Signs of the Times (8/24/17)

Earthquake Hits Yellowstone During Solar Eclipse, Eruption Feared

As tens of thousands of people gathered in Yellowstone National Park Monday morning to witness the once-in-a-century solar eclipse, the area was hit by a 3.2 magnitude earthquake. This recent tremor, though not large, is part of an ongoing series of quakes that began June 12. Experts believed the unusually large swarm of earthquakes would gradually die down but by the beginning of August, over 1,400 minor tremors had been recorded at the site.  Monday’s tremor, following a 2.5 magnitude quake at 7:23 PM Sunday night, indicates that the earthshaking problem is unlikely to simply go away. Should the super-volcano erupt, the threat to the Earth, said NASA scientist Brian Wilcox, “is substantially greater than an asteroid or comet threat.” As a result, scientists are investigating how to cool off the seismic hotspot in order to prevent a catastrophic super-eruption. NASA announced this week that it is working on plans to drill six miles down into the volcanically active region and pump water into the magma at high pressures. The water would return to the surface at 662 degrees Fahrenheit, bringing some of the volcano’s heat with it. The project is massive, estimated to cost $3.46 billion, and admittedly risky, possibly setting off a massive eruption.

Kindergarten Teacher Holds Transgender Transition Celebration

A number of angry parents are considering legal action after a charter school kindergarten teacher staged what one critic calls a transgender “transition ceremony” in class for a five-year-old boy without informing parents beforehand. Parents only found out what happened from their kids, says Jonathan Keller of the California Family Council, a Focus on the Family-founded group that’s advising the parents. But Rocklin Academy Schools has countered that it didn’t have to tell parents about the transgenderism lesson that has left a number of five-year-olds shaken and disturbed. Because gender identity isn’t sex education, the administration said, it’s not subject to California’s parental consent and opt-out laws, reported Fox40News. Moreover, the school said that gender identity and gender expression are prohibited grounds for discrimination in the state. Not to accept a five-year-old “trans girl” could leave the Sacramento-area charter school board open to lawsuits.

‘Free Speech’ Rally Fizzles as Thousands of Counter-Protesters Swarm Boston

By their sheer numbers, thousands of anti-racist protesters marching through downtown Boston on Saturday effectively prevented conservative activists from mounting a “Free Speech Rally” in the aftermath of deadly clashes last week in Virginia. Only a handful of rally-goers, some wearing red “Make America Great Again” Trump caps, appeared to navigate their way through waves of marchers pouring into the Boston Common area, where the “Boston Free Speech” event was planned. During a post-rally press conference, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans thanked the mostly peaceful protesters and police officers. “I’m just fortunate that none of the officers got hurt, none of the public got hurt,” said Evans, speaking with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh behind him. “Overall it was a good day for our city in that we won’t tolerate hatred and bigotry. People came out to say Boston is united.” President Donald Trump went clearly conciliatory towards the counter-protestors on Twitter, a sharp contrast to previous comments following the Virginia protests last weekend. “I want to applaud the many protestors in Boston who are speaking out against bigotry and hate. Our country will soon come together as one!” Trump wrote.

Rise of Antifa Alarms Free-Speech Advocates

Even those who despise neo-Nazis are worried about the rise of the “antifa,” the masked protesters whose stock rose after they took on white supremacists at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, reports the Washington Times. The antifa, which stands for “anti-fascists,” may be the sworn enemies of Nazism and racism, but the radical left-wing protesters also aren’t fans of the First Amendment, having shut down scheduled speeches by conservatives Milo Yiannapoulos and Ann Coulter earlier this year in Berkeley, California. The guiding principle behind the movement, which has its roots in prewar Europe, is to defeat “fascists” before they can gain a foothold in government and society in order to avoid another Nazi Germany. If that means using threats, intimidation and even violence to muzzle so-called “fascists,” then so be it, said Mark Bray, author of “Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook,” which is scheduled for release Sept. 12. “Antifa are anarchists and communists and socialists who are revolutionaries and don’t have any inherent regard for the law,” said Mr. Bray, a visiting scholar at the Gender Research Institute at Dartmouth College.

Protesters at Trump’s Phoenix Rally Used Gas Canisters, Rocks to Assault Police

A group of anti-Trump demonstrators used gas canisters, rocks and bottles to assault police Tuesday night and create havoc at what officials said was mostly a peaceful protest in Phoenix. Video captured by a local reporter also shows a smoking object being thrown at police while hundreds of officers attempted to keep order at a rally after President Trump’s speech at the Phoenix Convention Center had ended. “A very small number of individuals chose criminal conduct,” Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams told reporters late Tuesday. The individuals broke down fencing and “at one point, dispersed gas into and at the police officers,” Williams said. The violence resembled the mayhem perpetrated by Antifa groups, militant far-left “anti-fascist” groups that have protested Trump at other venues.

Federal Judge Again Throws Out Texas Voter ID Law

A federal judge Wednesday rejected Texas’ revised voter identification requirements, handing another court defeat to the state’s Republicans over voting rights. Texas has spent years fighting to preserve both the voter ID law — which was among the strictest in the U.S. — and voting maps that were both passed by GOP-controlled Legislature in 2011. Earlier this month, a separate federal court earlier found racial gerrymandering in Texas’ congressional maps and ordered two of the state’s 36 voting districts to be partially redrawn before the 2018 elections. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos rejected a watered-down version of the voter ID law that was signed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this year. The judge’s new ruling came three years after she struck down the earlier version of the law. The new version was supported by the U.S. Justice Department, which once opposed the law but has reversed its position since President Donald Trump took office. Judge Ramos said Texas didn’t go far enough with its changes and said that criminal penalties Texas attached to lying on the affidavit could have a chilling effect on voters who, fearful of making an innocent mistake on the form, simply won’t cast a ballot.

DOJ Ends Obama’s Choke Point Program

The Trump Justice Department is ending an Obama-era program that had attempted to cut off credit to shady businesses but came under fire from Republicans for unfairly targeting gun dealers and other legitimate operations. Just days after top House Republicans had pressed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to shutter Operation Choke Point, the department confirmed in a response letter that the program is dead. “All of the Department’s bank investigations conducted as part of Operation Chokepoint are now over, the initiative is no longer in effect, and it will not be undertaken again,” Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said in the Aug. 16-dated letter, calling it a “misguided initiative” from the prior administration.

Spanish Police Kill Suspected Terrorist Van Driver

All terror suspects identified as part of the 12-person extremist cell responsible for coordinating the deadly Spain attacks last week, including a former imam, are either dead or under arrest, authorities said Monday. The man thought to be the driver in the Barcelona van attack was shot dead by Spanish police Monday after authorities announced he also was suspected of killing the owner of a hijacked getaway car. The fugitive was wearing a bomb belt, authorities said. Younes Abouyaaqoub was shot when officers confronted him in Subirats, a rural area known for its vineyards about 45 kilometers (28 miles) west of Barcelona. Abouyaaqoub, 22, had been the target of an international manhunt that had raised fears throughout the region since last Thursday’s van attack in Barcelona. Authorities said Monday they now have evidence that Abouyaaqoub drove the van that plowed down the city’s famed Las Ramblas promenade, killing 13 pedestrians and injuring more than 120 others. They said Abouyaaqoub, who was born in Morocco and has Spanish residency, also is suspected of carjacking a man and stabbing him to death as he made his getaway, raising the death toll between the Barcelona attack and a related attack hours later to 15. Another vehicle attack occurred early Friday by other members of what Catalonia regional police have described as a 12-member extremist cell killed one person and wounded several others in the coastal town of Cambrils. That ended in a shootout with police, who killed five attackers.

6 Police Officers Shot in Florida and Pennsylvania

Six police officers were shot overnight during separate incidents Friday in Florida and Pennsylvania. Officer Matthew Baxter was shot and killed while responding to a suspicious activity call Friday evening in Kissimmee, Florida. Officer Sam Howard was shot during the same incident and died Saturday afternoon. Two other officers were shot with a high-powered rifle while responding to reports of an attempted suicide late Friday night about 200 miles away in Jacksonville. In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, two state troopers were shot Friday evening outside a store in Fairchance, a borough of around 2,000 about 60 miles south of Pittsburgh. Both officers survived but the suspect did not. A total of 135 police officers died while on the job last year, according to The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. More than 900 civilians were shot and killed by police during that same span, according to The Washington Post.

Blacks & Hispanics More Under-Represented at Top Colleges Than 35 Years Ago

Even after decades of affirmative action, black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at the nation’s top colleges and universities than they were 35 years ago, according to a New York Times analysis. The share of black freshmen at elite schools is virtually unchanged since 1980. Black students are just 6 percent of freshmen but 15 percent of college-age Americans. More Hispanics are attending elite schools, but the increase has not kept up with the huge growth of young Hispanics in the United States, so the gap between students and the college-age population has widened. Blacks and Hispanics have gained ground at less selective colleges and universities but not at the highly selective institutions. Elementary and secondary schools with large numbers of black and Hispanic students are less likely to have experienced teachers, advanced courses, high-quality instructional materials and adequate facilities, according to the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Persecution Watch

Pakistan is one of the most pernicious persecutors of Christians ever, reports the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ). Pakistani Christians are tortured, raped, and burned alive. Some are falsely accused of blasphemy and sentenced to execution by hanging because of their faith. Others face mob violence and governmental abuse and injustice. “Despite the increasing extremism, the Pakistani government persistently fails to protect Christians from violence or bring its perpetrators to justice. Even worse the government of Pakistan itself is one of the world’s worst jihadist persecutors of Christians. Yet it receives the most U.S. foreign aid of any nation.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s “fake hate” threat against Liberty Counsel and all pro-faith, pro-family Americans is escalating by the day. Apple’s announcement of a $1 million gift to the SPLC has further proliferated the SPLC’s attack campaign. J.P. Morgan — the nation’s largest bank — just announced it was donating $500,000 to SPLC, and yesterday, George Clooney through his foundation is donating $1 million. Apple has also enabled direct donations through its iTunes store, funneling potentially millions more to SPLC for its attacks. “These “endorsements” are further cementing the SPLC as the clearinghouse of the radical Left’s purge campaign that includes marginalizing people of faith and pro-family groups,” notes Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel.

Last week, CNN listed the American Family Association as a “hate group” which could easily incite violence and place AFA employees and supporters in harm’s way. After much outcry from AFA supporters and other pro-family organizations, CNN has since issued a correction and removed AFA from its website. However, CNN continues to link to the Southern Poverty Law Center website which still falsely lists AFA as a “hate group.” “While AFA wants CNN to fully retract the story, it is a positive sign that our voices are being heard.”

Economic News

Americans retreated from buying homes in July as sales sank 1.3% to their lowest level of the year. The National Association of Realtors said Thursday that sales of existing homes slipped 1.3% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.44 million. Despite the second straight monthly drop, sales are 2.1% higher than a year ago. But purchases are starting to slow as fewer properties are coming onto the market. The number of existing homes listed for sale has plunged 9 percent over the past 12 months to 1.92 million properties. This steep drop in inventory has led to prices consistently climbing faster than wages.

The delivery economy is growing so fast that government statistics seem unable to keep up. Food delivery, once largely limited to pizza and Chinese takeout, has exploded. The idea that virtually the entire world of retail and dining is available to consumers at home with a few taps of their smartphone keys has given rise to armies of delivery people, with announcements about new delivery options coming weekly. DoorDash, which started four years ago with only a few drivers, now has 100,000 “dashers.”  Postmates started in 2011 with only a few hundred delivery people and now has more than 65,000, reports USA Today. Pizza Hut announced it would hire 14,000 delivery drivers. Walmart is working with Uber to create a delivery service. Mobile delivery and take out accounted for 60% of all restaurant traffic in 2016.

Sears Holdings said Thursday that it would close another 28 Kmart locations as it continues its cost-cutting campaign amid a precipitous decline in the department-store sector. The Kmart closures add to a list of 330 Sears or Kmart locations shuttered or set to be closed later this year as the retailer seeks stability. Kohl’s said Tuesday that it is cutting floor space in “nearly half” of its stores as the department-store sector reels in competition with Amazon and nimble fast-fashion retailers. Unlike competitors Macy’s and J.C. Penney, Kohl’s has avoided major rounds of closures in recent years despite struggles for department stores.

Islamic State

A week after a terrorist van attack in Barcelona, Spain, left 15 people dead and more than 100 injured, the Islamic State released a video warning more attacks were imminent in the Iberian Peninsula. In the video, two ISIS fighters are heard speaking in Spanish proclaiming that Al Andalus, a region in central and southern Spain once controlled for more than five centuries by Muslims, would once against become “part of the caliphate.” “If you can’t make the hegira [journey] to the Islamic State, carry out jihad where you are; jihad doesn’t have borders,” one of the men says. “Spanish Christians: Don’t forget the Muslim blood spilled during the Spanish Inquisition,” Muhammad Ahram said in the video. “We will take revenge for your massacre, the one you are carrying out now against the Islamic State.”

At least 11 people have been beheaded in southern Libya following an attack apparently carried out by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). Nine fighters loyal to the Libyan National Army (LNA), the force aligned with Libya’s eastern government, and two civilians were executed following an assault on a checkpoint 300 miles south of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, in Jufra. The onslaught against the LNA forces, under the command of Gaddafi-era General Khalifa Haftar, comes as Libyan military sources warn ISIS is regrouping following catastrophic defeats in December 2016. The Times of London reported there were now believed to be 1,000 ISIS fighters in Libya.

Although Islamic State is losing fighters and territory in Iraq and Syria, it remained the world’s deadliest militant organization last year and the number of its attacks actually increased, according to a report from the University of Maryland. Islamic State operatives carried out more than 1,400 attacks last year and killed more than 7,000 people, representing a roughly 20% increase over 2015, according to the university’s Global Terrorism Database. The increase occurred even as overall militant attacks worldwide and resulting deaths fell about 10% in 2016.

North Korea

The Trump administration is imposing sanctions on 16 mainly Chinese and Russian companies and people for assisting North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and helping the North make money to support those programs. The Treasury Department says the penalties are intended to further isolate North Korea for its nuclear and missile tests. The 16 do business with previously sanctioned companies and people, work with the North Korean energy sector, help it place workers abroad or evade international financial curbs. The measures block any assets they may have in U.S. jurisdictions and bar Americans from transactions with them.

Afghanistan

America’s longest war is going to get longer after President Trump late Monday outlined a strategy for the U.S. military in Afghanistan that gives the Pentagon the authority to increase troop levels and “fight to win” the nearly 16-year-old conflict. In a televised address, Trump admitted his initial instinct was to withdraw U.S. forces from the country. Instead, he unveiled a “path forward” mostly at odds with what he had been saying about Afghanistan for years. In his address Monday night, he conceded that troop withdrawal could lead to a security vacuum filled by terrorist groups including the Islamic State. The President is giving the Pentagon authority to ramp up troop levels in Afghanistan by several thousand, but said they would not divulge actual troop numbers. The president’s decision, several officials said, was less a change of heart than a weary acceptance of the case made by military leaders during months of debate. “This entire effort is intended to put pressure on the Taliban, to have the Taliban understand you will not win a battlefield victory,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday, the aim being to get them to the negotiating table.

Yemen

After two and a half years of war, little is functioning in Yemen. Repeated bombings have crippled bridges, hospitals and factories. Many doctors and civil servants have gone unpaid for more than a year. Malnutrition and poor sanitation have made the Middle Eastern country vulnerable to diseases that most of the world has confined to the history books. In just three months, cholera has killed nearly 2,000 people and infected more than a half million, one of the world’s largest outbreaks in the past 50 years. Yemen has long been the Arab world’s poorest country and suffered from frequent local armed conflicts. The most recent trouble started in 2014, when the Houthis, rebels from the north, allied with parts of the Yemeni military and stormed the capital, forcing the internationally recognized government into exile. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab nations launched a military campaign aimed at pushing back the Houthis and restoring the government. The campaign has so far failed to do so, and the country remains split between Houthi-controlled territory in the west and land controlled by the government and its Arab backers in the south and east. Many coalition airstrikes have killed and wounded civilians, including strikes on Wednesday around the capital. The bombings have also heavily damaged Yemen’s infrastructure, including a crucial seaport and important bridges as well as hospitals, sewage facilities and civilian factories.

Brazil

Brazil has opened a massive swath of the Amazon to mining. The government has abolished a reserve that straddles the northern states of Pará and Amapá, a move that opens the vast area to mineral exploration and commercial mining. The reserve, which was established in 1984, covers 18,000 square miles, an area twice the size of New Jersey. The government, which has previously said that the region is rich in minerals, gold and iron, framed the decision as an effort to bring new investment and jobs to a country that recently emerged from the longest recession in its history. Brazil said that mineral extraction would only be allowed in areas where there are no conservation controls or indigenous lands. An official report from 2010 said that up to two-thirds of the reserve is subject to such protections.

Earthquakes

Two people were killed and at least 39 were injured when a 4.3 magnitude earthquake struck the Italian island of Ischia Monday night. Firefighters worked overnight and into Tuesday morning to rescue three young brothers trapped under the rubble of a collapsed structure, and all three were removed from the building alive. The temblor was recorded at a depth of 6 miles, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The resort island is located just off Naples.

Wildfires

Hundreds of people in Oregon near the path of totality of Monday’s eclipse were ordered to evacuate Friday as a raging wildfire closed in. The late afternoon order threatened to create more tie-ups on rural and narrow roads already expected to be burdened with up to 200,000 visitors coming to the area from all over the world to watch Monday’s total solar eclipse. About 1 million people are expected in Oregon, where the moon’s shadow first makes landfall in the continental U.S. About 600 residents were told to leave the tourist town of Sisters, Oregon, and authorities said Saturday another 1,000 people had been told to be ready to leave if necessary. No structures had been lost and no injuries have been reported since the fire began last week.

In California, authorities issued an evacuation order for the small town of Wawona as a week-old fire in Yosemite National Park grew and air quality reached a hazardous level. The U.S. Forest Service said the fire grew to more than 4 square miles overnight due to winds from thunderstorms. Authorities ordered people to leave as air quality was expected to worsen. The fire has closed campgrounds and trails in the national park since it began a week ago.

Weather

The Trump administration disbanded a 15-person advisory committee that helped communicate scientific climate change findings to businesses and government officials. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) acting chief Ben Friedman notified the Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment that its charter would not be extended after its expiration on Sunday. Members of the committee lambasted the Trump Administration’s decision to dissolve the advisory committee. The move by the Trump administration was the latest roll-back of Obama-era climate change protection and adaptation policies. Last week, the Trump administration revoked an executive order that required strict building standards for all federal building projects to better prepare for sea level rise flooding. Earlier this year, Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and cancel payments to the Green Climate Fund.

The Arctic is warming about twice as fast as other parts of the planet, and even in sub-Arctic Alaska the rate of warming is high. Sea ice and wildlife habitat are disappearing; higher sea levels threaten coastal native villages. But to the scientists from Woods Hole Research Center who have come to Alaska to study the effects of climate change, the most urgent is the fate of permafrost, the always-frozen ground that underlies much of the state. The permafrost is no longer permanent. Temperatures three feet down into the frozen ground are less than half a degree below freezing. Starting just a few feet below the surface and extending tens or even hundreds of feet down, the premafrost contains vast amounts of carbon in organic matter — plants that took carbon dioxide from the atmosphere centuries ago, died and froze before they could decompose. Worldwide, permafrost is thought to contain about twice as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere.

A “quickly strengthening” Tropical Storm Harvey is now forecast to become a “major hurricane” before making landfall on the Texas coast and bring “life-threatening flooding” to portions of the state, the National Hurricane Center said Thursday. The storm’s maximum sustained winds are now 65 mph, but is forecast to grow into a “major hurricane” when it approaches the middle Texas coast on Friday, according to the NHC. Harvey is forecast to make landfall late Friday night or early Saturday morning along the south-central Texas coast, possibly as a Category 3 storm with winds upwards of 115 mph.

Typhoon Hato killed at least 16 people in Macau and southern China. Another 153 were injured amid extensive flooding and power outages. Flooding and injuries were also reported in Hong Kong, which lies across the water 40 miles from Macau, but there were no reports of deaths. Hato’s fierce gales blew out windows on skyscrapers in the Asian financial capital, raining shattered glass onto the eerily quiet streets below. Hong Kong’s weather authorities had raised the hurricane signal to the highest level for the first time in five years.

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