-affiliated employers to ObamaCare’s contraception mandate, sending the dispute back to the lower courts. The justices had been considering whether religious-affiliated institutions like the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic charity of nuns, can be exempt from having to pay for — or indirectly allow — birth control and other reproductive health coverage in their health plans. But the court did not rule on the merits. Instead, the justices sent the cases back to the appeals courts to make new decisions based on recent statements.

Many U.S. Doctors Refuse to Take Obamacare Patients

The New York Times reports that Amy Moses and her circle of self-employed small-business owners were supporters of President Obama and the Affordable Care Act. They bought policies on the newly created New York State exchange. But when they called doctors and hospitals in Manhattan to schedule appointments, they were dismayed to be turned away again and again with a common refrain: “We don’t take Obamacare,” the umbrella epithet for the hundreds of plans offered through the president’s signature health legislation. Though their insurance cards look the same as everyone else’s — with names like Liberty and Freedom from insurers like Anthem or United Health — the plans are often very different from those provided to most Americans by their employers. Many say they feel as if they have become second-class patients. Some early studies of the impact of the Affordable Care Act plans are proving patients’ grumbling justified: Compared with the insurance that companies offer their employees, Obamacare plans require higher patient outlays for medicines and include a more limited number of doctors and hospitals, referred to as a narrow network policy.

Air Force Depleted by Budget Cuts

Years of budget cuts have taken an undeniable toll on the U.S. Air Force. They are now short 4,000 airmen to maintain its fleet, short 700 pilots to fly them and short vital spare parts necessary to keep their jets in the air. The shortage is so dire that some have even been forced to scrounge for parts in a remote desert scrapheap known as “The Boneyard.”  Fox News visited two U.S. Air Force bases to see the resource problems first-hand, following an investigation into the state of U.S. Marine Corps aviation last month. Many of the Airmen reported feeing “burnt out” and “exhausted” due to the current pace of operations, and limited resources to support them. “We have only 20 aircraft assigned on station currently. Out of those 20 only nine are flyable,” Master Sgt. Bruce Pfrommer said.

Homicides Are Up Again in More Than Two Dozen Major U.S. Cities

The number of homicides increased in the first months of 2016 in more than two dozen major U.S. cities, going up in places that also saw spiking violence last year, according to statistics released Friday. The numbers were particularly grim for Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Las Vegas, where the number of homicides increased in the first three months of 2016 after killings and other violent crimes also went up in 2015. FBI Director James B. Comey said, “I was very worried about it last fall, and I am in many ways more worried, because the numbers are not only going up, they’re continuing to go up in most of those cities faster than they were going up last year.” Criminologists and law enforcement officials, including Comey, say the causes of the increases are unclear, and they offer a variety of possible explanations, including gang violence and bloodshed stemming from drug addictions.

Tattoos have Gone Mainstream, but They Still Carry Risks

If getting a tattoo is still a sign of rebellion, then a lot of Americans are rebels: 29% of adults now have at least one tattoo, up from 21% in 2012 and 16% in 2003, a recent Harris Poll found. Millennials are especially tat-happy: 47% of people ages 18 to 35 are inked, according to the poll. But that increase in popularity has occurred despite what some doctors say are underappreciated and understudied risks. Among those urging caution is the Food and Drug Administration: In an update for consumers posted this month, the agency says it has received increasing reports of infections, allergic reactions and other adverse reactions linked to tattoos. The agency says it also is concerned about the unknown risks from long-term exposure to pigments and other ingredients in tattoo ink.

Economic News

Retail sales bounced back strongly in April. Overall sales jumped 1.3%, their biggest rise since March 2015, because of higher gasoline prices and a surge in auto sales, the Commerce Department said Friday. Auto sales jumped 3.2%, reversing March’s decline. And gasoline station sales rose 2.2% amid rising prices. Excluding those two volatile categories, shopper purchases still increased 0.6%. The increase was broad-based, with sales rising 0.9% at food and beverage stores; 0.7% at furniture stores; 1% at clothing stores; 0.9% at health and personal care stores; 0.3% at bars and restaurants; and 2.1% online.

The average American household is over $90,000 in debt, reports TIME. Among debtors, the average rises to a staggering $130,922—with $15,762 of that from credit cards alone—according to figures published by the consumer finance website NerdWallet. Such debt also includes student loans, auto loans and mortgages. The average U.S. household pays $6,658 each year in interest alone. The largest single contributor to debt seems to be the fact that the cost of living in the United States has exceeded income growth for the past 12 years. Since 2003, median incomes have risen by around 26%, however, medical costs grew by 51% while food costs grew by 37% during the same time frame. In addition, long-term auto loans of 5-6 years have also expanded overall debt.

Despite an 80% spike in oil prices since mid-February to around $47.50 a barrel today, oil companies continue to grapple with diminished cash flows as they’ve cut back on production and contend with low prices. Four more U.S. oil companies filed for bankruptcy over the past week. It became too difficult to pay back the debt they piled up just a few years ago when oil prices were comfortably sitting above $100 a barrel. There have already been at least 29 U.S. oil and gas bankruptcies this year alone, according to Haynes and Boone. That brings the toll since the start of last year to at least 64.

Migrant Update

Christian refugees from the Middle East who have migrated to Germany have appealed to German authorities to protect them from the persecution they are experiencing from Muslim refugees. According to ChristianToday.com, up to 40,000 of non-Muslim refugees have experienced harassment from their fellow refugees who are Muslim. Human rights organization Open Doors recently released a survey detailing the persecution faced by these non-Muslim refugees. According to the survey results, of the 231 refugees surveyed, 32 percent reported receiving death threats, 37 percent reported suffering from physical injury, and 42 percent reported receiving insults for their faith.

The number of migrants trying to reach mainland Europe by passing through the Greek islands plunged by 90% in April compared to the previous month, the European Union’s border agency said Friday. Fewer than 2,700 reached Greece by crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey over the period. It attributed the drop in arrivals to an “EU-Turkey agreement and stricter border policies applied by the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia at its border with Greece.” Syrians once again accounted for the largest share of people traveling to Greece from Turkey followed by nationals from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. The International Organization for Migration released separate figures Friday showing that an estimated 188, 075 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea routes this year. The four countries they arrived in were Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Spain. At least 1,357 have died along the way. Last year, Germany registered nearly 1.1 million asylum seekers.

Israel

Monday morning saw another terrorist stabbing attack of a Jewish Israeli by a Palestinian terrorist in Jerusalem, with the victim being rushed to a nearby hospital and the terrorist arrested. The attack came a day after French Foreign Minister Jean Marc Ayrault briefed Israeli and Palestinian officials on Paris’ new initiative to push a “peace settlement” between the two sides, which Israeli officials have expressed deep reservations about. “Any other process [like the French initiative] just pushes peace farther away and gives the Palestinians an escape hatch to avoid confronting the root of the conflict, which is the recognition of the state of Israel [as Jewish state],” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday.

Islamic State

Islamic State militants are repositioning its forces Syria in response to increasing military pressure from coalition airstrikes and ground forces growing in effectiveness. A group of U.S.-backed rebel forces are making progress in seizing territory in northeastern Syria from the Islamic State, slowly isolating Raqqa, the defacto capital of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.

Iraq

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack at a natural gas plant outside Baghdad on Sunday that left at least 14 people dead and amid explosions and fire. Three other bomb attacks in the capital city, all targeting commercial areas, left at least 8 other people dead. The assault at the gas plant began when three car bombs exploded outside the gate in Taji, less than 15 miles north of the Baghdad, the BBC reported. At least 20 people were wounded. Six men wearing suicide belts then rushed the plant, clashing with security forces and blowing up gas tanks.

Iraqi security forces and Sunni tribal fighters killed 10 ISIS militants in an hours-long clash Saturday, security sources said. The attackers came from inside the town and were operating as sleeper cells. Two security officers and two tribal fighters were killed and seven others were injured during the clashes. Three militants gunned down coffee shop patrons in central Iraq on Friday morning before later blowing themselves up along with security personnel. At least 20 people were killed, officials said, in the latest deadly attacks claimed by ISIS in the country. Counting Friday’s carnage in Balad, a Shiite-majority city 50 miles north of Baghdad, attacks claimed by the Sunni terror group ISIS have left more than 110 people dead over three days.

Syria

Hezbollah says its top military commander was killed in Syria by insurgent shelling. Mustafa Badreddine died in an explosion in Damascus, Lebanon’s Iran-backed militant group said Friday. He was leading Hezbollah’s effort to help Syrian President Bashar Assad fight off militant groups trying to overthrow him. Badreddine’s death is considered to be the most serious loss to the militant group since the 2008 assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, who was his cousin and predecessor. Mughniyeh was killed in a joint operation by the CIA and Israel’s Mossad spy agency, reports said. Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to back President Bashar Assad’s government against militants trying to remove him from power.

Yemen

A suicide bomber on Sunday detonated his explosives among policemen standing in line outside a police base in the southern Yemeni city of Mukalla, killing 25. At least 17 more people were injured in the attack. The Yemeni affiliate of the extremist Islamist State group claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on social media networks. Sunday’s victims were policemen returning to work for the first time since last month’s recapture of Mukalla by forces of the internationally recognized government. The port city had been held for more than a year by Yemen’s local al-Qaida affiliate.

China

Satellite photos show China has been rapidly building military outposts on disputed islands in the South China Sea, significantly boosting its presence in the already tense region, according to a Pentagon report released Friday. The report to Congress reveals that China has added over 3,200 acres to the seven sites it occupies in the South China Sea during the last two years. On these artificial island sites, China has excavated deep channels to improve access to its outposts, created artificial harbors, dredged natural harbors and constructed new berthing areas to allow access for larger ships. Each of the three largest outposts will have an airfield with a runway approximately 9,800 feet long. U.S. defense officials say China is ‘weaponizing’ these man-made islands.

Environment

Almost everyone in large cities in poor and middle-income countries faces excessively high air pollution, a growing problem that is killing more than 3 million people prematurely each year and “wreaking havoc on human health,” the World Health Organization said Thursday. The U.N. health agency says more than four out of five urban dwellers worldwide live in cities that don’t meet WHO air quality guidelines – 98 percent in poorer countries and 56 percent even in high-income countries. “Ambient air pollution, made of high concentrations of small and fine particulate matter, is the greatest environmental risk to health, causing more than 3 million premature deaths worldwide every year,” WHO said. An accompanying U.N. news release said global urban air pollution levels rose 8 percent from 2008 to 2013 “despite improvements in some regions,” and noted that people face a higher risk of strokes, heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory diseases as air quality worsens.

Five uninhabited reef islands in the Solomon Islands chain in the Pacific have vanished completely thanks to rising sea levels, say Australian researchers. The news for inhabited islands in the chain isn’t so great, either. Nararo is one of six inhabited islands in the Solomon Islands to be severely eroded by rising sea levels, which are climbing seven to 10 millimeters per year in the area. “The sea has started to come inland, it forced us to move up to the hilltop and rebuild our village there away from the sea,” says the leader of the Paurata tribe on Nararo Island. Nuatambu Island has lost half of its habitable land since 2011, and Taro in Choiseul province may soon become the world’s first provincial capital to be abandoned due to climate change, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

Earthquakes

A strong earthquake shook Tokyo and other cities in eastern Japan on Monday, but officials said there is no danger of a tsunami. The Meteorological Agency said the earthquake had an initial magnitude of 5.6 and was centered in southern Ibaraki prefecture, about 60 miles northeast of Tokyo. The earthquake also shook Tsukuba, where science and technology ministers from the Group of Seven nations are meeting. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

Weather

Even though Memorial Day Weekend, the unofficial start to summer, is only two weeks away, it felt more like St. Patrick’s Day Weekend across the Midwest and Northeast. Parts of several states from the Upper Midwest into the Great Lakes have seen record low temperatures and even some snow. Among the daily record lows set over the weekend were Grand Forks, North Dakota (23 degrees), Wisconsin (30 degrees), and South Bend, Indiana (31 degrees). Snow was also reported this past weekend in parts of Wisconsin, Michigan, northeast Ohio, northwest Pennsylvania and northern New York.

More than 60 people have reportedly been killed from lightning over the past two days during tropical storms across Bangladesh. Bengali-language newspapers Prothom Alo and Samakal reported Saturday that most of the deaths have occurred in rural Bangladesh, where farmers are busy with the current harvesting season. Experts say increased deforestation and people’s exposure to metal equipment like cellphones are the reasons behind lightning deaths.

Earth experienced the warmest April on record, keeping 2016 on track to be the hottest year yet and by the biggest margin ever. New data released by NASA put this April’s land and sea temperatures at 1.11 degrees Celsius warmer than average April temperatures between 1951 to 1980, which NASA uses as a reference point to study recent climate change. It was the seventh month in a row to rise by at least 1 degree Celsius above the 1951-80 reference averages.

  • End-time weather will continue to become more extreme (Daniel 9:26b, Revelation 8:7, 11:19, 16:11)

Signs of the Times (5/12/16)

May 12, 2016

Johns Hopkins Chief Psychiatrist Says Transgenders are Counterfeits

CNS News reports that Dr. Paul R. McHugh, the Distinguished Service Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and former psychiatrist–in-chief for Johns Hopkins Hospital, who has studied transgendered people for 40 years, said it is a scientific fact that “transgendered men do not become women, nor do transgendered women become men.” All such people, he explained in an article for The Witherspoon Institute, “become feminized men or masculinized women, counterfeits or impersonators of the sex with which they identify.” Gender dysphoria—the official psychiatric term for feeling oneself to be of the opposite sex— “belongs in the family of similarly disordered assumptions about the body, such as anorexia nervosa and body dysmorphic disorder,” said McHugh. He stressed that the cultural idea that “one’s sex is fluid and a matter of choice” is extremely damaging, especially to young people.

Over 100 United Methodist Clergy Come out as LGBT

Over 100 United Methodist clergy members have come out as LGBT as part of an effort to convince the UMC to rethink their stance on gay marriage and the LGBT community. The Huffington Post reports that the leaders of the United Methodist Church are scheduled to meet in Portland to consider around 1,000 legislative petitions in favor of embracing the LGBT community in the UMC. More than 100 pastors, deacons, elders, and other leaders in the UMC released a letter right before this meeting, proclaiming their solidarity with the LGBT community and revealing their own affiliation with it. The UMC’s official stance regarding gay marriage is that UMC clergy are not authorized to perform gay marriage ceremonies, and members of the LGBT community cannot be ordained in the church.

  • Moral corruption continues to increase as a definitive sign that the ramp up to end-time tribulation is accelerating (2Timothy 3:1-7)

Report Reveals Facebook Suppresses Conservative News

Widely-used social media site Facebook has been accused of bias concerning which news stories the site prioritizes. “Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project. This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users,” reported the website Gizmodo. Charisma News cites a 2014 Pew Research Center poll that revealed 61 percent of millennials, 51 percent of Generation X-ers, and 39 Percent of Baby Boomers “got news about politics and government in the previous week” from Facebook. Facebook tailors news stories to each user, based on location, pages that user has liked, and things the user has posted.

  • Not surprising that another liberal social media site suppresses conservative news – but what is surprising is that so many people look to Facebook for their news. That’s truly appalling and another sign of the dumbing down of America.

U.S. Special Forces Wage Secretive ‘Small Wars’ Against Terrorists

President Barack Obama is increasingly calling upon Special Operations forces to carry out so-called “small wars” across the Middle East and Africa to challenge both ISIS and al Qaeda in places where the U.S. maintains a footprint beyond Syria and Iraq, reports CNN. In his first trip overseas since taking command of U.S. Special Operations a month ago, Gen. Raymond Thomas told a Middle Eastern audience recently that “complex” fails to adequately describe the current security environment. That complexity is leading the Obama administration to expand the use of small teams of Special Operators in various terror hotspots. Although much of the U.S. response is clearly focused on Iraq and Syria — Special Ops forces are being asked to prevent both ISIS and al Qaeda from gaining a stronger foothold in places like Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The military characterizes many of the operations as “advising and assisting” local forces with intelligence and overhead surveillance to help identify targets. But in reality there are also many instances of the U.S. conducting direct attack operations on terror targets, says CNN.

FBI chief says Fewer Americans Traveling to Join ISIS

FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday the power of the Islamic State’s brand is dwindling in the U.S. as fewer Americans are traveling to fight alongside the extremist group in the Middle East. Comey said the FBI found that 6 to 10 Americans tried to join ISIS every month in 2014 and the first half of 2015. However, that number has dwindled down to one per month since last summer in a sustaining downward trend, he said. “There’s no doubt that something has happened that is lasting, in terms of the attractiveness of the nightmare which is the Islamic State to people from the United States,” he told reporters. The FBI chief did acknowledge Wednesday that the group’s ability to inspire “troubled souls” remains a persistent concern. The FBI still has “north of 1,000” cases in which agents are trying to evaluate a subject’s level of radicalization and potential for violence.

U.S. Installs European Missile Defense Shield, Russia Protests

The U.S completed the installation of a new ground-based missile defense system in Romania Thursday, sparking fresh tensions with Russia, which quickly blasted the system as a threat to its security. The system, to be operated by NATO, is getting up and running nearly a decade after the U.S. first announced plans to do so, only to encounter pushback from Russia. The U.S. has long insisted that the shield is directed against rogue states like Iran and not intended to target Moscow’s missiles, but Russian officials have slammed the move as an “attempt to destroy the strategic balance” in Europe. “The United States’ Aegis ashore system is declared certified for operations,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday at an official ceremony. “Missile defense is for defense,” he added. “It does not undermine or weaken Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.” Russia has described the U.S. anti-missile shield in Europe as a “threat” and says it is taking “protective measures” to guard against it, the country’s state news agency TASS reported.

Obama Administration Deception Revealed in Promotion of Iran Nuclear Deal

The White House is scrambling to contain the damage caused by one of President Obama’s closest aides who boasted of manipulating social media, journalists and friendly interest groups to sell the Iran nuclear deal. In addition, the Obama Administration is now facing new questions about a portion of missing tape in which a State Department official acknowledges misleading the press on the Iran negotiations, reports Fox News. Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes’ comments to The New York Times Magazine have sparked outrage in Washington’s political and policy circles, especially re-igniting the debate over whether the White House oversold the deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., issued a scathing statement Monday saying the article “exposed how the White House manipulated and, in some cases, manufactured facts to sell the reckless Iran nuclear deal to the American people.” Now, the administration is facing further questions over a block of missing tape from a 2013 State Department briefing where top spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked by Fox News about an earlier claim that no direct, secret talks were underway between the U.S. and Iran – when, in fact, they were. In that exchange, Psaki acknowledged misleading the press, saying: “There are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress. This is a good example of that.”

Summit Meeting in London Targets Pervasive Corruption

Leaders from around the world gathered in London for the one-day meeting aimed at fighting corruption hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron. The summit aims to get leaders of nations, business and civil society to agree on measures to expose corruption, punish perpetrators, support the people affected and to “drive out the culture of corruption wherever it exists,” the British government said. “Corruption is the cancer at the heart of so many problems we need to tackle in our world,” Cameron said at the meeting. Britain announced Thursday that it will lead a new international network to stamp out corrupt practices. At least 18 countries have signed up to partner with each other to share best practices. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told an international summit here Thursday that corruption is as great an enemy as extremism. “I’ve been shocked by the degree to which I find corruption pandemic in the world today,” Kerry said.

Prescription Painkiller Overdose Deaths Rapidly Increasing

Someone in the U.S. dies from an overdose of opioid pain medication every 19 minutes. There is no other medication routinely used for a nonfatal condition that kills patients so frequently. The majority of those deaths result from prescription opioid medications, such as hydrocodone, OxyContin and Percocet, reports CNN. It has become so common that specialists even have a profile for the most typical victim: non-Hispanic Caucasian male, mid 30s. Initial diagnosis: back pain due to trauma, surgery or degenerative arthritis. And, most remarkably, average time from first prescription to time of overdose death: just 31 months. As of 2011, 75% of the world’s opioid prescription drugs are prescribed and swallowed up in the U.S. which makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, leading to the most common cause of preventable death in America today.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Drugs are cheaper than a multidisciplinary approach to treating pain, and cost savings are what insurance companies like to hear. For decades, certain pharmaceutical companies misled the FDA about the risks of opioid dependence in an effort to sell more of the drugs, and three top executives from Purdue Pharma even pleaded guilty to those criminal charges. Most of the blame, however, belongs on the shoulders of the American doctors themselves, writes Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Chief Medical Correspondent for CNN. Doctors have doled out long-term opioid prescriptions “in the same way they write antibiotic prescriptions for viral illnesses. In both cases, they don’t work. In both cases, they can cause colossal harm.”

Middle Class Continues to Shrink in U.S.

America’s once-mighty middle class is shrinking all around the nation, reports CNN Money. The share of middle-income households declined in 90% of the country’s 229 metro areas between 2000 and 2014, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center, released Wednesday. Overall, some 51% of Americans lived in middle class households in 2014, down from 55% in 2000. There’s no one reason why the middle class is shrinking, said Rakesh Kochhar, associate director for research at Pew. One of the main causes? Rising income inequality, driven by factors including globalization, the decline of unions, the outsourcing of jobs and advancements in technology. The middle class are also seeing their incomes shrivel. Pew defines the middle class as those having incomes ranging from two-thirds to double the national median, based on household size. Nationally, the middle class had a median income of $72,919 for a three-person family in 2014, down from $77,898 in 1999.

Economic News

Overall, earnings for the entire Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index are on track to contract 5.4% in the first quarter, the third consecutive quarter of negative growth. Even though 72% of the 451 companies in the big-cap index have topped analysts’ lowered expectations, investors are beginning to exhibit big-time jitters about the overall economy, with the Dow Jones index falling 217 points Wednesday — its biggest one-day drop in three months.

The Labor Department says the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose last week to the highest level since February 2015, more sobering news for the labor market after a disappointing April jobs report. Applications for jobless aid rose by 20,000 to a seasonally adjusted 294,000. Jobless claims are a proxy for layoffs. Despite last week’s increase, they remain low. They have come in below 300,000 for 62 straight weeks, longest streak since 1973.

Who exactly owns the $19 trillion-plus of U.S. debt? China’s share of the debt is sizable — about 7% — but it’s hardly the largest holder of U.S. government bonds, according to CNN Money. The top holders by far are U.S. citizens and American entities, such as state and local governments, pension funds, mutual funds, and the Federal Reserve. Together they own the vast majority — 67.5% — of the debt. Foreign nations only hold 32.5% of the total. China holds $1.25 trillion while Japan has $1.13 trillion of U.S. debt.

America had around 5.75 million job openings in March. That’s just shy of the all-time high, 5.78 million openings, set last July, according Labor Department data published Tuesday. Since November, the number of job openings has increased for five straight months. These high numbers of openings are a sign that business owners can’t find the skilled workers qualified to fill the jobs they have open.

Gasoline prices dropped below $2 across most of the nation early in the year when crude dropped to $30 a barrel. In some isolated cities, the price fell to very close to $1. But now, the pendulum has swung the other way, as oil has moved above $45. Gas prices have risen very close to $3 for a gallon of regular in several of California’s largest cities. The average price for a gallon of regular across the country is $2.21 as of Monday morning. That is up from $2.04 a month ago.

Persecution Watch

A nighttime assault on a village in Christian-majority eastern DR Congo has left at least 17 dead, slashed with axes and machetes. It is suspected that the attack, which took place last Tuesday (3 May), was carried out by Ugandan Islamist group, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). ADF rebels have been accused of carrying out numerous bloody attacks on the mostly Christian population in this area for years. Three days later (6 May) a local source asserted that the death toll had risen to as many as 34 as those seriously wounded succumbed to their injuries.

A Christian from Pakistan’s Punjab province has been accused of blasphemy after allegedly watching anti-Islamic lectures on his mobile phone. Local Muslims are calling for the man to be killed. The incident has also affected the wider Christian population of a village in Mandi Bahauddin District in the Punjab province. Many have been forced to flee for fear of attack and Muslims are refusing to buy goods from them or sell goods to them, leaving them in desperate need of food. Normally the Christians would work in the fields and houses of local Muslims, but this has been stopped. They have also been banned from buying items from shops in the village. “They have boycotted us,” local Christians said, “and left us in a desperate situation.”

Last Monday (2 May), yet another church was burnt down in north-west Tanzania, however the church has refused to stop meeting. The church’s minister, Fortunatus Bijura, said, “Those who think that destroying our church means we won’t pray, they are wrong … We have a big tree near the church and will continue meeting there for prayers.” This is the third arson attack on a church in the area since January. Since 2013, there have been over 13 such attacks on churches in the area and no-one has yet been held accountable for them. Tanzania is 35% Christian, 35% Muslim and 30% African traditional religions. The attacks on Christians appear to be linked to two Islamist groups – “Uamsho”, which ostensibly seeks to create an Islamic state with strict sharia enforcement on Zanzibar but has also been active on the mainland, and a group calling itself “Muslim Renewal”. The latter claims to have links to Somalia.

Israel

Masked terrorists stabbed two elderly Jewish women in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem Tuesday morning. Police said they’d arrested two suspects but have not concluded their investigation into the incident. The two victims were reportedly recovering at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

The Islamic State (ISIS) terror organization is planning to launch a massive attack against Israel from the Sinai Peninsula, the German Bild newspaper reported on Sunday. The Sinai based Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis, a terrorist organization which has pledged allegiance to ISIS in Syria, is training hundreds of terrorists, who are reportedly waiting for the order to attack Israel. Israel has dramatically bolstered security on its border with Egypt as result of ISIS’ buildup.

Islamic State

A top Islamic State commander in Iraq’s Anbar province was killed last week by a coalition airstrike, the Pentagon said Monday. Abu Wahib and three others were killed when their vehicle was struck on May 6 in Rutba, according to the Associated Press. Wahib’s death is “another blow” to the group’s leadership “that will further degrade its ability to operate,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said. Wahib was a former member of al-Qaida in Iraq and has appeared in Islamic State execution videos.

Iraq

Two more car bomb blasts targeting civilians in two Baghdad neighborhoods killed at least 22 people Wednesday. One blast hit Kadhimiya and the other went off in a Sunni district in western Baghdad. The bombings came hours after at least 64 people were killed and at least 87 injured in a car bombing in a market in a mainly Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad earlier Wednesday. The Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, claimed responsibility for the attack — one of the worst in the Iraqi capital in recent times — which it said targeted Shiite militiamen.

Philippines

The Philippines’ newly elected president, Rodrigo Duterte, is a law-and-order advocate who has said he wouldeuse death squads to execute criminals and dump their bodies in Manila Bay. A series of crude remarks have earned the 71-year-old mayor of Davao, the Philippines’ third largest city, nicknames like “the Punisher,” the “Donald Trump of the East” and “Duterte Harry.” The latter a nod to the vigilante detective made famous by Clint Eastwood in the movie Dirty Harry. His unrepentant, tough-on-crime position has won him legions of supporters attracted to the irreverence of a political maverick. “Tough talking and no nonsense but with a soft spot for the poor, women and children,” is how Duterte’s office’s website describes the man who will preside over 100 million people in a growing Southeast Asia economic powerhouse that is also one of the United States’ closest allies in the region.

Brazil

Brazil’s Senate on Thursday voted in favor of an impeachment trial for President Dilma Rousseff, a move that suspends her from office and sends the country deeper into political and economic disarray less than three months before the Rio Olympics. The vote passed 55-22 after more than 20 hours of debate by senators. Vice President Michel Temer, a member of the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, now takes over until a trial later this year renders a verdict. Rousseff is accused of breaking public spending accounting rules. The political chaos, on top of a severe economic downturn that has gripped Brazil, is not expected to directly affect the Olympic Games, which open Aug. 5. However, the turmoil is an embarrassment since the president plays host at the opening ceremony. In addition, massive demonstrations for and against Rousseff like those that have occurred this year could disrupt travel by visitors attending Olympic events. And then there’s also the Zika virus to contend with as well.

Haiti

The Red Cross received an outpouring of donations after the massive earthquake in Haiti, nearly half a billion dollars to develop hundreds of new, permanent homes for the thousands of displaced residents. The Red Cross says it has provided homes to more than 130,000 people. But the actual number of permanent homes the group has built in all of Haiti is just six, according to the Huffington Post. The Red Cross won’t disclose details of how it has spent the hundreds of millions of dollars donated for Haiti. But the investigation by the Huffington Post shows that far less money reached those in need than the Red Cross has said. NPR and ProPublica went in search of the nearly $500 million and found a string of poorly managed projects, questionable spending and dubious claims of success. In their defense, the Red Cross cited the challenges all groups have faced in post-quake Haiti, including the country’s dysfunctional land title systems.

Earthquakes

A shallow magnitude-5.5 earthquake struck the mountainous region of Tibet on Wednesday, injuring 60 people, collapsing houses and damaging bridges and roads, authorities said. The quake region is near Tibet’s border with Qinghai province to the north. Serious injuries were sustained by six of the casualties, according to a statement on the website of the Dingqing county government. It gave no estimates for numbers of collapsed houses or damaged roads and bridges. The China News Service reported that the earthquake had set off several landslides.

Wildfires

While a massive wildfire continues to scorn Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, Canada, another wildfire burning more than 4,000 miles away in the Amur region of Russia has called for a state of emergency. The fire has grown large enough that its massive smoke plume can be seen from space. In just 24 hours, nearly 25,000 acres were scorched and dozens of homes have been lost in the spreading wildfires, according to the Siberian Times. “Ninety-nine percent of all fires in the Amur region, the Trans-Baikal region and Buryatia are caused by people who set fire to grass,” said Ivan Valentik, Head of the Federal Forestry Agency. Valentik added that the long-time tradition of burning dried grass ahead of sowing season is against the law.

Weather

A round of severe weather swept across the Plains Monday night, killing at least two people in Oklahoma and wiping out homes in multiple locations of the Sooner State. The storms spawned a reported 23 tornadoes and more than 90 hail reports. “Major damage” west of Interstate 35 was also reported. There were another 16 reports of tornadoes Tuesday, along with roughly another 150 reports of large hail and damaging winds mainly in three clusters: Kentucky, parts of north and central Texas, and parts of Nebraska and northern Kansas. A tornado Tuesday afternoon near Mayfield, Kentucky, injured ten, but the injuries were non-life threatening. Early Wednesday morning, hail accumulated to a depth of 1 foot or more in parts of the Omaha metro, prompting snow plows to be called out.

As of Wednesday, Washington D.C. has experienced a record 15-straight days of measurable precipitation since data began to be reported back in 1871. The old record was 10-straight days.

Signs of the Times (5/9/16)

May 9, 2016

National Day of Prayer Speakers Decry Moral Decline

Speakers at this year’s National Day of Prayer observance decried what they saw as America’s moral decline, in particular the acceptance of same-sex marriage. Dallas pastor and broadcaster Tony Evans and other speakers on Capitol Hill Thursday (May 5) took particular aim at last year’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, encouraging the faithful to actively promote their own views. “Everybody else is coming out of the closet, we might as well come out too,” Evans said. “Was it not shocking to the nation when on June 26, 2015, the very definition and meaning of marriage that has endured for 5,000 years in every civilization on Earth was redefined, weakened and undermined?” asked Shirley Dobson, outgoing chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force. Evans said the “chaos” facing the country is the result of a disregard for God. “What we are experiencing today is the passive wrath of God,” he said.

Boycott Taking a Toll on Target over Transgender Bathroom Policy

The boycott of Target in response to its transgender bathroom policy is hitting the retail chain hard financially. Several pro-family groups stated that the Target policy places women and children at risk by allowing men to enter the women’s restroom. The American Family Association began a petition to boycott Target until the policy is changed, which has garnered over 1.1 million signatures in less than two weeks. Wall Street took notice. Target’s stock has fallen nearly 7 percent since the new policy was announced, from $83.98 on April 19 to $78.13 as of May 5. That represents about a $3.5 billion drop in the retail giant’s overall stock value. The company’s brand perception has taken a hit as well. USA Today reported that the percentage of people stating they would shop at Target has dropped from 42 percent to 38 percent since April 19. Todd Starnes with Fox News reports that the retailer now plans to meet with American Family Association, the sponsor of the boycott petition. The AFA has offered that one solution to the problem would be for Target to add unisex restrooms to its store locations, while maintaining separate ones for males and females.

Obama Says LGBT Rights Supersede Religious Freedom

On Sunday night, at a Democratic National Committee-sponsored event in New York City billed as an “LGBT gala,” Obama took to the podium and warned Christians across the country that their religious freedom means nothing in the face of gay rights, reports the Conservative Tribune. “We affirm that we cherish our religious freedom and are profoundly respectful of religious traditions,” the POTUS said. “But we also have to say clearly that our religious freedom doesn’t grant us the freedom to deny our fellow Americans their constitutional rights.” Obama patronized Christians and Christian groups about their “genuine concerns,” but ultimately suggested that the issue was being pushed by Republicans who were simply using the concerns to acquire more votes. He called for the LGBT community to remain vigilant and assured them he would continue to fight for “progress.”

  • All of which means Obama is fine with pedophiles and rapists using the transgender bathroom policy to legally pursue their victims

North Carolina Sues U.S. Government Over Bathroom Law

North Carolina filed a lawsuit Monday against the federal government in a fight for a state law that limits protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration filed the lawsuit seeking to keep in place the law that mandates people use the bathroom of their gender at birth rather than the one they identify with. The U.S. Justice Department said last week the law violated the civil rights of transgender people. The Justice Department had set a deadline of Monday for McCrory to report whether he would enforce the law that took effect March 24. The governor said the Justice Department denied him enough time for a reasonable response. It’s the federal government being a bully,” McCrory said on Fox News Sunday. McCrory’s defiance could risk funding for the state’s university system and lead to a protracted legal battle.

Alabama Chief Justice Faces Removal over Fight to Block Gay Marriage

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore — ousted from office more than a decade ago over a Ten Commandments display — now faces removal from the bench over his effort to block gay marriage from coming to that state after the U.S. Supreme Court effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. The Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission on Friday filed ethics charged against Moore, saying that the state chief justice abused the power of his office and displayed disrespect for the judiciary. The charges largely stem from a Jan. 6 administrative order Moore sent to probate judges telling them an Alabama order and law banning same-sex marriages remained in effect. The Court of the Judiciary will decide whether Moore is guilty of violating judicial ethics. If found guilty, he could face removal from office.

Atheists Sue U.S. House Chaplain, Demand to be Guest Chaplain

Last week, the president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation sued the U.S. House of Representatives chaplain, who denied a request for an atheist invocation,” reports LawNewz.com. “The current House Chaplain, Father Patrick Conroy, has imposed requirements for guest chaplains that discriminate against the nonreligious and minority religions, and has explicitly refused to allow Plaintiff Dan Barker, who actually met the requirements, to serve as guest chaplain because Barker is nonreligious,” the lawsuit, filed in D.C. District Court, states. The Freedom from Religion Foundation is an organization that pushes for separation of church and state. Barker, ironically a former Christian pastor, claims via the lawsuit that he’d met with Conroy’s assistants so he could be a guest chaplain, and do an invocation. He apparently met all the requirements, even getting sponsored by Congressman Mark PocanBut after Conroy allegedly voiced doubts about Barker, and months passed without confirmation, the Chaplain’s office told Barker they didn’t think his requests were ‘genuine.’ The lawsuit said the formal denial came in December, after an 18-month process.

Obama’s Executive Order 16303 May Lead to Martial Law

President Obama recently signed Executive Order 16303 and many people are outraged because this little-known executive order could be the trigger that leads to more government control… and possibly even martial law, reports Minutemen News Alerts. Here’s what the Washington Post warned: “Executive Order 16303 (National Defense Resources Preparedness) states that, in case of a war or national emergency, the federal government has the authority to take over almost every aspect of American society. Food, livestock, farming equipment, manufacturing, industry, energy, transportation, hospitals, health care facilities, water resources, defense and construction – all of it could fall under the full control of Mr. Obama. The order empowers the president to dispense these vast resources as he sees fit during a national crisis.” The worst part? Obama can choose when and where to use this new power… it’s not restricted by Congress in any way… so he could decide to use it whenever he so decides.

 FBI Reports that No One was Murdered in Sandy Hook

Recently released FBI crime statistics curiously show that no murders occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, despite earlier reports that numerous schoolchildren and faculty members were murdered during a school shooting rampage in December of that year, reports RedFlagNews.com. On December 14, 2012, the world watched in horror as the corporate media reported the deaths of 20 students and 6 staff members at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown at the hands of a deranged 20-year-old. Internet sleuths immediately took to the web to stitch together clues indicating the shooting could be a carefully-scripted false flag event to galvanize future support for gun control legislation. Two years later, and scores of politicians and gun control groups have cited the Sandy Hook incident as a pretext to curtail Americans’ Second Amendment rights.

London Elects First Muslim Mayor

The Labour Party’s Sadiq Khan won the election Friday, becoming London’s first Muslim mayor. Khan received 44.2% of first preference votes to Conservative Party candidate Zac Goldsmith’s 35.6%. Second preference votes have now been counted with Khan passing the crucial 50% mark to secure victory, according to the BBC. The 45-year old son of Pakistani immigrants becomes the first Muslim mayor of a major Western capital city. Khan, a human rights lawyer before entering politics, says he wants to make London “fairer and more equal.” Khan has said he never hid the fact that he dealt with “some pretty unsavory characters” during his work as a human rights lawyer and during three years as the chairman of the human rights organization Liberty.

Austin Voters Reject Uber, Lyft Plan for Self-Regulation

Despite an $8-million-dollar campaign by ride-hailing companies, Austin-area voters on Saturday rejected a proposal by Uber and Lyft to self-regulate their drivers and mandated stricter rules on the companies, including fingerprint background checks and emblems on cars. Uber and Lyft had threatened to pull their operations from Austin should their proposal fail. The election was being closely watched across the USA as other cities, including Los Angeles and Miami, grapple with how best to regulate the ride-hailing companies. Results showed 56% of voters opposed the initiative favored by the companies, and 44% were for it. Saturday’s vote culminates a two-year battle here between the companies and city leaders. Lyft officials released a statement Saturday night restating their intent to shut down operations in the Texas capital by Monday. Uber said it would stop operations in Austin by 8 a.m. Monday.

Zika Update

Zika virus concerns have forced the Pirates-Marlins series out of Puerto Rico, with the two games instead shifted to Miami this month. Major League Baseball and the players’ union made the announcement Friday. Pittsburgh and Miami will meet May 30-31 at Marlins Park. The union had asked Commissioner Rob Manfred to relocate the games after several players expressed fears about getting and possibly transmitting the Zika virus.

Economic News

About 42 million borrowers have about $1.3 trillion in student debt, up from roughly $826.5 billion in 2010, which includes federal loans and private loans from the six biggest lenders, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. The average debt for a college graduate in 2015 was about $35,000. About a quarter of students graduate with excessive debt, but those who hurt the most are low-income students and students who take out loans but don’t graduate. As a general rule, if a student’s annual income is more than their student debt total, they shouldn’t have trouble paying the loans back in 10 years or less. The rising cost of tuition and fees is partly because of a decrease in state funding for higher education, experts say.

China’s exports shrank 1.8% in April compared to the same month a year ago, an indication that the nation’s economic slump continues. Imports into China didn’t fare any better in April, down 10.9% to $127.2 billion. They were down 13.8% in March. China’s Communist Party leaders have been trying to foster more domestic consumption to keep the economy growing at a healthy rate, decreasing the dependence on exports. Even though China’s overall economic growth is at a seven-year low, it still is growing at a rate that would be the envy of many nations: 6.7% in the first quarter. And it managed to rack up a $45.5 billion trade surplus in April, including $18.1 billion with the U.S.

Islamic State

After months of un­expectedly swift advances, the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State is running into hurdles on and off the battlefield that call into question whether the pace of recent gains can be sustained, reports the Washington Post. Chaos in Baghdad, the fraying of the cease-fire in Syria and political turmoil in Turkey are among some of the potential obstacles that have emerged in recent weeks to complicate the prospects for progress. Others include small setbacks for U.S.-allied forces on front lines in northern Iraq and Syria, which have come as a reminder that a strategy heavily reliant on local armed groups of varying proficiency who are often at odds with one another won’t always work. The fight is now entering what Pentagon officials have called a new and potentially harder phase, one that will entail a deeper level of U.S. involvement but also tougher targets. In an attempt to ramp up the tempo of the war, the U.S. military is escalating its engagement, dispatching an additional 450 Special Operations forces and other troops to Syria and Iraq, deploying hundreds of Marines close to the front lines in Iraq and bringing Apache attack helicopters and B-52s into service for the air campaign. The extra resources are an acknowledgment, U.S. officials say, that the war can’t be won without a greater level of American involvement.

A top U.N. envoy in Iraq said Friday more than 50 mass graves have been found in Iraq territory that was once held by the Islamic State. The most recently discovered graves found in Ramadi in April might contain the remains of up to 40 people. The Iraqi military re-captured parts of Ramadi from the Islamic State in December 2015. It had been held by the extremist group since May of last year. Mass graves have also been found near Sinjar, Anbar and Tikrit.

Iraq

Supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been holding demonstrations and sit-ins for months to demand an overhaul of the political system put in place by the U.S. following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. On Saturday, hundreds of his supporters stormed the heavily fortified Green Zone in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and broke into the parliament building. So far, a majority of Iraqi political blocs have rejected replacing the cabinet created on the basis of party affiliation or ethnic or sectarian with a cabinet of technocrats sought by al-Sadr and protesters who argue this is the only way “to enact genuine reforms, get rid of a powerful patronage system and achieve success in fighting corruption.”

Iran

Iran said on Monday that its latest ballistic missile test showed the weapon displayed pinpoint accuracy at a range of 1,250 miles, a distance that puts it in range of Israel and several other Middle East nations. Iran has asserted the missiles are for defense only. Two months ago, Iran test-fired two ballistic missiles, one of them with the phrase “Israel should be wiped off the Earth” written on it in Hebrew. Iranian officials say the phrase was added by workers on the ground and was not a decision made by higher-level officials. Iran has rejected claims that missile tests violate the nuclear agreement it reached with the U.S. and other nations or a United Nations resolution, describing its missiles as conventional armaments for “legitimate defense” and not designed for carrying nuclear warheads. The nuclear deal, which took effect in January, does not directly address missile restrictions. The U.N. Security Council lifted its ban on such testing when the deal was struck, but passed a resolution that “calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles … including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”

Afghanistan

Two members of the international Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan were killed Saturday in an attack on a base in southern Afghanistan, NATO announced. Two Afghans wearing the uniforms of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) opened fire Saturday morning at an ANDSF compound. Other Resolute Support members returned fire and killed the shooters. After international forces wrapped up their combat mission at the end of 2014, Resolute Support was created with a coalition of international troops serving in a training and advisory role.

Kenya

Kenya announced that it will close all refugee camps, a move that would displace more than 600,000 people living there, the government announced Friday. The decision includes Dadaab, the largest such camp in the world. It’s home to more than 300,000 people on the Kenya-Somalia border. The government is shutting down the camps because of “very heavy” economic, security and environmental burdens. Kenya announced the closure of refugee camps last year for the same reasons but backed down in the face of international pressure. Government officials are not clear where they expect the refugees to go, other than somewhere into Somalia and out of Kenya. Most of the residents in Dadaab come from Somalia, which has been torn by civil war.

North Korea

North Korea will not deploy nuclear weapons unless the communist nation’s enemies use them first and will attempt to normalize relations with countries viewed as its enemies, leader Kim Jong Un said Sunday. “As a responsible nuclear weapons state, our republic will not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes,” Kim said at the Workers’ Party of Korea congress in Pyongyang. Kim added that the North “will faithfully fulfill its obligation for non-proliferation and strive for the global denuclearization.” Kim opened the first formal gathering of his party in more than three decades on Friday by celebrating the “great success” of his nuclear weapons program. The congress is viewed as Kim’s formal coronation as leader of the nation of 25 million people, most of whom live in poverty. The congress has also served as a launch vehicle for his five-year plan to improve the battered economy by emphasizing increased agricultural and manufacturing production and involvement in the global economy.

Philippines

At least 10 people died across the Philippines in election day violence on Monday, May 9, as gunmen attacked polling stations, ambushed vehicles and stole vote-counting machines, police said. However, authorities described the violence as isolated incidents and that the overall conduct of the elections – which saw tens of millions of people cast their votes for president and 18,000 other positions – was peaceful. In the worst attack, 7 people were shot dead in an ambush before dawn in Rosario, a town just outside of Manila known for political violence. In Guindulungan, Maguindanao, where warlord-politicians have their own private armies, a voter was shot dead inside a polling station. A bystander was also killed when a grenade was launched at a market in Cotabato as people were casting their votes. In the nearby town of Sultan Kudarat, a stronghold of the nation’s biggest Muslim rebel group, 20 men forced their way into a voting center and carted away the voting machines. In the northern province of Abra, infamous for politicians killing each other, armed supporters of rival mayoral candidates shot at each other, leaving one person dead and two wounded.

Earthquakes

Multiple small earthquakes in the past two months beneath the surface of Mount Saint Helens suggest it may be recharging magma. These tiny quakes that started March 14 have been happening at depths of one to four miles beneath the surface of Mt. St. Helens, which last erupted on May 18, 1980. In the past eight weeks, the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network has recorded more than 130 earthquakes, with many more too small to be pinpointed, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the federal agency that monitors volcano activity. The magma chamber is likely stressing the crust around and above it as the system slowly recharges, the agency said. The pressure drives fluids through cracks, producing the small quakes.

Wildfires

The massive wildfire that forced almost 90,000 people to evacuate in Alberta is growing and approaching the neighboring province of Saskatchewan, Canadian officials said. Dry and extremely windy conditions are fueling the blaze, which has scorched more than 602 square miles and ravaged the city of Fort McMurray, destroying over 1,600 structures. Alberta is “tinder dry,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said. Fort McMurray has been devastated. Besides the fire damage to structures, the power grid has been damaged, and the water is currently undrinkable. The smoke from the fire has reached all the way down into Iowa. The Alberta government said the massive blaze in the province will cover more than 494,211 acres by Sunday and will continue to grow because of high temperatures, dry conditions and high winds. Fire officials expect to fight the Canada inferno for months to come. Containment remains at 0% Monday morning. Several bits of good news are on the horizon: The weather is starting to cooperate. The blaze is headed to sparsely populated areas. And firefighters from across Canada are suiting up to join the battle.

A wildfire that started Thursday afternoon has shrouded Lake Hattie Township, Minnesota, and some surrounding areas with smoke, causing an air quality rating of “unhealthy” to be issued for the locality. Spurred by fire-friendly conditions, the fire continued to impact the area into Saturday morning. Temperatures rocketed into the 90s in northern Minnesota, including the earliest 90s on record in Duluth. The fire has burned about 450 acres about five miles northwest of Lake George in the Paul Bunyan State Forest. Thursday’s wildfire was the second of a trio of blazes ignited in the North Star state.

Weather

Severe weather impacted the Plains states on Sunday just a day after five tornadoes were confirmed to have hit Colorado on Saturday. One twister touched down north of Wray, Colorado, Saturday evening, leaving five people with minor injuries and causing damage to some buildings and other structures. Residents and travelers were urged to not travel north on Highway 385, which had to be closed down due to downed fences and loose livestock. Earlier Saturday, a tornado caused some minor injuries and left about a dozen motorhomes damaged in nearby Morgan County.

At least two brief tornadoes were reported in northwest Kansas Sunday afternoon. There are no reports of significant damage at this time. Sunday evening, NWS confirmed a large and extremely dangerous tornado was spotted 5 miles southeast of Codell. Golf ball-sized hail was also reported. A brief tornado was reported near Marlow early Sunday evening. Street flooding was reported in the city of Lawton. Large hail and strong winds impacted the Abilene, Texas, area Sunday afternoon. Wind gusts up to 60 mph were reported near Abilene. Hail as large as baseballs were reported in Hawley.

Signs of the Times (5/6/16)

May 6, 2016

Revival in West Virginia

A spiritual revival has been sweeping through southern West Virginia where hundreds have reportedly turned to the Lord and been saved. CBN News reports that the revival began as a three-day event at a local church, featuring Tennessee evangelist Matt Hartley. However, the revival continued after the three days were up, and has been going on for three weeks. “This is not man-made, charismatic, hyper spiritual,” Hartley told CBN News. “This is the presence of God that is overwhelming us, that is being released upon hungry people that are tired of just stagnant Christianity and ‘safe’ church. They want Jesus more than anything else. That’s why they’re here.” “Four-hundred to 450 students got saved at Mingo Central from Matt Hartley coming in and speaking at a voluntary prayer club,” Katie Endicott, with the Mingo Central High Prayer Club, told CBN News. The revival has spread like wildfire, from school to school and church to church. Some are calling it the biggest revival ever to have taken place in the history of southern West Virginia.

Donald Trump Hires Pro-Life Advocate as Top Domestic Policy Director

Likely Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is winning praise from pro-life advocates for hiring a top pro-life advocate as a key domestic policy advisory. The presumptive GOP nominee hired long-time conservative congressional aide John Mashburn as his policy director. Mashburn is pro-life and has worked for pro-life lawmakers including the late Sen. Jesse Helms, former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott and current North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis. As the Washington Examiner reports, pro-life groups see the move as Trump making serious overtures to pro-life voters and hail it as Trump indicating he will govern in a pro-life manner if elected president.

Obama Threatens NC to Implement Co-Ed Bathrooms or Lose Education Funding

The Justice Department on Wednesday warned North Carolina state officials that they would lose millions of dollars in federal funding unless they change the controversial measure limiting access to bathrooms for transgender people because they are in violation of federal civil rights law, reports the New York Times. The Obama Administration has threatened the state of North Carolina, to either force women to share bathrooms with men, or lose millions of dollars in education funds, confirms The Washington Times. The Justice Department on Wednesday said a North Carolina law barring people from using the public facilities of the opposite sex is in conflict with federal nondiscrimination laws. The department said state officials have until Monday to address the issue or lose millions in federal education funding by not complying with the order. North Carolina public schools received $861 million in federal funding this school year

Medical Errors Third-Leading Cause of Death in U.S.

Medical errors kill about 250,000 people a year according to a new study from a well-known Johns Hopkins medical school professor and author. Professor Martin Makary is now the second to report that medical mistakes represent the third-leading cause of deaths in the U.S. In 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general reported that up to 180,000 Medicare patients alone died a year from medical errors. John James, a NASA toxicologist whose son died of what he believes was a hospital error, did the last report on the subject in 2013 and estimated between 210,000 and 440,000 deaths a year could be attributed to medical error. Death certificates in this country don’t have a place for hospitals to acknowledge medical error, which needs to be improved so the problem can be better estimated and addressed. Makary and co-author Michael Daniel wrote that strategies to reduce death from medical care should include making errors “more visible” when they occur, having remedies available to “rescue patients,” and making errors less frequent by following principles that take “human limitations” into account.

Suicidal Soldiers Still Fear that Counseling will Harm their Careers

Even as troop suicides remain at record levels, the Pentagon has failed to persuade servicemembers to seek counseling without fears that they’ll damage their careers, a stinging government review concludes. Despite six major Pentagon or independent studies from 2007 through 2014 that urged action to end the persistent stigma linked to mental health counseling, little has changed, analysts said in the April report by the Government Accountability Office. One key problem is that many Defense Department policies covering job assignments and security clearances still discriminate against anyone who receives mental health care, the report said. “The potential for inconsistent decision making by commanders and leaders in suspending clearances or removing individuals from sensitive positions may further impede the department’s efforts to address stigma,” the report said. The most recent health survey of U.S. troops from 2011 shows that 37% of active duty servicemembers, nearly 600,000, felt that seeking mental health care through the military would probably or definitely hurt their careers. Results from a follow-up survey last year shows little change in that percentage

Record Number of Exonerations in the U.S.

There was a record 149 known exonerations in the United States and its territories in 2015, according to a Wednesday report from the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan Law School. On average, the exonerated defendants had served more than 14 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Homicides and drug cases made up more than two-thirds of the total. The reasons for the exonerations are varied. Many involved official misconduct or cases in which defendants pleaded guilty, and some involved false confessions. But half were cases in which no crime occurred, according to the report. However, the cases are a mere fraction of the millions of arrests made each year in the United States. FBI crime statistics show an average of 12 million arrests per year from 2010 to 2014. The number of arrests is on a downward trend, as is violent crime over the last five years. Still, the report calls the exonerated cases a “drop in the bucket.” “By any reasonable accounting, there are tens of thousands of false convictions each year across the country, and many more that have accumulated over the decades,” the report says.

Blue Collar Unemployment Worsening

Nearly one-quarter of white men with only a high school diploma aren’t working. Many of these men, age 25 to 64, aren’t just unemployed … they aren’t even looking for a job, according to federal data. The plight of these blue collar workers is now in the national spotlight. The 2016 presidential election has awakened their political power and reshaped the course of the campaign. Their anger — which has brought millions to the polls, particularly on the Republican side — has prompted the candidates to focus heavily on manufacturing, trade and other issues of importance to this slice of America. In Scioto County, a stretch of Appalachia in southern Ohio just across the river from Kentucky, only 53.8% of men age 16 to 64 are employed, CNN Money reports. Gone are all but one of the shoe manufacturing factories that used to employ thousands. Shuttered are most of the steel mills that supported middle class families. Shrunken are the railroad maintenance yards that once carried coal from Kentucky and paid well. One of the main problems is that many residents don’t have the education or training to make it in today’s economy. Only 14.4% have a college degree, compared to 25.6% statewide and 29.3% nationally. A generation ago, Scioto residents didn’t need to go to college to earn a decent wage.

Economic News

Payroll growth slowed in April as employers added 160,000 jobs, raising concerns that weak economic growth may finally be crimping the U.S. labor market. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 5%, the Labor Department said Friday, as a fall in the number of Americans employed was offset by a similar-sized decline in the number working and looking for jobs. Payroll advances for February and March were revised down by 19,000. Average hourly wages rose 8 cents to $25.53 and are up 2.5% the past year, a bit faster than the 2% pace during the recovery from the recession.

Total US rail traffic in April plunged 11.8% from a year ago, the Association of American Railroads reported Wednesday. Carloads of bulk commodities such as coal, oil, grains, and chemicals plummeted 16.1% to 944,339 units. In April, carloads of coal plummeted 40% from the already beaten-down levels a year ago. Because rail traffic is down so dramatically, many operators have large numbers of engines that are just sitting around collecting dust.

General Motors Co. and Lyft Inc. will begin testing a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Bolt electric taxis on public roads within a year, a move central to the companies’ joint efforts to challenge Silicon Valley giants in the battle to reshape the auto industry. The plan is being hatched a few months after GM invested $500 million in Lyft, a ride-hailing company that rivals Uber Technologies Inc. The program will also rely on technology being acquired as part of GM’s separate $1 billion planned purchase of San Francisco-based Cruise Automation Inc., which has been working on self-driving technology for about two years.

The eurozone economy appears to have lost some of the momentum that saw it grow faster than the U.S. in the first quarter of the year. A spate of economic indicators Wednesday showed business activity moderated in the past couple of months. Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, said retail sales across the 19-country single currency bloc fell by 0.5 percent during March from the previous month. And financial information company Markit said its purchasing managers’ index for the region — a broad gauge of business activity — fell modestly to 53 points in April from 53.1 the previous month. Though still above the 50 threshold indicating expansion, the reading has fallen from the start of the year.

Zika Update

A Connecticut woman who traveled to Central America and became pregnant while there has been diagnosed with the Zika virus, the state Department of Public Health announced Tuesday. The department said the woman, whose name, age and hometown have not been released, became ill with a fever and a rash while traveling about a month ago. She was tested for Zika after returning to Connecticut. The woman is the third Connecticut resident to be diagnosed with Zika. The first was a woman in her 60s and the second was a man.

Persecution Watch

Christians in Pakistan are protesting the impending demolition of four churches which are set to be torn down to accommodate a train line. According to Christian Today, Christians protested outside Lahore High Court on May 3rd. Pakistan is one of the worst countries for abuse of religious freedom rights, according to the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom. Christians in Pakistan recently suffered a massive attack when 72 people were killed in a suicide bombing on Easter Sunday. Additionally, a couple years ago in 2014, 134 children, mostly Christian, were killed in a massacre in Peshawar.

Last week, gunmen shot at a car carrying Roman Catholic Cardinal John Onaiyekan in the country’s southern Edo state. The cardinal was returning home after attending the 10th anniversary celebrations for the Uromi Diocese. He was unharmed. The attack on the cardinal comes amid increasing violence and kidnappings of clergy for ransom in the West African country. In March, gunmen kidnapped and later released the Rev. Emmanuel Dziggau, president of the United Churches of Christ in Nigeria. In December, Anglican Bishop Gabriel Adebanjo of central Abuja was kidnapped, along with his wife. In September 2015, Anglican Bishop Moses Tabuwaye of Gwagwalada was kidnapped and released, presumably after ransoms were paid. And last month, The Punch newspaper reported that the decomposing body of a cleric kidnapped in northern Nigeria in March had been found.

 Middle East

The Israeli Air Force launched strikes against several terrorist targets in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip Friday morning in response to mortar and gunfire attacks on IDF troops patrolling the border. The upsurge in kinetic activity comes as the IDF announced Thursday evening that it had uncovered another terror tunnel running under the border into Israeli territory. Earlier, Israel’s Air Force attacked several Hamas targets Wednesday evening in response to several Hamas mortar attacks on IDF troops operating on the border with Gaza in the past two days. An IDF spokesman said four Hamas targets were hit in the northern Gaza Strip in one attack, and earlier the IAF struck five Hamas targets in the south of the Strip. Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s incidents consist of a serious escalation on the border, as it was the first time since Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014 that Hamas terrorists fired mortar shells at IDF targets. The IDF has been operating on the border with Gaza to detect cross-border terror tunnels, and Hamas’ attacks are apparently an attempt to disrupt their actions. There were no Israeli casualties in any of the attacks.

Islamic State

ISIS has the capability to stage a Paris-style attack in the U.S. using local cells to strike in multiple locations and inflict dozens of casualties, according to the Obama administration’s top U.S. intelligence official. “They do have that capacity,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told CNN’s Peter Bergen in an exclusive interview on “AC 360” on terrorism. However, President Barack Obama and some of his other security advisors spoke of the threat in less stark terms and emphasized efforts to protect the U.S. Obama told Bergen that “we, here in the United States, face less of a threat than Europe” from ISIS. National Security Adviser Susan Rice said “whether or not” ISIS can attack the U.S., the administration would do “our utmost to try to prevent it.”

Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry warned Syria and its allies in Moscow and Tehran Tuesday that they have until August for starting a political transition to move President Bashar Assad out, or they risk consequences of a new U.S. approach toward ending the five-year conflict. Kerry failed to specify what type of consequences the Syrian government and its backers face if Assad isn’t ousted. It’s unlikely the White House would approve a more active American combat role in the country. The administration is more likely to approve giving Saudi Arabia and the moderate rebels new weapons to fight Assad. Kerry condemned last week’s hospital attack in the city that killed at least 20 people. He said the U.S. rejects violence against civilians, whether it’s by Assad’s government or Western-backed opposition groups. Despite Russia’s claim that it would withdraw most of its forces from Syria, it maintains a strong presence at its airbase near Latakia. While some assets have been removed, others have been added, reports CNN.

At least 28 people were killed when warplanes struck a refugee camp Thursday in Syria, the monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported, with many of the dead women and children. Rami Abdul Rahman, director of the London-based group, told CNN it was not immediately clear whether Syrian or Russian planes conducted the airstrike. The planes attacked the Kamuna camp next to Sarmada village in the northern countryside of Idlib province on the border with Turkey, according to the observatory. Tnumber of casualties may go higher because so many people were injured. The bombing was part of heavy fighting that erupted in Syria a day after the United States and Russia brokered a ceasefire for Aleppo, one of the country’s most war-torn cities, and surrounding areas. Syrian government helicopters shelled the southern countryside of Aleppo with rockets and barrel bombs, and Syrian forces targeted the road connecting the city and Damascus, the monitoring group reported.

Iraq

Twenty-five additional heavily armed U.S. Marines arrived at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad Friday, a U.S. official told CNN. The Marines were requested by the State Department, which is in charge of security. Concerns have risen since demonstrations occurred there last week in Baghdad’s “Green Zone,” where the embassy is located. More demonstrations had been expected Friday but the U.S. official said the area has remained peaceful so far. Neither the Pentagon or State Department disclosed the precise number of security forces already on site.

Turkey

Turkey’s prime minister stepped down Thursday, possibly paving the way for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to consolidate power amid complaints from opponents over his increasingly hardline policies. The decision by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to bow out of upcoming elections marks another potential step by Erdogan to move Turkey toward a presidential system and reduce the powers of parliament — further cementing the president’s authority and probably stirring more outrage from rights groups and other critics. Erdogan has taken an increasingly hard line against perceived opponents, including prosecuting journalists and others for “insulting” him. Davutoglu reportedly was not supportive of the push toward a stronger executive, putting him more at odds with Erdogan. Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, faces multiple crises, including a raging Kurdish insurgency, attacks from Islamic State militants and negotiations with the European Union over how to handle migration flows over the Aegean Sea. Turkey is a key U.S. ally in the war against the Islamic State.

Russia

Russian officials said Wednesday that Moscow will create three new divisions of about 10,000 soldiers each to counter NATO’s planned troop buildup in Eastern Europe. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the new Russian divisions would be formed by the end of the year. Western officials told The Wall Street Journal last week that NATO is planning to send about 4,000 troops to Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance’s planned buildup in the Baltics wouldn’t have happened if Russia didn’t insert itself into the Ukraine conflict in 2014. Stoltenberg said NATO’s deployment was a reaction to Russian aggression.

North Korea

When North Korea’s first party congress in 36 years kicks off Friday, it is certain to feature all the pageantry, saber-rattling and over-the-top rhetoric the world has come to expect of the reclusive and erratic regime. Kim Jong-un, the nation’s 33-year-old leader, is expected to consolidate power and gain formal approval for his policy of Byongjin — simultaneous development of both the economy and nuclear weapons. That will replace the Songun, or “military first,” policy of his late father, Kim Jong-il, whom the young leader succeeded in 2011. Songun has bankrupted North Korea and made it permanently dependent on China,” said Robert E. Kelly, professor of political science at Pusan National University, in South Korea. That would be good news for North Koreans, because resources would be freed up from the military that could go to the civilian sector.

Cuba

The first cruise ship in decades to travel from the United States to Cuba docked Monday in Havana. The Adonia, a ship on Carnival Corp.’s Fathom cruise line, carried about 700 passengers. he ship’s arrival marks the first stop on a historic, seven-day voyage that signals closer ties between the United States and its communist-run neighbor. Large crowds waved to the boat from the shore as it approached Havana. Bands and dancers greeted passengers at the port.

Environment

Thirty-five tons of dead fish washed up in a lake in China this week. Residents of Haikou city on China’s southern Hainan island began noticing the dead white and yellow fish on Wednesday. The fish — members of the herring family — were likely pushed up an estuary by a tidal surge and then got caught in a pumping system that deposited them in the lake, according to Hainan.net, a local news website. More than 100 sanitation workers were mobilized to scoop up the fish which floated to the lake’s surface over a period of two days. The workers bagged up the fish and sent them to garbage incinerators to prevent them being sold at a local food market.

Earthquakes

A 3.5 magnitude earthquake was reported along the New Madrid fault line on Sunday (May 1), and possibly is a precursor to a deadlier quake, writes Michael Snyder in a column for Charisma News. The quake was reported very early on Sunday morning (1:12 a.m.) near the town of La Center, Kentucky. It was also felt 267 miles away in Miller, Missouri. The earthquake took place on the New Madrid fault line, a seismic zone that Snyder says actually has the potential to be much more devastating than the more more well-known San Andreas fault line in California. The New Madrid fault line includes parts of Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

Volcanoes

Just off the northern coast of New Zealand, a small, explosive eruption on White Island left the volcano and surrounding area coated in a funky green ash. The green color is due to minerals in the ash. White Island is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, being built up by constant volcanic activity over the past 150,000 years. Nearly 70 percent of the volcano is submerged under the Bay of Plenty. The eruption was the volcano’s first since October 2013. The volcano’s eruption formed a new crater in the northeast corner of the volcanic complex, giving way to a landslide.

Wildfires

A large wildfire that has been burning for days exploded in size around Fort McMurray, Canada, growing eight times larger from Wednesday afternoon to Thursday afternoon. The blaze grew from 25,000 acres to 210,000 acres in just 24 hours, making the fire larger than the city of Chicago. Meanwhile, the number of evacuees continues to rise as more residents are pushed from their homes by the massive blaze. All of Fort McMurray’s 80,000 residents were forced to leave Tuesday evening as the fire quickly spread, putting homes, schools, businesses and lives in danger. Local officials said Wednesday morning that 80 percent of the homes in Beacon Hill have been lost, over 1600 destroyed. So far, no serious injuries or deaths have been reported from the devastating blaze. Several airport buildings were also destroyed. Wednesday night, authorities issued another mandatory evacuation order for Anzac, Gregoire Lake Estates and the Fort McMurray First Nation – about 900 additional people in total. A convoy of 1,500 vehicles carrying evacuees fleeing the Fort McMurray fire began rolling south early Friday under the watchful eye of Canadian police. Helicopters hovered overhead to look out for smoke and flames along the route, while emergency fuel stations were set up along the way to keep the convoy moving.

Weather

Thunderstorms developed near Carson City, Nevada, Thursday, producing hail that accumulated quickly on the roadways. The hail accumulated quickly and measured at least three inches in some areas. Snowplows were summoned in Lyon County to clear some of the roadways. While hail in the Reno-Sparks metro area was dime-size or smaller, hail up to half-dollar size (1.25 inches) was reported in Yuba City, California. Western Nevada recorded a downburst, or a sudden blast of thunderstorm winds, with a peak wind gust to 60 mph.

California’s devastating 4-year-old drought showed signs Thursday of easing its grip on the nation’s most populous state — but just by a little. For the first time in three years, less than 90% of California is in drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The dip is largely due to El Niño, a natural warming of the Pacific Ocean that impacts weather around the globe and typically brings wetter conditions to the West Coast. Currently, 89.68% of the state is in a drought, down from a high of 100% in October 2014. Only 21% is in “exceptional drought,” the worst level, down from a high of 58% from August to October 2014.

India’s killer heatwave is leaving the country reeling from the worst drought in decades with a rural population struggling to survive. Central Water Commission data shows that India’s major reservoirs are 79% empty, and 75% of India’s basins are holding less water than the 10-year average. This year has seen an unprecedented spike in temperatures. The monsoon season typically starts in mid-June, but the past two monsoon seasons have seen below average rainfall. The government estimates up to 330 million people are currently be affected by the dry climate conditions.

Signs of the Times (5/3/16)

May 3, 2016

Theme of 2016 National Day of Prayer is ‘Wake Up America’

This Thursday, May 5, thousands of people will take time out of their busy schedules for the National Day of Prayer and gather in their communities to pray for America’s leaders, local communities, and the nation as a whole.” There will also be a National Observance of the event in Washington, D.C. where Pastor Dr. Tony Evans will give the keynote address. The theme of this year’s event is “Wake Up America,” emphasizing the need for all Americans to wake up to the challenges facing the nation and to bring them before God in prayer. The National Day of Prayer was first officially instituted in 1952 by then President Harry Truman, but even as far back as 1775, America’s political leaders designated a day for prayer. In 1988, under President Ronald Reagan, Congress further amended the resolution for a National Day of Prayer to state, “The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups and as individuals.”

Health and Social Services Linked in New Study

States that spend more money on social services and public health programs relative to medical care have much healthier residents than states that don’t, a study out today by a prominent public health researcher found. The study comes as the Obama administration prepares to fund its own research to support the idea that higher social service spending can improve health and lower health care costs. Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed a long-awaited rule that will pave the way for more doctors and hospitals to work closely with social services providers to keep people healthier, such as with home visits or help with housing. “There’s always more need than resources,” says Audrey Morris. director of the non-profit Starting Points of Morgan County, West Virginia. The new study is the first to compare state spending on social services — which are generally less expensive than medical costs — to spending on Medicare and Medicaid. Many state officials, including those here, say Medicaid claims are busting their budgets and federal officials struggle to rein in Medicare spending on drugs and medical treatments, especially for chronic disease.

  • Until Jesus returns to rule and reign, He says, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” (Matthew 26:11, NIV)

Overdose Deaths at Record Levels in U.S.

The United States is in the grip of an overdose epidemic. More people died from drug overdoses in 2014 — the most recent year for which national statistics are available — than in any other year on record, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Saturday brought more evidence of the growing problem — eight people in a Massachusetts city overdosed on heroin during an eight-hour period beginning late Friday. Police in Fitchburg said two people died. A spokesman for the Worcester County District Attorney’s office said the county of more than 818,000 people has seen more than 100 overdoses per year for the past three years. More than three out of five drug overdose deaths involve an opioid — 28,000 in 2014 alone, the CDC says. Overdose deaths from opioids, including prescription painkillers and heroin, have nearly quadrupled since 1999. Prescription opioids include morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone. Addicts often become hooked on prescribed painkillers, then turn to cheaper heroin — which has similar effects on the brain — when the pills are no longer available.

Teens Addicted to Mobile Devices

Fifty percent of teens feel they are addicted to their mobile devices, according to a poll conducted for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit focused on helping children, parents, teachers and policymakers negotiate media and technology. A larger number of parents, 59%, said their teens were addicted. Nearly 80% of teens in the new survey said they checked their phones hourly, and 72% said they felt the need to immediately respond to texts and social networking messages. “Technological addiction can happen to anyone,” said digital detox expert Holland Haiis, who describes technology as “the new 21st century addiction.” “If your teens would prefer gaming indoors, alone, as opposed to going out to the movies, meeting friends for burgers or any of the other ways that teens build camaraderie, you may have a problem.”

Supreme Court Allows Law Enforcement to Remotely Hack Any Computer

The Supreme Court approved new rules on Thursday that would potentially give the FBI the authority to hack any computer in the United States, and potentially computers located overseas as well. Those hidden by Tor technology will also be vulnerable. Congress has until December 1st to either approve the rule, reject or make changes to it. If passed, any magistrate judge in the country could grant the FBI warrants authorizing hacks into computers whose whereabouts are unknown. In its letter to Congress, the Supreme Court approved the following change to Rule 41 of the Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure: A magistrate judge with authority in any district where activities related to a crime may have occurred has authority to issue a warrant to use remote access to search electronic storage media and to seize or copy electronically stored information located within or outside that district if the district where the media or information is located has been concealed through technological means. Under the phrase “concealed through technological means,” the court is referring to computers whose location is hidden via the use of anonymity software such as the Tor web browser. Currently, magistrate judges cannot issue warrants for “remote searches” to the FBI if law enforcement doesn’t know where a computer in question is physically located, since its location could potentially be outside of the court’s jurisdiction.

May Day Protests in Seattle

May Day protests in Seattle turned violent on Sunday, as protesters lit fireworks and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at police. After a peaceful march was held earlier in the day, nine people were arrested and five officers were injured in the clashes. May Day’s origins can be traced back to ancient times, when it was a Pagan festival celebrating spring. But its history as a protest day is more recent — May 1 was declared “International Workers’ Day” by the International Socialist Conference following the violent protests in Chicago’s Haymarket Square in 1886. Workers’ Day on the first of May is a public holiday for most of the world, though the U.S. celebrates its Labor Day in September. Protesters still gather on May 1 to demand better working conditions.

Zika Update

Aedes aegypti, the exotically named mosquito that transmits the Zika virus, defies almost everything Americans think they know about mosquitoes, which means that even experts know very little about how to control them. The female Aedes aegypti — the ones that bite — hang out in your house, preferably under your bed. If door and window screens block her entrance into your house, she will settle down under your patio furniture. The Zika virus is expected to spread to the continental U.S. this summer, and experts say the country must urgently rethink its procedures for controlling mosquitoes. The problem? “There is no good method for killing these mosquitoes that’s being used on a widespread basis,” said Michael Doyle, executive director of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District. Many communities are using mosquito-killing methods that don’t work on the Aedes aegypti, Doyle said. Recent efforts to kill the so-called Aedes aegypti mosquito “don’t give us much reason for optimism,” said Scott Weaver, with the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. “In the near term, it’s a lost cause.” “We cannot spray our way out of this,” said Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County, Texas, Public Health and Environmental Services, at a national summit on Zika preparedness in April.

Persecution Watch

A Catholic bishop in India was kidnapped, blindfolded, and beaten before eventually being released. ChristianToday.com reports that Bishop Gallela Prasad, who leads the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cuddapah in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, was kidnapped by men who claimed to be working with the police. Prasad said he was taken to an undisclosed location by the kidnappers. “They hit me and punched me resulting in injuries all over my body. I did not resist,” he told ucanews.com. Prasad added that his kidnappers repeatedly questioned him about the finances of his diocese. In a statement, Archbishop Thumma Bala condemned the kidnapping: “It is unbelievable that such a violent atrocity is perpetrated on a high ranking religious leader of a minority community, who is totally dedicated to the service of the needy and marginalized.”

Churches in Algeria are facing intimidation and harassment, despite constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of worship in the country. On Sunday 24 April, 2016, a church in Mâatkas, in the north-eastern province of Kabylie, was ordered to cease all religious activities on the grounds that it was in breach of a 2006 law which regulates non-Muslim worship. The authorities have threatened to commence legal proceedings against the church if Christian worship continues in the building currently being used by the church. The church in Mâatkas is affiliated with the Protestant Church of Algeria (known as EPA, its French acronym), which is legally registered. In response to the notice, the president of the EPA, Rev. Mahmoud Haddad, said it was a violation of the freedom of worship enshrined in the Constitution. “The new Constitution, passed in February 2016, has duly established freedom of religious worship. Its Article 36 clearly states that freedom of religious worship is guaranteed in compliance with the law,” he said.

Chinese president Xi Jinping is asking leaders in the country to work to reassert the Communist Party of China as the controlling religion in the country. Also in his speech, Jinping asked religious groups to “dig deep into doctrines and canons that are in line with social harmony and progress … and interpret religious doctrines in a way that is conducive to modern China’s progress and in line with our excellent traditional culture.” In the current atmosphere of social tightening, new laws could be used to further restrict the activities of Chinese believers, Brent Fulton wrote in a column for Christianity Today. Fulton pointed to the recent case of Ding Cuimei and her pastor husband, who were buried as they tried to stop their Chinese church from being bulldozed. Ding’s husband managed to survive. Ding suffocated to death. Fulton argues that there is little legal protection for Christians in China.

Economic News

U.S. stocks fell Tuesday morning after a private gauge of Chinese manufacturing edged lower, reviving growth fears around the globe. The Caixin purchasing managers index for April showed China’s manufacturing gauge falling to 49.4, down from 49.7 in March. Any reading under 50 signals contraction. Economic growth, or the lack of it, continues to hamper financial markets. U.S. gross domestic product, for example, clocked in at a weak 0.5%, in the initial read for the first-quarter ending in March. And talk of a U.S. economy in so-called stall speed, coupled with contracting corporate earnings and continued uncertainty over central bank policy moves around the world, has held U.S. stocks back recently.

The number of people out of work in the 19 countries that use the euro has fallen by 2.9 million since April 2013, when unemployment peaked above 12%. However, 16.4 million people are still looking for work. Countries hardest hit by Europe’s debt crisis are now driving the turnaround, with unemployment falling fast in Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus. All these countries were forced to adopt tough economic reforms in return for international bailouts of their banks or government budgets. Greece — which was granted a third bailout last summer — is the notable outlier. Unemployment is forecast at 24.7% this year, and 23.6% in 2017.

Gold hit a new milestone on Monday, climbing above $1,300 an ounce for the first time since January 2015. Gold is now up 22% this year, crushing stocks, bonds and most other major asset classes. A weak dollar is good for gold because it makes the metal less expensive for foreign buyers and reinforces gold’s role as a good store of long-term value. The U.S. dollar has plunged 2% against a basket of currencies over the past week. After years of strength, the greenback has lately been dented by the Federal Reserve scaling back its once-ambitious plans to raise rates and near-zero economic growth in the U.S.

The confrontation between debt-swamped Puerto Rico and its creditors is intensifying as the U.S. territory defaulted on a $422 million debt payment due Monday, deepening the island’s financial crisis and placing additional pressure on Congress to intervene. The debt crisis threatens to resuscitate moribund ideological debates over the propriety of federal bailouts and the impact of fiscal mismanagement on the lives of real people faced with insufficient services. As a result of deteriorating conditions, Puerto Ricans are leaving the island for the mainland United States at an historic rate.

Chinese firms are on a record-breaking shopping spree, snapping up foreign firms like never before. They have already announced a whopping $108.5 billion in foreign deals so far this year, topping the $106 billion total for the whole of last year. Many of the announced deals still need to be approved by regulators — a requirement that has already sunk several proposed acquisitions due to concerns over national security. The spending record would have been shattered even earlier if Chinese insurer Anbang’s $14 billion bid for Starwood Hotels had been successful.

Migrant Update

When the leader of Germany’s Jews spoke out against the flow of Muslim migrants to Europe, a rabbinical student denounced his views as racist — and ignited a debate over whether Jews are right to fear unprecedented levels of immigration from Muslim lands traditionally hostile to Israel. Many in Germany’s 250,000-strong Jewish community expressed support for Joseph Schuster’s stance that anti-Semitism was growing once again in Germany, driven by newcomers with attitudes hostile to Jews and Israel. Schuster had already warned earlier that Jews shouldn’t wear their traditional skullcap, or kippa, in areas with large Muslim populations for fear of unprovoked attack. Jewish fears of Muslim immigration reflect a spike in anti-Semitic attacks and anti-Israel protests by Muslim youths in Germany during Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza and the more recent mass killings where Jewish institutions also have suffered deadly attacks.

Islamic State

A U.S. serviceman was killed Tuesday in northern Iraq after Islamic State militants penetrated Kurdish defensive lines and launched an attack with small arms and car bombs. It was the third American combat death in Iraq since the United States military deployed advisers and other personnel there to support the war against the Islamic State. The serviceman was a member of the U.S. military’s advise-and-assist team and was more than a mile behind Kurdish lines when militants penetrated the defenses. The serviceman was killed by direct fire and had been visiting a Kurdish position, when it was attacked, the official said. The attack occurred about 20 miles north of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Mosul is under Islamic State control and Iraqi forces have begun preliminary operations to retake the city.

Syria

Rebel forces shelled the Malla Khan mosque after Friday prayers in the government-controlled neighborhood of Bab al-Faraj district. The attack on the mosque in a government-held part of Aleppo resulted in 15 deaths, as the Syrian government and its allies announced both a planned cease-fire in the country’s west and expansion of operations around the city. Several people were injured in airstrikes on a clinic in the rebel-held neighborhood of Al-Marja in Aleppo, according to Al Jazeera.

Iraq

A car bombing Saturday killed at least 21 people and wounded dozens more in Baghdad. At least 42 people were injured after a man driving a car detonated a bomb in the southeastern section of the city. The suicide bombing occurred as thousands of Shiite worshippers from across the country are expected to walk to Baghdad’s holy shrine of 8th-century Imam Moussa al-Kadhim. The pilgrimage honors the anniversary of his death. This attack occurred just days after a suicide bomber blew up his car in the capital’s eastern Shiite-dominated New Baghdad neighborhood, killing at least 12 civilians. On Sunday, Iraqi officials say separate car bombings in southern Iraq killed at least 18 people and wounded dozens. Up to 40 people were wounded in both explosions, but the death toll is expected to rise. Another explosives-laden car detonated on Monday in the Iraqi capital, killing at least 18 Shiite pilgrims who were commemorating the anniversary of the death of a revered imam. Shortly after the explosion, the Sunni extrremist Islamic State group, which sees Shiite Muslims as apostates, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Hundreds of protesters stormed Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Saturday and entered the Parliament building, waving Iraqi flags, snapping photographs, breaking furniture and demanding an end to corruption. As the chaos unfolded in the afternoon, Baghdad Operations Command announced a state of emergency, deploying additional forces around the capital city. Checkpoints at city entrances were closed, even as the protests remained largely nonviolent. There have been months of protests by Iraqis who have demanded that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi carry out measures to end sectarian quotas in politics and fight corruption. Anti-government protesters who had stormed Baghdad’s Green Zone and parliament announced Sunday they would temporarily end their sit-in and left the heavily fortified area in an orderly manner. The big question for White House officials is what happens if Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi — a critical linchpin in the fight against the Islamic State — does not survive the turmoil that has swept over the Iraqi capital.

Turkey

A car bomb struck the entrance of a Turkish police station Sunday in the southern city of Gaziantep, killing a policeman and injuring 13 other people. Those injured in the blast include at least nine policemen. The city is near the border with Syria. In a separate incident Sunday, four people were wounded after two rockets hit a car park and house garden in Kilis, another town near the Syrian border. Turkey, which is facing both growing blowback from the conflict in Syria and renewed conflict with Kurdish militants, has seen a rise of such attacks recently. In the past year, more than 200 people across the country have been killed in six major bombings. This week a female suicide bomber blew herself up in the city of Bursa, northwest Turkey, in an attack that ended her life and wounded 13 people.

Ukraine

One Ukrainian soldier was killed and seven others were wounded in combat with Russian-backed militants in eastern Ukraine, officials said Sunday, as escalating violence threatens a cease-fire that took hold in September. Tensions were also high in the Black Sea port city of Odessa, where numerous armored vehicles belonging to the Ukrainian National Guard took up positions outside the Trade Union Building, site of clashes two years ago Monday that resulted in the deaths of dozens of pro-Russian demonstrators. Fighting has been on the rise, but Orthodox Easter, celebrated Sunday, was supposed to mark the beginning of a return to the cease-fire. Violations of the cease-fire have been increasing weekly, both in number and intensity.

Germany

Five hundred people were arrested in Germany after violent clashes broke out. More than 1,000 people were protesting Saturday in Stuttgart, where Alternative for Germany, a far-right political party, is holding a two-day conference over the weekend. Demonstrators tried to block party members from entering the building where their conference was taking place. Protesters then clashed with police, throwing flares and setting tires on fire.

Italy

In Italy it’s now acceptable to steal small amounts of food – but only if you have an empty stomach. The nation’s top appeals court on Monday overturned a conviction against a homeless Ukrainian man who stole $4.50 worth of cheese and hot dogs from an Italian supermarket because he was starving, the BBC reports. “The condition of the defendant and the circumstances in which the seizure of merchandise took place prove that he took possession of that small amount of food in the face of an immediate and essential need for nourishment, acting therefore in a state of necessity,” the court said in a statement.

China

China recently denied a request from a U.S. aircraft carrier for a port visit in Hong Kong, the State Department said Friday, in an apparent sign of mounting tension in the disputed South China Sea. Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his Philippine counterpart visited the carrier, USS John C. Stennis, in those waters two weeks ago, a move that irked Beijing. The U.S. has a long record of port visits to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post quoted China’s Foreign Ministry as saying that port calls by U.S. warships were being examined on a “case by case basis.”

Weather

The latest in a series of late-season winter storms that have been riding into the western U.S. from the Pacific dumped up to 20 inches of snow in the mountains of Colorado. The weight of this heavy, wet snow downed power lines and tree branches in Holyoke and Julesburg, Colorado, and also downed branches in Alliance, Nebraska. At least two people were injured Friday night after tornadoes touched down in parts of Texas and Oklahoma. The twisters were part of a potent storm system punching into a large portion of the South.

On Monday, hail as big as baseballs crashed onto homes and cars Monday evening, residents across the Washington D.C. metro area echoed the same sentiment on social media: “I’ve never seen hail this big before.” Baseball-sized hail was also reported in the Maryland towns of Rockville and St. Charles.

Six people were killed overnight Friday as severe weather caused flooding in Palestine, Texas. After being swept away by fast-moving flood waters, the bodies of a 64-year-old woman and her four grandchildren, ages 6 to 9, were discovered by an officer with the Palestine Police Department. After receiving 7.8 inches of rain, flooding reached the roofs of some homes. Severe weather continues to track across the Gulf coast region. As the storm system moved east on Sunday, parts of Louisiana began to flood as well, closing down parts of a major interstate. Nearly 200 people, including 14 in Texas last month alone, have lost their lives since January 2015, significantly higher than normal

At least two people were injured Friday night after tornadoes touched down in parts of Texas and Oklahoma. The twisters are part of a potent storm system punching into a large portion of the South.