Signs of the Times (8/8/16)

Supreme Court Agrees to Stay Transgender Bathroom Order

With the Supreme Court out of session and still down one justice, it seemed unlikely the high court would take any action on a Virginia school district’s request to stay a lower court’s order regarding a transgender student, reports Charisma News. The justices split 5-3 on the request, which lifts—until the court can issue its own opinion on the case—the Gloucester County School District’s obligation to allow “Gavin” Grimm to use opposite-sex bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers. “Gavin” is a biological girl who suffers from a psychological disorder in which she believes she is a boy. Following a “joint guidance” issued by the Obama Administration’s education and justice departments, a lower federal court ruled the Virginia school district had to allow Grimm to use opposite-sex facilities. After Democratic-appointed Associate Justice Stephen Breyer joined with the court’s four GOP appointees to stay that order, it would seem no school district is bound to follow the Obama Administration’s transgender mandate. Breyer said he agreed to the stay as a “courtesy” and to “preserve the status quo” until the Supreme Court can hear the case next year. A ruling would be unlikely until next spring, at the earliest.

High Court in Ireland Rules an Unborn Baby Has a Right to Life

A High Court judge has ruled that the word ‘unborn’ in the Irish Constitution means an “unborn child” with rights beyond the right to life which “must be taken seriously” by the State. The Irish Times reports that Justice Richard Humphreys said an unborn child, including the unborn child of a parent facing deportation, enjoys “significant” rights and legal position at common law, by statute, and under the Constitution, “going well beyond the right to life alone”. He also said that Article 42a of the Constitution, inserted by a 2012 referendum, obliges the State to protect “all” children and that because an “unborn” is “clearly a child”, Article 42a applied to all children “both before and after birth.” Niamh Uí Bhriain of the Life Institute said that this was a significant ruling which confirmed that the unborn baby was deserving of all the rights and protections to which every other person was entitled. She added that the ruling was a blow to those who were seeking to discriminate against children before birth and who argued that the preborn child was not fully human or entitled to human rights.

FBI Documents Confirm IRS Targeted the Tea Party

A government watchdog says FBI documents it has obtained confirm an orchestrated effort by the IRS to target tea party groups, One News Now reported last week. Judicial Watch obtained 294 pages of FBI documents that reveal top IRS officials knew about the targeting of tea party groups and other conservative groups two years before disclosing it to Congress and the public. The scandal centers around conservative groups that were seeking non-profit status so they could legally form an organization. Besides tea party groups, hundreds of other groups were flagged, too, including pro-life groups, a conservative Hispanic group, a conservative Hollywood group, pro-Israel groups, and a voting-rights group. Claims that liberal groups were also targeted was found to be an exaggeration after the IRS inspector general scrutinized the records. The scandal was first blamed on “rogue agents” in the Cincinnati office, but that claim was dropped when it became public that high-ranking officials in Washington, D.C. were instructing those agents to flag applications.

First Commercial Mission to Moon Approved

he U.S. government has given a Cape Canaveral company the go-ahead to fly the first commercial mission to the moon. The first-of-its-kind approval announced Wednesday morning clears the way for Moon Express to fly a robotic lander about the size of the “Star Wars” drone R2-D2 to the lunar surface as soon as next year. A startup with Silicon Valley roots and investors, Moon Express becomes the first from a growing group of entrepreneurial space firms lining up to fly missions beyond near-Earth orbit. SpaceX hopes to launch an unmanned “Red Dragon” mission to Mars as soon as 2018. Planetary Resources wants to mine asteroids. And Bigelow Aerospace, which recently attached a prototype habitat to the International Space Station, envisions lunar and Mars bases. Each at some point will need an approval like the one given to Moon Express by the Federal Aviation Administration, which led a months-long review also involving the White House, State Department, NASA and Defense Department.

Drowsy Driving Causes Thousands of Accidents

Drowsy driving is a common but neglected problem responsible for thousands of deaths each year in crashes that cost more than $100 billion, concludes a report by state safety advocates released Monday. Drowsy driving hasn’t received the attention of drunken or distracted driving, partly because diagnosing the problem is difficult. Many crashes involve a single car and driver, and definitive clues as to the cause are lacking. Police cited drowsy driving in at least 72,000 crashes from 2009 through 2013, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those accidents included 41,000 injuries and 800 deaths, NHTSA said. However, the AAA Foundation estimates that drowsiness causes an average 328,000 crashes per year, with 109,000 involving 6,400 fatalities. Risks of drowsy crashes are similar to drunken driving, with less scanning of the road and even nodding off at the wheel, according to the report. Slower reaction times, more frequent eye closure and failure to pay attention are among the risks.

10 Refugees Form Olympic Team to Compete in Rio

A team of 10 refugees are makomg Olympic history by being the first team of refugees ever to compete in the Olympic Games. According to The New Yorker, the team is made up of six men and four women, all of whom have stories of overcoming not only athletic challenges, but challenges of actual survival. The team is comprised of two swimmers from Syria, two judo competitors from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a marathoner from Ethiopia, and five middle-distance runners from South Sudan. The 10 participants were selected from a group of 43 refugees by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The opening ceremony in Rio featured a tribute to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are struggling worldwide. Thomas Back, the president of the IOC, stated, “These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem. We will offer them a home in the Olympic Village, together with all the athletes of the word. The Olympic anthem will be played in their honor, and the Olympic flag will lead them into the Olympic Stadium. These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills, and strength of the human spirit.”

Zika Update

At least 41 American service members, including one pregnant woman, have been diagnosed with the Zika virus while on active duty overseas, a Pentagon spokesperson told Fox News Wednesday. The Pentagon said that seven family members of those servicemen and women also have contracted the virus, which usually leads to mild symptoms, but can cause severe birth defects in children and has been linked to paralysis and birth defects. All of the troops contracted Zika overseas, and are being treated at undisclosed locations. The two types of mosquitoes known to carry the virus— including its primary vector, the Aedes aegypti— are found at nearly 200 stateside installations ranging from Texas and Florida to New York, Military.com reported.

Economic News

The labor market turned in a strong showing for the second straight month in July as employers added 255,000 jobs, following 287,000 new jobs in June. The unemployment rate was unchanged at 4.9%, the Labor Department said Friday, as the sharp rise in employment was offset by a similar-size increase in the ranks of those looking for jobs. Businesses added 217,000 jobs, led by professional and business services, health care and finance. Federal, state and local governments added 38,000. This makes two straight months of solid job increases following May’s anemic 24,000 jobs. Average hourly wages rose 8 cents to $25.69 and are up 2.6% the past year. Every month, the U.S. economy must create at least 150,000 new jobs just to keep up with population growth.

Bitcoin owners targeted by hackers last week may lose about 36% of their money. Bitfinex, the Hong Kong-based exchange that was hacked, has started to bring its platform back online. It was shut down last week after 119,756 bitcoins, worth more than $65 million based on exchange rates at the time, were stolen from some users’ accounts. Bitfinex said it decided “after much thought, analysis and consultations” to generalize the losses across all users. That means even people who weren’t affected by the hack will find that 36% of the value of their accounts will be replaced by a “token” labeled BFX. The company said it will use those tokens to keep track of customers’ losses and will work to compensate the accounts in the future.

Since oil prices began to fall in mid-2014, cheap crude oil has been blamed for 195,000 job cuts in the U.S., according to a report published on Thursday by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, and the shedding of jobs may not be over yet. It’s an enormous toll that is especially painful because these tend to be well-paying jobs. The average pay in the oil and gas industry is 84% higher than the national average, according to Goldman Sachs. The cuts have occurred at a time when many other segments of the American economy have been adding jobs.

Islamic State

A U.S.-backed alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias have seized nearly all of the strategic northern Syrian city of Manbij after a more than two-months’ long offensive against ISIS militants, a rights group reported Saturday. The militias, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, are now sweeping through the city, located in the northeast part of Aleppo province. Operations are still under way in the center of town and some ISIS members are still hiding there, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Activists CNN has spoken to in the city say ISIS still controls at least one neighborhood and intense clashes are ongoing in others.

ISIS militants have captured up to 3,000 people displaced from their homes trying to flee conflict zones in northern Iraq, the United Nations said Friday, reportedly killing 12 of them. The Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday that an estimated 100 to 120 ISIS militants had captured around 1,900 civilians. It said the militants were using the captives as human shields in fighting against Iraqi forces. The move is the latest by ISIS militants to retain a grip on swaths of the country as Iraqi forces, backed by US-led airstrikes, try to recapture Mosul, ISIS’ most significant stronghold outside Syria. There are more than 4 million internally displaced persons in Iraq, according to data from the UN refugee agency.

Islamic State claimed responsibility on Sunday for an attack by a machete-wielding man in Belgium that left two female police officers seriously injured, the group’s Amaq news agency said on Twitter. Shortly before the claim, Belgian prosecutors had identified the assailant as a 33-year-old Algerian, K.B., who had lived in Belgium since 2012, saying that he may have been inspired by terrorism. The attacker, who shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) during the assault on Saturday, was shot by police and died of his injuries.

Syria

After months of being pummeled from the air and by Syrian artillery, an Islamist-led rebel coalition has made a dramatic breakthrough in relieving the siege of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Their assault — the first test for a new group born out of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate — appears to have taken the exhausted Syrian army by surprise. If consolidated, the rebels’ offensive — which they have dubbed “The Great Battle for Aleppo” — could change the landscape of the conflict in northern Syria. What is beyond dispute is that the renewed fighting, and the waves of regime airstrikes and rocket attacks launched in response, is inflicting yet further suffering and destruction in Syria’s oldest city. The rebel offensive has been led by Jabhat Fateh al Sham, formerly the al Nusra Front. Two weeks ago, al Nusra very publicly declared it was breaking its long-standing ties with al Qaeda to build closer alliances with other jihadist and rebel groups in Syria.

Turkey

Turkey’s ruling party on Friday ordered a purge of followers of a U.S.-based imam the government blames for masterminding the country’s failed July 15 coup. The order came a day after Turkey issued a warrant for Fethullah Gulen’s arrest, a move seen as a prelude to a formal extradition request. The government has branded Gulen’s movement a terrorist organization and has launched a sweeping crackdown on its alleged followers since the attempted coup, which left more than 270 people dead. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to arrive in Turkey later this month, amid strained relations with Washington over the possible extradition of Gulen.

Pakistan

Scores of people were killed Monday in a suicide bombing at the main gate of a hospital in southwestern Pakistan. At least 64 people were killed in the incident at the Civil Hospital in the city of Quetta in the Balochistan province. An additional 92 people were being treated for injuries. The explosion, which was followed by gunfire, struck the entrance to the hospital’s emergency department. Nobody immediately claimed responsibility for the blast. A number of people have been killed in Quetta in incidents linked to separatist insurgents, sectarian tensions and crime, the BBC said. Reuters reported that several lawyers were among those killed in recent weeks.

Afghanistan

Taliban militants attacked a convoy carrying about a dozen foreign tourists including three Americans in Afghanistan. Police were escorting the tourists when the ambush happened about 90 miles from the western city of Herat. The tourists were heading to see historical monuments in Herat. The Washington Post said at least six people were injured. It reported that the tourists in the convoy included six Britons and one German and said that efforts were underway to airlift the victims to Herat by helicopter. In another incident Thursday, six people aboard a Pakistani military helicopter were taken hostage by the Taliban after it crashed in Afghanistan.

India

At least 14 people were killed Friday when alleged Christian terrorists attacked a market in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, authorities said. Fifteen others were hurt in the attack, including 12 with serious injuries. The attackers are believed to be part of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, a Christian separatist group that India has classified as a terrorist group. Three attackers opened fire about 11 a.m. at the market in Kokrajhar, authorities said. The army killed one of the assailants, and authorities are looking for the other two

Ukraine

The increasingly tense situation on the frontline between government forces and separatists in eastern Ukraine has resulted in a spike in civilian casualties, according to new figures released by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The agency documented 69 civilian casualties in eastern Ukraine in June, including 12 dead and 57 injured — nearly double the figure for May and the highest figure since August 2015. July saw 73 civilian casualties, including eight dead and 65 injured. More than half the total casualties recorded in the past two months were caused by shelling, while the remaining part were caused by mines, booby traps and improvised explosive devices.

Brazil

Brazil has deployed the largest security contingent in Olympic history — up to 100,000 officers — to secure the city of 6.5 million people. With many of them decked out in camouflage uniforms and carrying assault rifles, it has created a distinctly military feel in a city more accustomed to flip flops and bikinis. Most of the major roads leading to and from Olympic venues are lined with a combination of military, federal and state police. Teams of motorcycle officers sit in rows around the city, ready to serve as rapid response units. Even the view from iconic Copacabana Beach has been obscured in recent days by a Brazilian navy warship cruising just offshore. While there have been reports of muggings, assaults and one person shot dead on Friday night outside the opening ceremony, there hasn’t been the kind of widespread mayhem predicted by some leading up to the Games.

The Rio Olympics opened to big pageantry but relatively low ratings in the United States for NBC. Friday’s broadcast of the Rio opening ceremony brought in an overnight rating of 16.5 — the lowest overnight rating for a summer Olympics opening ceremony since 1992 when the games were held in Barcelona. The opening of the London games in 2012 had a 23.0 overnight rating. The network may even have to compensate advertisers for lower-than-expected viewership by giving them free ads later.

Environment

A once top-secret subterranean U.S. nuclear base in northern Greenland is thawing out, potentially exposing the environment to radioactive coolant, PCBs, and raw sewage that the military originally believed would stay entombed for millennia. The hazardous waste could emerge by the end of the century, according to a new, peer-reviewed study published Thursday in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. Camp Century was a U.S. base built on the Greenland ice sheet in 1959. To the public, its mission was scientific tasks such as drilling for ice cores. But it also doubled as a top-secret site for testing nuclear missiles during the height of the Cold War. Codenamed Project Iceworm, it was a test base to see if launch sites could be built close enough for missiles to reach the Soviet Union. The camp included a series of tunnels roughly 50 feet underground. It was one of five ice-sheet bases in northern Greenland.

Volcanoes

Last week the most dangerous volcano in Mexico erupted and three major volcanoes in Indonesia all erupted within the space of just 72 hours. Mexico and Indonesia are both considered to be part of “the Ring of Fire,” and all along the perimeter of the Pacific Ocean volcanoes are starting to go off like firecrackers right now, reports Charisma News. According to Volcano Discovery, 25 volcanoes in areas that are considered to be within the Ring of Fire have erupted recently. Our planet appears to have entered a time of increased seismic activity, the report notes. In Mexico, some scientists are becoming concerned that this recent activity may be building up to “a major disastrous eruption” by Mt. Popocatepetl near Mexico City.

Wildfires

A wildfire that began just after noon on Sunday and consumed 1,500 acres within eight hours brings the total number of active fires in California to 20. The Pilot fire, located 50 east of Los Angeles in the San Bernardino National Forest, spread quickly through dry timber and brush and forced the evacuation of dozens of homes in Summit Valley, California. Hindered by the mountainous terrain near Pilot Rock Conservation Camp above Silverwood Lake, firefighters battled the rapidly-spreading fire through the night into Monday morning, but the fire remains 0 percent contained. Several highways in the area were closed because of the fire.

Federal officials say 27 large wildfires across the West are being fueled by hot, dry temperatures often combined with high winds, which is making conditions difficult for thousands of firefighters. The fires have destroyed dozens of homes and have forced evacuations. The 2-week-old wildfire churning through the ruggedly scenic coastal mountains north of California’s Big Sur has grown to more than 84 square miles. But an army of 5,500 firefighters established containment lines on about a third of the perimeter. A total of 57 residences and 11 outbuildings have been destroyed and a bulldozer operator has been killed in an accident since an unattended campfire ignited the blaze July 22.

Firefighters have started two simultaneous emergency burns trying to stop an 81-square-mile wildfire that on Friday moved to within a few miles of a small town in mountainous central Idaho. Nearly 1,500 firefighters are battling the blaze burning timber in rugged terrain. Numerous fire lines have had to be abandoned as flames moved north. About 25 miles of State Highway 21 remains closed. Utah authorities say a rural wildfire near the Idaho border has torched about 30 square miles and destroyed three structures. Fire officials hope to have full containment by Sunday on the largest wildfire in Wyoming this summer. The fire in the Bridger-Teton National Forest has been burning since July 17 when it was started by lightning. It has burned about 49 square miles of timber, but firefighters have gained 84 percent containment.

Weather

At least three homes collapsed Thursday and thousands of people were left without power after a severe storm hit New Orleans. The homes collapsed at around 4 p.m. local time, as heavy rain and high winds moved through the area. The storm produced wind gusts of up to 60 miles per hour that knocked down power lines and trees across the metro New Orleans area.

Hurricane Earl has weakened to a tropical depression after strengthening into a modest tropical storm in the Bay of Campeche Friday night. Earl made landfall early Thursday morning near Belize City as a Category 1 hurricane with estimated maximum sustained winds of 80 mph. Six people were killed in the Dominican Republic Sunday into Monday as this system passed near the island. Now, the main concern going forward will transition to excessive rainfall and major flooding. Earl was the first hurricane to landfall in Belize, or anywhere in the western Caribbean Sea west of Jamaica, since Ernesto almost exactly four years ago. Mountain communities in two Mexican states are recovering from weekend mudslides that killed 39 people during heavy rains brought by remnants of Hurricane Earl.

At least 21 are dead, six are missing and 60 have been hospitalized after torrential rain hit the Macedonian capital of Skopje, authorities said Sunday. Police and army helicopters have been dispatched to search for the missing and hundreds have been evacuated from the flood zone. The system brought heavy rain, strong winds and thunderstorms into the city and its northern suburbs late Saturday. The floods destroyed hundreds of homes and vehicles and roads are still impassable. Several areas remain without electricity.

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