Scientists Keep New Bird Flu Strain Under Wraps →

December 20, 2011

The U.S. government paid scientists to figure out how the deadly bird flu virus might mutate to become a bigger threat to people, and two labs succeeded in creating new strains that spread easier. On Tuesday, federal officials took the unprecedented step of asking those scientists not to publicize all the details of how they did it. The worry: That this research with lots of potential to help the public might also be hijacked by would-be bioterrorists. The labs found that it appears easier than scientists had thought for the so-called H5N1 bird flu to evolve in a way that lets it spread easily among at least some mammals.
- The Wall Street Journal

Recession Has Inspired States To Cut Gov't Jobs →

December 19, 2011

State governments across the country have cut more than 80,000 jobs since the beginning of the recession, reflecting steep drops in tax revenue. Data collected by AP reporters in all 50 states show the number of government employees has declined along with per-capita general fund spending. The national average of state employees per 1,000 people has dropped from 8.1 to 7.6, thanks to layoffs and hiring freezes since the 2007-08 budget year. Even as the total number of state employees has plummeted, the ratio of public employees per 1,000 residents varies widely by state, the AP reporting found. Alaska had the most with 34.9, while Illinois had the fewest with 4.1 after cutting more than 4,000 workers from the state payroll since 2007. The AP figures _exclude_ K-12 teachers and employees in higher education systems.
- AP

Thousands Support Texas Town Nativity Scene →

December 17, 2011

As many as 5,000 attended a rally in a small Texas community to show their support for a Nativity scene under attack by a Wisconsin-based atheist group, according to a minister who organized the event. "We are humbled at the turnout of the crowd," said Nathan Lorick, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Malakoff. "This message is resonating in the hearts of people all over the country." The Freedom From Religion Foundation had sent a letter to Henderson County, Texas explaining that a local resident had complained and they wanted the Nativity removed from the courthouse lawn.
- Fox News


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The History of Christmas: Its Biblical Roots - (Print)

Last week we looked at the pagan holidays that were celebrated at the end of December.   Because of these pagan roots, many Christians believe we should avoid Christmas as ultimately a pagan holiday.  Yet, does the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ itself have anything to do with pagans? Or is it truly a Christian holiday that is simply celebrated at the wrong time of year?

The Hebrew Roots:
Jesus birth was foretold centuries prior in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the fullness of time, God sent His Son to redeem mankind. He sent Jesus as a little baby to become God With Us.

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting . -Micah 5:2

And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth . -Isaiah 49:6

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel . -Isaiah 7:14

...When at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this . -Isaiah 9:1-2,6-7

The Christian Roots:

And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. - Luke 1:30-35

About 1950 years ago, the well-educated and faithful physician Luke wrote to one Theophilus, detailing the life of Jesus Christ. Luke explained that he had done research on the subject so that Theophilus could know with certainty that the things he had been told about Jesus were true (Luke 1:4). Luke must have spoken with Mary herself, for he tells of things that only she would know.

'But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart,' - Luke 2:19.

Luke tells Theophilus of the birth of Jesus; how he was born in Bethlehem during a time when the entire Roman world was being taxed. Shepherds out in the field were surprised by a host of angels that filled the sky, singing, 'Glory to God in the highest!' and as they were told, went down to find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Those shepherds then told everybody they could find about the incredible things they had seen.

The child grew up and went on to have a short, three-year ministry that ended in his death on a Roman Cross. Yet, the man that was born in Bethlehem rose again from the dead, as witnessed by over 500 men (1 Cor 15:6). And he is still changing the hearts and lives of people living today.

The early Christians are not known to have celebrated Christ's birth, and the actual date of his nativity has been lost in history. The first recorded mention of the December 25 date is in the Calendar of Philocalus (AD 354), which assumed Jesus' birth date to be Friday, December 25, in AD 1.  Pope Julius I officially proclaimed December 25 to be the anniversary of Christ's birth in AD 440. Giving December 25th Christian significance has been understood to have been an effort to help the pagan world embrace Christianity and trade in their worship of pagan gods for the One True God. Originally called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by AD 432 and to England by the end of the 6th century. By the end of the 8th century, the celebration of Christmas had spread all the way to the Scandinavian countries.

Christmas is celebrated on January 6 in the Orthodox Church, on what is also called Epiphany or Three Kings Day, the day that celebrates the arrival of the wise men who gave the Christ child their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Christmas did largely win out over the pagan holidays, but was still celebrated with rowdy festivities and practical jokes - more like Mardi Gras than anything resembling the character of Christ. Puritans in England outlawed Christmas for years, and the holiday was not popular in early America. In fact, Christmas wasn't declared a federal holiday in the United States until June 26, 1870.

The holiday then underwent a conversion. Christmas was 'reinvented'  into the more moderate holiday we know today. Washington Irving and Charles Dickens both wrote tales that presented Christmas as a holiday of caring for the poor and bringing families together. As the angels sang above the shepherds that first night, Christmas was about 'peace on earth, good will toward men.'

The Season is still a mixture of traditions pulled from a multitude of sources.  While many of them have little to do with Jesus, most are morally neutral activities. However, even while Santa Claus ho ho ho's down Main St. on a fire truck, and Hershey makes a killing on aluminum-wrapped chocolate bells, the reality of Christ's birth does break through. Nativity scenes in downtown squares and in front of churches bring to mind the great gift of God - the King of kings lying in a manger, attended by shepherds. Christmas carols that cry 'The Lord is come' and 'Come let us adore him' are sung from door to door, reminding us all of what God has done.

It is a time of year when people can speak more freely of Jesus the Savior, and when even the faithless are willing to go to a Christmas Eve church service. It is truly a precious slot of time God has given us during which to spread the Good News of His Son. Glory to God in the highest!

May your celebration of the birth of Christ honor Him who gave Himself to us as the ultimate sacrifice of love. May everything we do reflect the love and compassion of our Savior, and bring glory to His name.

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A Dim Gleam In North Korea's Future? - (Print)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack on Saturday while traveling by train on a "field guidance" tour. China expressed shock and North Korean party members grieved publicly at the announcement of the death of the 70-year-old  "Dear Leader", but South Korea and the rest of the world wait to see whether the succession of Kim's third son, Jong Un, will trigger changes in the region.

The sudden death of Kim Jong Il thrusts the Korean peninsula into a time of uncertainty. Kim Jong Un, dubbed "The Great Successor" is young - only 28 or so - and is relatively unknown. Any need that the politcal establishment of North Korea has to demonstrate its strength and authority at this time may not bode well for the general peace in the region. Every day the 1.7 million combined troops of North and South Korea and the United States face each other over the 160 mile-long Korean border. Prior to the announcement of Kim's death, North Korea had just test-fired a missile off its eastern coast, according to the South Korean Yonhap news agency. It is a tense region of the world.

Political, economic and religious differences separate the two Koreas. South Korea's economy is 40 times larger than the North's. As the governmental transition takes place in Pyongyang, South Korea is allowing several giant Christmas "trees" to be lit up along the border for 15 days, within plain view of hundreds of thousands of North Koreans. Not only has North Korea objected to the religious nature of such displays in the past, but the demonstration of the South's prosperity threatens Pyongyang's power hold. South Korea can afford to light up three huge tree-shaped structures, decorated by snowflakes and stars, topped by a cross, while North Koreans deal with power rationing and electrical outages on a daily basis.  Protests take place very rarely in tyrannized North Korea. Pyongyang doesn't want that to change.

Kim Jong Il spent decades in self-worship. While his people starved, he feasted. While the infrastructure decayed, he built massive monuments to himself and his family. North Koreans have secretly watched soap operas on VHS tapes smuggled across the border from the South, while their "Dear Leader" enjoyed his library of some 20,000 Western videos and DVDs. He even wrote an essay in 1987 on The Cinema and Directing, in which he said, "The cinema occupies an important place in the overall development of art and literature. As such it is a powerful ideological weapon for the revolution and construction." That's why he liked Elizabeth Taylor and monster movies, of course – as ideological weapons for the revolution.

Kim's love for the movies, in fact, led him to have South Korea's most famous movie director Shin Sang-ok kidnapped in 1978. Shin remained in prison for years, living on "grass, salt and rice" until he was finally freed, after a fashion, and allowed to join his wife in making movies for the North. That's how the business works in North Korea. If you want something done, you kidnap the guy who can do it and keep him under house arrest as long as he cooperates.

"Kim Jong Il was like any ordinary young man. He liked action movies, sex movies, horror movies," Shin Sang-Ok told the BBC in 2003. "He liked all the women that most men like, he liked James Bond."

As spoiled and self-important as he was, at least Kim Jong Il had been groomed for 14 years to replace his father Kim Il Sung, co-ruling with him before died in 1994. Kim Jong Un is young and was only tapped as the successor three years ago when his father had a stroke.

A Normal Guy?
Kim Jong Un is believed to have been educated in Switzerland, where he reportedly lived like a normal young man, according to a possible classmate, Joao Micaelo.  Micaelo thinks Kim Jong Un was one of his fellow students in Switzerland between 1998 and 2001, saying last year, "He was a normal guy like me." Jong Un was particularly focused on basketball. "The whole world for him was just basketball all the time," Micaelo said. 

If Jong Un knows what it's like to live as a normal teenager in Switzerland, that raises some possibilities.  He speaks English, German, and possibly French. He has a clue how the outside world operates.  Perhaps he was taught some independent thinking.  Perhaps he developed an appreciation for justice and decency. 

These are wistful thoughts. There is little likelihood that Kim Jong Un, basketball fan, will be the one to open up North Korea to the rest of the world and get rid of the tyranny that plagues his country. Even if he wanted to, few analysts believe he will even have the authority to try something new. He is simply "not ready" to rule, said Victor Cha, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Kim Jong Il's party is a ready-running, entrenched political machine. Kim Jong Un's uncle, Jang Song Thaek may help rule North Korea with Kim Jong Un as a figurehead until the young man gets experience.

"I think it's premature to conclude that Kim Jong Un will make all the shots," said Han Park, director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues at the University of Georgia. "Kim Jong Un is not going to be expected, nor is he qualified, to make tough decisions. But the party system is there, and the decision-making mechanism that has been established by Kim Jong Il will continue. And therefore the succession process - even in intermediate terms - should be smooth," Park said.

The people of North Korea have been greatly controlled and beaten down, and it is not expected they will easily rise up and take charge of their country despite their poverty and starvation. They have no wherewithal. It would be nice to think that Kim Jong Un's experiences out of North Korea did not just give him a taste for video games and sports.  There's a prayer that the young man will reform his closed, suffocated country as the years give him more power.

There is also the very real possibility that he will hide away as his father did, watching his movies, taking China's handouts for his own table, and ignoring or even promoting the suffering of the millions of people under his charge.   Time will tell.

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Nuclear Smuggling Suspects Plead Guilty - (Print)

Three Swiss men – two brothers and their father – have pleaded guilty for their involvement in a nuclear smuggling ring headed by the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb. In the meanwhile, a group of older Slovaks were arrested in Slovakia for illegally possessing radioactive material and attempting to sell it in the Czech Republic. The United States has been spearheading an effort to provide radiation detection systems to major world ports, but there's a dangerous amount of nuclear material and know-how floating around out there for those willing to pay for it.

Friedrich Tinner and his two sons, Urs and Marco, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to "aiding the illegal nuclear weapons programme of an unknown state" under Switzerland's war material act. The men were engineers who worked with centrifuges used to enrich nuclear material. They had long been suspected of involvement in the smuggling network of their friend Abdul Qadeer Khan, one Pakistan's top nuclear scientists. The association implicated them in Khan's two-decades' worth of smuggling nuclear material and intelligence to the governments of Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

Khan confessed to the nuclear smuggling in 2004 when one of his Libya-bound shipments was captured. His network was also believed to have given Iran a blueprint for building a nuclear warhead and to have provided North Korea with nuclear centrifuges. Interestingly, after he was freed by a court order in 2009, Khan declared that he had engaged in his smuggling activities with the full knowledge of the state of Pakistan. The fact that then-President Pervez Musharraf had only put Khan under house arrest and had refused to let the US or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to Khan gives credence to his claim. 

Apparently, the United States got involved as well, using the Tinners to glean information about smuggling activities. In 2007, the Swiss government allegedly destroyed evidence of email communication between the Tinners and the CIA due to United States pressure. Because the Tinners have confessed to the current charges against them, their potential espionage with the CIA will not be examined by the court. David Albright, author of  the book Peddling Peril, said of the Tinners' confession, "This is a very good result. The Swiss justice system needed to do something to set a good precedent for the future. After 20 years of crime, you can't just buddy up with a foreign intelligence service and get off."

Seven people whose 71-year-old leader has earned the group the name "the Pensioner's Club" were arrested and charged with trying to smuggle radioactive material into the Czech Republic, Slovak police said Thursday. The members of the group had been captured November 23 and December 2.  "Since February, we had been monitoring an organized group interested in trade with nuclear material worth 500,000 euros (RM2.1 million)," Slovak police chief Jaroslav Spisiak told reporters last week.

Six of the smugglers are all between the ages of 52 and 61. They had taken photographs of the radioactive materials they hoped to sell and had sent the pictures to potential buyers. They face 3-10 years prison sentences if found guilty.

To combat the international problem of the smuggling of nuclear and radioactive materials, the United States has provided Shanghai with a scanning system to detect radioactive material leaving port. The comprehensive screening system is being implemented as part of the U.S. Energy Department's Megaports Initiative, which has a goal of installing detection systems at 100 of the world's biggest ports. Shanghai's new system in its Yangshan deepwater port marks the 40th port detection system inaugurated thus far.

Not surprisingly, China built the actual equipment that was installed. The Megaports Initiative has not moved ahead as quickly expected, as some countries have resisted installing the scanning equipment for fear it would slow down their port traffic.

While Shanghai – China's largest port - might now be able to scan 100 percent of its exports to ensure that no radioactive materials are being shipped out, there are nearly 30 major ports in China, eight of which are listed in the world's top 50, according to the Chinese government. There are plenty of alternatives for smugglers seeking to get nuclear material abroad. Hitting the largest world ports with scanning systems to detect radioactive material might prove helpful, but it cannot by any means put a halt to such trafficking.
The Collapsed Dam:
Russia has gotten quite good at detecting radioactive material.  The Russian Federal Customs Service reported that it stopped more than 850 attempts to smuggle highly radioactive materials in and out of Russia in 2007. Much of the material is not weapons worthy; people have been gathering radioactive substances out of the area near Chernobyl in the Ukraine, for instance. Still, there is plenty of dangerous material wandering around. Russia has gotten good at detecting it and clamping down on the trafficking in and out of its country, but the fact is, it's out there.

December 26 marks 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. During that period, a great deal of nuclear and radioactive "stuff" that had been accessible by 15 different government agencies disappeared.  There was no keeping track of it all, and thievery fit the times. Now, bits of this and that radioactive material are still being moved along via the black market.  When recognized powers like Pakistan offer nuclear secrets and technology through back room sales, there seems little hope. The dam keeping nuclear and radioactive substances safely held back collapsed decades ago, and recovering all those loose, dangerous droplets has proved a heavy job.

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