Signs of the Times (6/18/16)

Conservative Gay Writer Slams Liberals Over Support of Islam

Conservative gay writer Milo Yiannopoulos had a few choice words about the Orlando terrorist and Muslim immigrants everywhere, and those words will have liberal heads everywhere about to explode. In an article at Breitbart, Yiannopoulos slammed liberals who agree with policies that allow Muslim refugees to enter Europe at an alarming rate. He said the political left’s “willful, suicidal ignorance about Muslim culture is at odds with virtually every one of their cherished social justice prescriptions.” He accused progressives of turning a blind eye to one of the most dangerous cultures in the world. He criticized them for being offended by Halloween costumes yet ignoring “the regular atrocities of cultures that mass-murder each other over regional, tribal, and sectarian differences.” Yiannopoulos pointed out the ridiculousness of liberals who call conservatives who disagree with their definition of gay marriage bigots but “welcome into their midst a culture that wants to execute queers like me.”

Victim’s Family Sues Facebook, Google and Twitter over Paris Terrorist Attack

The family of a California college student killed in November’s terrorist attacks in Paris is suing Facebook, Google and Twitter, alleging the companies provided “material support” to the Islamic State and other extremist groups. The Islamic Stateuses popular Internet services such as Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube to spread propaganda, attract and train new recruits, celebrate terrorist attacks and publicize executions. The lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Francisco federal court is the latest to target social media services for making it too easy for the ISIS to spread its message. Cal State Long Beach student Nohemi Gonzalez was among 130 people killed in the Paris attacks. In January, Twitter was sued by the widow of an American killed in an attack on a Jordanian police training center. In February, Twitter said it had suspended 125,000 accounts connected to the Islamic State over the previous six months. In what may be the first act of terrorism broadcast on Facebook Live, the suspected killer of a French police commander and his wife this week streamed a 13-minute video threatening attacks on European soccer competition Euro 2016.

CIA Director Contradicts Obama Over Islamic State Terrorism

CIA Director John Brennan, in a chilling warning on the Islamic State’s growing influence, told lawmakers Thursday that U.S.-led efforts to strike at the terror group have not hampered its “terrorism capability and global reach” – a message that stands in stark contrast to President Obama’s more upbeat assessment earlier this week. Brennan, testifying in a rare open hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, said ISIS likely will “intensify” terror attacks around the world even as its core fighters come under pressure in Iraq and Syria, by deploying operatives for further attacks on the West. Brennan said ISIS is “resilient” and likely will adapt, and warned coalition gains in Iraq and Syria are not blunting its capacity to carry out deadly operations abroad. The testimony undermined Obama’s comments on Tuesday when he said the anti-ISIS campaign “is firing on all cylinders” and the group “is under more pressure than ever before.”

Defense Officials Break from Obama’s Syrian Policy

Dozens of U.S. officials have called on the Obama administration to order “targeted military strikes” against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, with the aim of pressuring Damascus to accept a binding cease-fire and engage in peace talks. The Wall Street Journal reported that 51 State Department officials advising Syria policy signed the so-called “dissent channel cable”. State Department spokesman John Kirby confirmed the cable’s existence Thursday, but said he would not comment further until officials have reviewed its contents. The cable expresses clear frustration with America’s inability to halt a civil war that has killed perhaps a half-million people and contributed to a worldwide refugee crisis, and goes to the heart of Obama’s reluctance to enter the fray. “It’s embarrassing for the administration to have so many rank-and-file members break on Syria,” a former State Department official told the Journal.

Hackers Uncover 138 Vulnerabilities in Pentagon Websites

High-tech hackers brought in by the Pentagon to breach Defense Department websites were able to burrow in and find 138 different security gaps, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Friday. The so-called white-hat hackers were turned loose on five public Pentagon internet pages and were offered various bounties if they could find unique vulnerabilities. The Pentagon says 1,410 hackers participated in the challenge and the first gap was identified just 13 minutes after the hunt began. “These are ones we weren’t aware of, and now we have the opportunity to fix them. And again, it’s a lot better than either hiring somebody to do that for you, or finding out the hard way,” said Carter.

FBI’s Massive Facial Recognition Database ‘Dangerously Flawed’

The FBI steadily, stealthily compiled a massive facial recognition database without oversight and in disregard of federal law, according to a report released today by the Government Accountability Office. The bombshell report reveals that the FBI dipped into driver’s license photo databases from 16 states, as well as passport and visa photo databases from the State Department, feeding its facial recognition with millions of photos of Americans and foreigners who have never been accused of a crime. The FBI has access to a whopping 411.9 million images for use in facial recognition, only 30 million of which are mug shots, reports Technocracy News. The sheer number of photos described in the GAO report is staggering, but what’s worse is that the FBI didn’t make public disclosures about the program required by law, the GAO report says.

New Report: Common Core Does NOT Prepare Students for College

A recently released report confirms what Common Core critics have suspected all along: Common Core State Standards do not adequately prepare students for college-level work. The ACT report finds many concerning shortcomings in the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by most states. Teachers who must adjust their curriculum to fit Common Core aligned state tests now find themselves in a bind. As the report finds, the Common Core math standards do not adequately provide a child with the skills needed to succeed in the classroom, forcing teachers to add on extra material to their limited instruction time. Additionally, high school English teachers must now emphasize material that leaves students lacking in original thought and analytical skills, according to many college professors. For example, only 18 percent of college professors surveyed rated their students as prepared to distinguish between opinion, fact, and reasoned judgement—a skill determined to be important for college-level work. ACT [American College Testing Program] is now the more popular college admissions standardized test in the US, with the number of test-takers exceeding that of the SAT.

Insurers Want to Hike Obamacare Premiums by 10% for 2017

The benchmark Obamacare silver plan premiums are projected to rise 10% for 2017, on average, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation report that looked at insurers’ proposed rate increases for a 40-year-old consumer in 14 major cities. That’s double the 5% increase for 2016 policies, but it could change since state regulators often reduce insurers’ rate requests. Many Obamacare enrollees are turning out to be sicker and more expensive than insurers predicted, so the premiums didn’t cover the claims. The pricing of the benchmark plan — the second lowest cost silver policy in an area — is important because it is one of the most popular choices and federal subsidies are based on it. Enrollees who qualify for subsidies and pick the benchmark plan don’t feel the impact of the rate hikes since the federal payments cover all but 9.66% of the cost. Some 82% of enrollees received subsidies last year.

Economic News – Domestic

Men have been disappearing from the workforce for decades. But a closer look at the data reveals that lower-income men account for much of the change — and that reflects a big problem with the economy. Only 69% of these men, ages 25 to 54, are employed, according to new research from the Brookings Institution. That figure was 80% in 1980. Among middle class and upper-income men, 92% are working, down only slightly from 94% in 1980. Brookings found that lower-income Americans are more likely to be black or Hispanic, less likely to have a college degree and less likely to be married. They work fewer hours — only 46% work more than 40 hours a week — and the head of the household typically earns $12 an hour. This group of low-income men are much more dependent on government benefits and have a median annual income of $24,000.

U.S. consumer prices rose a moderate amount in May, driven up by rising energy costs and the biggest increase in shelter costs in more than nine years. Consumer prices increased 0.2% last month following a 0.4% April increase, the Commerce Department reported Thursday. Energy prices rose for a third straight month, but food costs fell. The Federal Reserve indicated Wednesday that it is still concerned about low inflation. The central bank left its key policy rate unchanged in a range of 0.25% to 0.5%. After moving the rate up by a quarter-point in December, the first rate hike in nearly a decade, the central bank has delayed any further increases because of concerns about tepid economic growth and inflation that is stuck at ultra-low levels.

Housing starts dipped in May, continuing the seesaw pattern over much of the last 12 months. New-home construction edged down 0.3% from April to a seasonally adjusted rate of 1.16 million, the Commerce Department said Friday. Building permits increased 0.7 % to 1.13 million, indicating a future rise in building starts. The increase in total building permits was mainly driven by apartment building permits, which rose 6.7% to 381,000. Single home permits fell 2% to 726,000.

The average new car payment in America has crept above the $500 per month mark for the first time, settling in at $503, according to a recent study by Experian. And if that weren’t bad enough, the average length of a car loan now stands at 68 months. Nearly one-third of new car purchases in the first quarter of 2016 included loans that stretched from 73 to 84 months, stretching budgets to the breaking point.

Economic News – International

The acting governor of Rio de Janeiro’s state government declared a state of financial disaster Friday in an effort to change budgetary priorities. Francisco Dornelles’ office said in a statement that the decision was made because a dip in revenues from taxes and oil royalties was “stopping the state of Rio de Janeiro from honoring its commitment to the organization of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.” The statement said the state is facing a “public calamity. The financial crisis has brought several difficulties in essential public services and it could cause the total collapse of public security, health care, education, urban mobility and environmental management.” Rio’s state government is in such dire straits that two of its hospitals were taken over by the Rio de Janeiro city government to allow doctors to keep receiving their paychecks. Some police stations are so underfunded that they have asked neighbors to donate basic items like toilet paper. Public workers and retirees have suffered months-long delays in receiving their money.

Switzerland voted to withdraw its application to become part of the European Union. The vote comes just a week before Britain decides whether to leave the EU in a referendum. Twenty-seven members of the upper house, the Council of States, voted to cancel Switzerland’s longstanding EU application, versus just 13 senators against. Two abstained the Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported. Thomas Minder, counsellor for the state of Schaffhausen and an active promoter of the concept of “Swissness,” said he was eager to “close the topic fast and painlessly” as only “a few lunatics” may want to join the EU now, he told the newspaper. Hannes Germann, also representing Schaffhausen, highlighted the symbolic importance of the vote, comparing it to Iceland’s decision to drop its membership bid in 2015. “Iceland had the courage and withdrew the application for membership, [and] no volcano erupted,” he said, jokingly.

Nervous investors are hoping to ride out looming financial storms by staying in cash. In recent weeks global fund managers have increased their cash stockpiles to the highest level since November 2001, right after the 9/11 terror attacks, according to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch survey. The defensive maneuvering is a further sign that some investors are too scared to be stuck holding risky stocks and bonds ahead of potential upcoming shocks. The biggest fear among survey respondents is Brexit, the U.K. referendum on leaving the European Union taking place next week. Fund managers’ average cash allocation jumped to 5.7% this month, surpassing even the levels during the 2008 Wall Street meltdown or the 2011 U.S. debt ceiling debacle, BofA said.

On June 13, businesses from around the world presented a signed Commitment Letter to sustainable development to the Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, Lenni Montiel. The submission of the letter took place as part of a symposium, titled Commitment to Agenda 2030, Partnerships for Innovation and Social Responsibility, which explored how business can help realize sustainable development. The symposium was held at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City, and was co-organized by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs and FiSO Group, LLC. The businesses committed to seeking the comprehensive realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – the global development agenda adopted by 193 nations in September of 2015. In particular, the businesses committed to using the Agenda’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to inform and assess their business strategies and operations, as well as for monitoring and reporting.

  • The 2030 Agenda and ‘Sustainable Development’ are the keystones in the push for global governance

Britain

The heated campaign over whether Britain should leave the European Union came to an abrupt halt Thursday following the assassination of a member of Parliament who played a visible role campaigning for continued membership in the EU. Police would not comment on a possible motive of the fatal shooting and stabbing of Labour Party MP Jo Cox, 41, by a lone assailant as she met with constituents. Yet the murder in broad daylight, a rare event in this country, could alter the outcome of next Thursday’s high-stakes referendum. Polls show a closely divided public on the referendum. Cox’s assailant, by one account, repeatedly shouted the name of a far-right political group that favors a British exit, or “Brexit,” from the EU. The suspect detained by British police had ties to a neo-Nazi group in the United States, according to a group that monitors extremism.

Islamic State

Elite Iraqi forces entered the center of Fallujah on Friday, securing the government center and other buildings in a major victory by the Iraqi government over the Islamic State. Iraq’s special forces seized the surrounding neighborhood as well, the Associated Press reported. Iraqi forces, supported by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, launched the offensive to take Fallujah several weeks ago. In the past few days, they had established a foothold in the southern edges of the city, located about 40 miles west of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and cut off much of the city so the Islamic State militants could not get resupplies or reinforcements. The ground seized Friday came amid intense fighting with hundreds of Islamic State militants holed up in the city. The city is far from secured. In past battles when the Islamic State has withdrawn from cities, the militants have left bombs that could explode and launched counter attacks against government forces. Militants remain holed up in various parts of the sprawling city, where many civilians remain trapped as “human shields.”

Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan — America’s longest conflict — will grind on for at least another four years as NATO allies are prepared to commit $5 billion through 2020 to train, equip and pay Afghan security forces, according to a senior NATO diplomat. Last week, President Obama granted U.S. troops in Afghanistan expanded authority to attack Taliban insurgents. The new rules allow U.S. forces to advise regular Afghan combat units and to call in airstrikes. There are about 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and Obama has pledged to reduce their number to 5,500 by year’s end. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said the new, more aggressive approach put U.S. forces closer to the fight with the Taliban.

Libya

The Pentagon says it is encouraged by progress Libyan militias are making in driving the Islamic State from its stronghold in the oil-rich country, but is not offering new military assistance for a unity government that still lacks allegiance from some of the militias. The Islamic State had expanded to as many as 6,000 fighters in Libya over the past year, capitalizing on disarray that followed the collapse of the Moammar Gadhafi regime in 2011. Gadhafi’s government was overthrown by opposition forces within his country with the backing of a NATO-led coalition air campaign. Militias from the western city of Misrata launched a surprise offensive in recent days to retake the militants’ stronghold, the coastal city of Sirte, driving them from parts of the city. The offensive comes as a U.N.-backed unity government attempts to establish control over rival factions based primarily in the capital, Tripoli, and the eastern city of Benghazi, site of the lethal 2012 attack on a U.S. compound.

Iran

Iran has finalized a historic deal with Boeing to buy passenger planes from the U.S. aircraft manufacturer as part of an ongoing effort to upgrade the country’s civilian air fleet, Iranian media reported Tuesday. If approved, the agreement would mean that new American aircraft would fly over Iran for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Reuters reported. IranAir would acquire more than 100 Boeing jets under the potential multi-billion-dollar deal. However, any deal between Boeing and Iran is contingent upon approvals from the U.S. government because remaining sanctions currently ban the use of dollars in trade with Iran. What’s more, Republican lawmakers who opposed the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran could also oppose this transaction.

Now that sanctions are gone, Iran is seriously flexing its oil muscles in hopes of luring back Western energy companies. Iran pumped 3.64 million barrels per day in May, just four months after sanctions were lifted, according to the International Energy Agency. That’s the fastest pace since June 2011, before tougher sanctions were imposed by the U.S. and other world powers over Iran’s nuclear program. All told, Iran’s oil production has surged by 730,000 barrels per day since the end of 2015, the largest gain from any OPEC country. Iran’s waterborne crude exports surged to 2.6 million barrels per day in May, nearly tripling the pace from November 2015. The influx of Iranian crude has helped offset large and unexpected production outages in Nigeria and Canada. However, the overall glut of oil is likely to impact prices once those countries get back on track.

France

A Paris police official says 26 people were injured wounded, including 20 police officers, in violence during street protests against French labor reform, the Associated Press reported. Protesters smashed windows and threw stones at police as thousands marched through the city Tuesday in protest of a planned change to loosen labor rules, which would make hiring and firing easier. Police responded with tear gas and reportedly arrested 13 people in the street march. The Eiffel Tower was closed Tuesday in Paris because operators said they could not guarantee public safety and taxi drivers temporarily blocked some of the city’s main access roads in the morning. The march comes amid a time when police are already stretched to ensure safety and security during the Euro 2016 soccer tournament. France has also been on high alert since the terror attacks in November that left 130 dead.

Belgium

Belgian authorities, fearing an imminent terror attack, arrested 12 people in dozens of overnight raids in a major security operation, the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office said Saturday. The operation in 16 municipalities was mounted after investigation “necessitated an immediate intervention. The dozen suspects were among as many as 40 people rounded up in overnight raids mainly in and around Brussels, according to the Belgian newspaper Le Soir.  Authorities also examined more than 150 locked-up garages. Among the municipalities where the raids took place were Molenbeek and Schaerbeek, two Brussels suburbs where suspected terrorists were detained in recent weeks following the March 22 suicide bombings at the Brussels airport and metro system that left 32 people dead.

Bangladesh

Authorities in Bangladesh have arrested nearly 150 suspected militants and more than 11,000 others as part of a crackdown on extremism after a wave of brutal killings. Police said they detained 145 suspected Islamist militants over four days of raids and that the rest were accused of everything from theft and drug dealing to violence. An officially secular but Muslim-majority nation, Bangladesh has seen a surge of targeted killings — blamed on Islamist radicals — that have claimed the lives of secularists, religious minorities and gay activists. Police have said that most of the suspected militants were members of Jama’atul Mujahedin Bangladesh, a banned Islamist group. The JMB also has been blamed for bomb attacks.

Venezuela

Hungry Venezuelans escalated attacks on trucks carrying scarce food to the country’s largest cities Wednesday, a day after hundreds of protesters were arrested by security forces. Photos on social media showed looters attacking trucks on the highway that connects Venezuela’s main port of Puerto Cabello to the industrial city of Valencia. Others said that trucks ferrying food can no longer enter Cumana due to frequent attacks being carried out on the highways entering the city. Looting was reported throughout the country, including Caracas, where merchants refused to open their shops. The looting and violent protests are threatening President Nicolas Maduro’s hold on power.

Wildfires

Major wildfires burning across the West have consumed tens of thousands of acres and forced evacuations in at least three states. In New Mexico, one particular wildfire exploded in size to around 16,000 acres by Thursday night, forcing evacuations in the Manzano Mountains southeast of Albuquerque. The largest of these fires has burned more than 26,000 acres in the San Mateo Mountains of southwestern New Mexico. Dry conditions are hampering firefighting efforts in a region that is expected to see dangerous and potentially deadly heat over the weekend and into early next week. More than 1,200 firefighters worked to contain a wildfire that has burned about 4,000 acres west of Santa Barbara, California. Authorities evacuated 400 homes and businesses. Some vehicles became trapped as flames reached Highway 101, according to the California Highway Patrol.

On Thursday, wildland firefighters attempted to gain the upper hand on the Cedar Creek Fire as it burned out of control about 10 miles south of Show Low, Arizona. The blaze was the second wildfire in a week to menace residents of Arizona’s high country, this time forcing residents in Show Low, Pinetop-Lakeside and surrounding communities to prepare to evacuate just as residents of Yarnell did a week ago. The Cedar Creek Fire had grown to more than 5,200 acres by Thursday evening, sending plumes of smoke billowing through the scenic White Mountains and sparking flashbacks to the infamous Rodeo-Chedeski Fire, one of the largest in recorded state history, that ravaged the area 14 years ago. Strategic burnouts and better-than-expected wind conditions Thursday allowed firefighters to stave off additional evacuations in communities near the Cedar Fire.

Weather

A round of severe storms rolled through the High Plains on Tuesday afternoon and evening, leaving wind damage behind and spawning several reported tornadoes. Multiple tornadoes struck northeastern South Dakota on Tuesday afternoon, the first of which was spotted near the town of Webster. Another tornado was also reported south of Waubay. There were no reports of damage from either incident. Storms then pushed east into Minnesota and Iowa, where damage was created and some flooding was triggered. Several trees were brought down at a campground in Worthington, Minnesota, and winds gusted as high as 51 mph nearby. In northern Iowa, a wind gust of 73 mph was reported near the town of Estherville. Multiple reports of wind damage also occurred nearby, with the majority being tree or power line damage, but there was some roof damage reported as well.

Severe thunderstorms blew into the Northeast on Thursday, causing winds that downed trees and left one injured in Pennsylvania. As the storms pushed east, hail as big as baseballs hit parts of Virginia. The storms knocked out power to more than 160,000 customers in Virginia. Injuries were reported and at least 100,000 customers lost power in South Carolina and Georgia as a round of severe storms rushed across the South on Friday.

Some cities received record-breaking temperatures this week: Columbia, Missouri, broke its old record high of 96 degrees (set in 1952) by reaching 99 degrees on Wednesday. Des Moines, Iowa, tied its old record high of 96 degrees (set in 1913) on Wednesday. The most extreme heat in the coming days will be in the Desert Southwest where highs could climb to near 120 degrees, including in Phoenix, where it hasn’t been that hot in more than 20 years. The National Weather Service (NWS) in Phoenix said that heat of this magnitude in their area is rare, dangerous and deadly.

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