Signs of the Times (4/5/17)

Cadbury Takes ‘Easter’ out of Annual Easter Egg Hunt

By removing the word “Easter” from its annual Easter egg hunt, the National Trust is “airbrushing faith,” the Church of England says. The Church of England’s comments came after the National Trust and Cadbury decided to rebrand the annual event from “Easter Egg Trail” to the “Great British Egg Hunt.” During the annual hunt, thousands of children search for the Cadbury chocolate eggs at National Trust properties. The National Trust, however, said that it didn’t make the change in rebranding. “The National Trust is in no way downplaying the significance of Easter, which is why we put on a huge number of events, activities and walks to bring families together at this time of year,” a spokesperson said. “We work closely with Cadbury, who are responsible for the branding and wording of our egg hunt campaign.”

FDA Expands Use Of RU-486 Abortion Drug To 70 Days

The FDA will now allow women a longer window to chemically starve unborn babies, with less medical oversight, notes Technocracy News. The Food and Drug Administration quietly expanded abortion access last Wednesday. This change was a careful relabel aimed at increasing access to the abortifacient mifepristone, or RU-486. The FDA approved its use up to 70 days after a woman’s last menstrual cycle began, up from the previous 49-day limit. According to the manufacturer, since its approval, more than 2.75 million women in the United States have taken mifepristone to end a pregnancy early in its gestation. While RU-486 use now comprises one-fourth of abortions, it’s not without significant risks for the mother, such as heavy bleeding, nausea, vomiting, and painful uterine contractions.  About 2% hemorrhage and more than 1 in a 100 require hospitalization. In addition, for 4-5% of women, the pills don’t work, making them return for surgical abortions.

  • Three weeks after fertilization—which, given the usual timeline of a woman’s fertility cycle is approximately five weeks before the FDA’s new RU-486 cutoff—a baby already has a beating heart.

31,725 Illegals from Terror Hotbeds Have Disappeared

A staggering 31,725 illegal immigrants from countries that aid and abet terrorist organizations received deportation orders from U.S. immigration courts from 2003 through 2015, but what became of them is anyone’s guess, finds a report by a former immigration judge at the behest of the Center for Immigration Studies. In fact, some 3,095 of these aliens fled their hearings, among them 338 people from Iran, Sudan, and Syria, nations the State Department declares state sponsors of terrorism. Federal law — 18 U.S.C. § 3146 — imposes penalties from one year to 15 years in prison for those who fail to show up for federal court proceedings. Yet those who dodge immigration court are treated much differently. They can literally abandon their cases without fear of incarceration or removal and, in turn, imperil national and domestic security. American immigration courts, in fact, have the highest failure to appear rate of any court-system in the nation, reports WorldNetDaily.

Border Patrol Urges Trump to Cut Obama’s Red Tape

The Homeland Security Department has been reluctant to send helicopters on nighttime missions to aid the Border Patrol, leaving agents to face drug smugglers and illegal immigrants without critical air cover, the chief of the agents’ labor union told Congress. Brandon Judd, an agent who is also president of the National Border Patrol Council, said that when the Border Patrol controlled its own helicopters, it got the air support it needed. But after the Homeland Security Department was created more than a decade ago, the helicopters were turned over to the Office of Air and Marine, which has been reluctant to fly the nighttime hours the agents need. Mr. Trump’s early changes to enforcement policy, freeing agents to carry out the law enforcement duties they signed up for, has helped boost morale, Judd said. Chris Crane, the head of the union for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council concurred. Mr. Crane said, “a good ol’ boy network” pervades ICE, which he said is too heavy on managers who get in the way of agents trying to enforce immigration laws in the interior. He said agents are eager to enforce laws against employers who hire illegal immigrants, but their hands are tied.

Trump Administration Moves to Combat H-1B Visa Fraud

On Monday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it would take a “more targeted approach” in site visits to the workplaces of H-1B petitioners. Also on Monday, the Justice Department issued a press release “cautioning” employers petitioning for H-1B visas to not discriminate against American workers. USCIS, which has been conducting random site visits since 2009, said it will now specifically target H-1B dependent employers, or companies that have 15% of their U.S. workforce on the visa. Employers that have H-1B employees who work offsite at another company will also be subject to these site visits, as will companies that do not have readily available information about their business online. While H-1B visas are used to fill the U.S. skills gap, the Trump administration has voiced concerns about abuse of the program. In some cases, outsourcing firms flood the system with applicants, obtaining visas for foreign workers and then contracting them out to tech companies. American jobs are sometimes replaced in the process, critics say.

Democrats Stall Vote on Gorsuch to Supreme Court

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley took to the Senate floor just before 7 p.m. ET Tuesday vowing to talk “as long as I’m able” to protest Republicans’ 2016 blockade of President Barack Obama’s nominee for the seat, Merrick Garland — in the latest disruption on the road to a vote for President Trump’s nominee. As of Wednesday morning, the Democratic senator has spoken for over 15 hours. Republicans are increasingly likely to use the so-called “nuclear option” to push through a Democratic filibuster. The nuclear or constitutional option is a parliamentary procedure that allows the U.S. Senate to override a rule or precedent by a simple majority of 51 votes, instead of by a supermajority of 60 votes. Senators of both parties bemoaned the further erosion of their traditions of bipartisanship and consensus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell drew a distinction between legislation being filibustered and the filibuster being used against nominees, something that is a more recent development.

Trump Signs Order to Repeal Internet Privacy Protections

President Trump signed into law Monday a resolution that repeals protections requiring Internet service providers to get your permission before collecting and sharing data. These protections — which had not yet gone into effect — were approved by the Federal Communications Commission in the final days of the Obama administration. The providers collect data on web browsing history, app usage and geo-location. The White House said last week that repealing the protections will create an “equal playing field” between Internet service providers and tech companies. Opponents of the privacy rules argued they would place an undue burden on broadband providers while leaving large Internet companies like Facebook and Google free to collect user data without asking permission.

DEA War Against Oxycodone Ends with a Whimper

To combat an escalating opioid epidemic, the Drug Enforcement Administration trained its sights in 2011 on Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of the highly addictive generic painkiller oxycodone. It was the first time the DEA had targeted a manufacturer of opioids for alleged violations of laws designed to prevent diversion of legal narcotics to the black market. And it is the largest prescription-drug case the agency has pursued. Government investigators alleged in internal documents that the company’s lack of due diligence could have resulted in nearly 44,000 federal violations and exposed it to $2.3 billion in fines, according to confidential government records and emails obtained by The Washington Post. But six years later, after four investigations that spanned five states, the government has taken no legal action against Mallinckrodt. Instead, the company has reached a tentative settlement with federal prosecutors, according to sources familiar with the discussions. Under the proposal, which remains confidential, Mallinckrodt would agree to pay a $35 million fine and admit no wrongdoing.

Women Missing from Highest Paid Jobs

If it’s a high-paid job, chances are you won’t find a woman in it. That’s the conclusion of a LinkedIn analysis, prepared for Equal Pay Day on Tuesday, of how women fared in the top 100 highest-paying job-categories in the U.S. On average, women make up less than 30% of employees in each of the highest-paid job categories. Among the highest-paid jobs, only three of them employ more women than men — all within human resource roles. “Parity has been an uneven and slow progress,” says Paul Ko, head of economic graph analysis at LinkedIn. The disparity is pronounced in the upper echelons of tech leadership, where females are underrepresented as chief technology officer (5%), vice president of engineering (5%) and director of system engineering (7%) roles. Equal Pay Day represents the date that U.S. working women’s pay catches up to men’s from the prior year. Women on average are paid 20% less than men in the U.S., according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The gap is wider for women of color: black women are paid 37% less and Hispanic women 46% less.

Women Most Likely to Hold On-Demand ‘Gig’ Jobs

Got a side gig? Among those in the ranks of the on-demand, or “gig” economy, are more and more women. Professional freelance work, like computer programming via Upwork, was the most popular type of gig work. Direct selling – Mary Kay, Rodan + Fields, Stella & Dot – was the second most popular gig job. Women cited flexible hours and control over earning totals as the top benefits of gig work; however, they also cited inconsistent income and a lack of benefits among major drawbacks. However, while many women have turned to gig work to supplement income, few have embraced it as a full-time job. Most are augmenting their money with either another part-time job, full-time employment or a spouse’s income, reports Hyperwallet, a company that manages payments for a number of gig-economy companies.

Economic News

Businesses added 263,000 jobs in March, payroll processor ADP said Wednesday, possibly heralding a third straight month of strong hiring in the government’s closely watched employment report to be issued Friday. professional and business services led the job gains with 57,000. Leisure and hospitality added 55,000; construction, 49,000; health care, 46,000; and trade, transportation and utilities, 34,000. Generally, the 200,000-plus monthly job gains so far this year have soundly beat the estimates of economists who figured the low, 4.7% unemployment rate would slow hiring by providing employers with fewer available workers.

U.S. auto sales trailed estimates, with Kia and Ford reporting some of the biggest declines. Heavy incentive spending failed to contain plunging demand for sedan and compact models. Combined deliveries for Kia and its affiliate Hyundai slumped 11 percent, and Ford dropped 7.2 percent last month. General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and Toyota also fell short of expectations. March was supposed to be the month U.S. auto sales rebounded from decreases in January and February. Sales for sedans like Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion each plunged by more than 35 percent in March as crossovers become America’s vehicle of choice. Overall, U.S. auto sales so far in 2017 have been described as a “disaster” by some analysts.

After years of many experts lamenting how Millennials weren’t interested in becoming homeowners, it turns out many are actually diving in. Millennials are the largest group of homebuyers, according to Ellie Mae, a software company that analyzes mortgage data. In January, Millennials represented around 45% of all purchase loans, up from 42% the same month in 2016. But their path to homeownership won’t be easy. Millennials are mostly first-time buyers and they are competing against repeat buyers who have more buying leverage and experience. A shortage of available homes has driven up prices — particularly among starter homes that tend to fall within first-time buyers’ budgets. There were 3% fewer homes on the market in February compared to a year ago, and home prices are up nearly 7%.

Islamic State

As the battle to liberate west Mosul from the Islamic State intensifies, more Iraqi civilians have been caught in the crossfire and are dying in airstrikes that have gotten scant attention, residents who escaped report. A March 17 strike on a building that killed at least dozens and possibly as many as 200 civilians provoked international concern. Yet eyewitnesses to the destruction in Mosul told USA TODAY that many similar strikes occur in the city without public notice. The U.S. military acknowledged that allegations of civilian casualties as a result of a U.S.-led coalition’s air campaign against the Islamic State have increased significantly this year. The coalition received 27 reports of incidents involving civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria in January, up from 12 in December, according to the most recent statistics.

Syria

A suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria on Tuesday killed scores of civilians and drew an international outcry on the eve of a global conference to discuss the future of the beleaguered, war-weary nation. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring group, said 58 people were killed in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Idlib province, including 11 children. The death toll is likely to rise, the group said. Activists blamed the airstrike on either the Syrian government or Russian warplanes. Syrian forces loyal to Assad have been involved with chemical weapons before in the brutal six-year civil war against U.S-backed rebels. The Russian Defense Ministry quickly denied any involvement, saying Russian planes carried out no strikes in the area. The chemical weapons tragedy was the result of a Syrian airstrike that hit a militant workshop producing the internationally banned weapons, the Kremlin said Wednesday. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia will submit data to support the claim at an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council being conducted Wednesday. The U.S. has placed blame directly on Assad’s government forces.

Russia

More than a dozen people were killed and dozens more injured Monday when an explosion rocked a subway train in the Russian city of St. Petersburg, authorities said. Metro stations across the city were shut down following the mid-afternoon blast. The man believed to have unleashed the suicide bomb attack was identified Tuesday as a 22-year-old Russian citizen born in Kyrgyzstan. Akbardzhon Dzhalilov was named as the killer by Russia’s Investigative Committee. Detectives said they also found his DNA on a bag holding a second bomb in a nearby subway station — which crews defused before it could explode. Russian investigators have linked the suspected attacker to radical Islamic terror groups.

North Korea

North Korea has fired a newly developed medium-range ballistic missile into its eastern waters in a display of military bravado on the eve of a critical meeting between President Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping. U.S. and South Korean officials identified the projectile as a KN-15 medium-range missile, which was first publicly tested in February.  North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had said after its test two months ago that the missile, called “Pukguksong-2” in North Korea, gives Pyongyang another nuclear attack capability against the United States and South Korea. The missile uses pre-loaded solid fuel which means it takes shorter time to prepare for a launch than the liquid propellant missiles that make up most of its arsenal. The Pentagon said Wednesday that the missile launch Wednesday likely was a failure. The topic is expected to be a major part of the talks Friday and Saturday between Trump and Xi in Mar-a-Lago.

North Korea’s hacking operations are growing and getting more bold — and increasingly targeting financial institutions worldwide. North Korea is now being linked to attacks on banks in 18 countries, according to a new report from Russian cybersecurity firm Kaspersky. And the stolen money is likely being spent advancing North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons, according to two international security experts. Banks and security researchers have previously identified four North Korean cyber-heists attempted on financial institutions in Bangladesh, Ecuador, the Philippines and Vietnam. But researchers at Kaspersky now say the same hacking operation — known as “Lazarus” — also attacked financial institutions in Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Gabon, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Poland, Taiwan, Thailand, and Uruguay. The hackers can be traced back to North Korea, according to Kaspersky researchers.

Yemen

U.S. special operations force have stepped up ground operations inside Yemen amid growing concern that the al-Qaeda affiliate there continues to actively plan attacks on western targets, including targeting commercial aviation, reports CNN. The covert ground missions have the specific goal of secretly collecting intelligence on the al-Qaeda affiliate, including their top operatives and locations where they may be hiding. The U.S. military has not acknowledged any specific ground operations since the Navy SEAL raid soon after Trump took office that became controversial after the death of a Navy SEAL and civilians.

Iran

The Boeing Company announced a tentative agreement on Tuesday to sell up to 60 737s to an Iranian airline, a transaction valued at $6 billion that angered American critics of Iran. The agreement appears likely to test the Trump administration’s avowed opposition to supporting Iran which is seen to be violating the nuclear accord. Boeing, a leading commercial aerospace company and a top American exporter, said in a statement that the agreement, which requires United States government approval, would create about 18,000 American jobs. The company’s agreement with Aseman Airlines, an Iranian carrier described as the nation’s third largest, is the first to be announced by any big American business with Iran since President Trump took office in January. Boeing announced a separate agreement last December to sell 80 commercial aircraft to Iran Air, the national carrier, a deal valued at $16.6 billion.

Weather

Storms and tornadoes swept through the South Sunday, bringing large hail, damaging winds and flash floods to parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, where tens of thousands lost power. Two people were killed Sunday morning by an EF1 tornado that damaged their mobile home near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. A brief tornado was reported Sunday morning in Center Point, Texas, while golf-ball sized hail was seen near Buffalo, Texas. Water rescues were underway in Del Rio, Texas, early Sunday morning as heavy rain hit the area, and more structural damage was reported in the Austin area, near Lake Travis. Flooding was also reported Sunday night in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where water rescues were reported.

As the storms continued to dump big rainfall totals Monday morning, several homes were evacuated in Rankin, Mississippi. An elementary school, a fire department and parts of the downtown area saw significant damage in Goodman, Missouri, from a reported tornado Tuesday. Another round of severe weather with damaging winds is expected to sweep across the South on Wednesday, bringing damaging winds in Alabama and Georgia, according to forecasters.

As a wet winter gave way to spring, California’s deserts and Central Valley exploded in vibrant colors because of a wildflower bloom that could be seen for miles – and even from space. Wildflower blooms occur in arid regions that receive an unusually high amount of rain. The Anza-Borrego Desert received 5.51 inches of rain from December through February, more than twice as much as a year ago. There’s bad news along with the beauty – as NASA notes, all this rainfall could allow underbrush to grow in typically hot, dry areas. And that could add literal fuel to the fires in future heat waves.

Heavy rains produced an “avalanche of water” in Columbia that left more than 230 dead while they slept early Saturday. The massive amount of water caused a river to overflow, unleashing a sudden barrage of mud and debris which inundated nearby homes. At least 234 were killed and over 200 more were injured in the city of Mocoa, the capital of Putumayo. At least 220 remain missing, and authorities expect the death toll to rise. Seventeen neighborhoods were affected by the mudslides, with structures destroyed and boulders “the size of a house” lying in the streets.

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