Weekly Meanderings, 25 November 2017

Daniel Burke calls into question the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scroll fragments:

Washington (CNN)Small scraps of parchment inscribed with tiny Hebrew letters. They look like countries cut out of a map, or lost pieces from a jigsaw puzzle nobody could solve.

Some scholars say they’re fragments from the renowned Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish texts that date to the days of Jesus. Others suspect they are expensive forgeries meant to dupe American evangelicals, including the family behind the splashy new Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC.

Last week, as the museum prepared for its grand opening on Friday, workers put finishing touches on its five floors of exhibits. They assembled the virtual reality ride through Washington, washed windows with clear views of the Capitol building, and wired the interactive displays that wind through the museum’s 430,000 square feet.

The museum’s exhibit on the Dead Sea Scrolls hasn’t been as easy to nail down.

With a price tag of $500 million, the Bible museum represents a heavy investment by its evangelical founders, particularly the Green family. Depending on your zip code, you may know the Oklahoma billionaires best for their chain of Hobby Lobby craft stores, or for their religious freedom battle with the Obama administration.

Either way, the Museum of the Bible’s goal is the same, says Steve Green, its founder and chairman.

I hope that, as people leave here, they will get inspired to get to know the Bible’s story for themselves.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls are an important part of that story, Green says. Nearly 2,000 years old, they testify to the reliability of the Bible, to scripture’s timeless truths.

But Arstein Justnes, a professor of biblical studies at the University of Agder in Norway, says the Greens’ fragments tell quite a different story. This one is about a scandal in the world of biblical antiquities.

On his website, “The Lying Pen of Scribes,” scholars and scientists have identified more than 70 Dead Sea Scroll fragments that have surfaced on the antiquities market since 2002. Ninety percent of those are fake, Justnes says, including the Museum of the Bible’s.

If Justnes and other scholars are correct, the Dead Sea forgeries could be one of the most significant shams in biblical archeology since the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” a fiasco that hoodwinked a Harvard scholar and made worldwide news in 2012.

Who writes like this? Mercy, try some positive verbs.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission unveiled plans on Tuesday to repeal landmark 2015 rules that prohibited internet service providers from impeding consumer access to web content in a move that promises to recast the digital landscape.

She’s not a scrooge: N’dea Yancey-Bragg:

The holiday season is here and shoppers have started the annual scramble to find the perfect gift for everyone on their list — most of whom are probably grown adults.

Here, frankly, is why you shouldn’t.

“I think it amounts to a lot of crap that people don’t need,” said Kathryn Jezer-Morton, an American writer living in Montreal. “We’ve been saying this for years to our extended families at Christmas.”

Jezer-Morton, 35, is proof that it’s possible to end gift giving without ruining the holidays. She said she keeps gifts to a minimum for her husband and children and typically doesn’t buy anything for her parents or friends.

Eschewing gift-giving doesn’t make you a Grinch, some say — it might make you more of a savvy Santa. Here are reasons not to buy gifts and what to do instead:

The Cone Weed:

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. (AP) — At first, it was an orange traffic cone with a weed growing out of it. Now, the roadside attraction dubbed “Cone Weed” is something of a Christmas miracle to locals.

WBTV reports someone decorated the “Cone Weed” with tinsel and ornaments last week. The weed has been growing unencumbered across from the Huntersville Fire Station for a year and has amassed a cult following. The fire station tweeted pictures of Cone Weed decked in tinsel and ornaments last week.

Property owner Madeline Phillips said her son mowed around “Cone Weed” during the summer, and calls it “a beacon of hope.”

A graphic designer has created a line of Christmas clothes and has sold more than 200 shirts, with proceeds helping local families through HopeMatch.org. There’s also a Facebook fan page.

$30K for drunken driving:

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — A 22-year-old Norwegian student has been handed a 250,000-kroner ($30,400) fine for drunken driving — but can still count herself lucky.

Katharina G. Andresen is reportedly Norway’s richest woman, with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $1.23 billion.

Fines for drunken driving in Norway are based on the defendant’s income. Newspaper Finansavisen reported that Oslo City Court said the penalty could have been up to 40 million kroner ($4.9 million) if based on Andresen’s assets, but they “have not yielded any dividend yet” and she has no fixed income. The court did increase the fine because of her estimated wealth, however.

Andresen was also banned from driving for 13 months.

Andresen’s father gave her a 42-percent share in the family-owned investment company in 2007, leading Forbes to declare her the world’s second-youngest billionaire.

TSA Pre-Check inversion; totally true.

It happened to Andy Lundberg when he was flying recently from Kansas City to Baltimore on Southwest Airlines. A Transportation Security Administration screener pointed him to the PreCheck line, where he waited behind a dozen other frequent travelers with the agency’s trusted traveler designation.

“There were two people in the regular line,” says Lundberg, a sales manager from Kansas City.

Lundberg’s scenario isn’t unique. Increasingly, travelers such as him who paid for their membership and submitted to a background check are finding that the fast lanes are actually slower than the non-PreCheck lines. And they’re wondering why they even bothered.

Merinda Edmonds, a photographer from St. Louis, recently flew with her mother from Sacramento to St. Louis. Edmonds has PreCheck status, her mother doesn’t. “She actually made it through security faster than I did,” Edmonds says.

TSA insists experiences like Edmonds’ and Lundberg’s are the exception rather than the rule. Virtually all passengers wait less than 30 minutes in standard checkpoint lines, and 99.6% of TSA PreCheck members waited less than 10 minutes in line, according to the agency. In other words, the fast lane is almost always faster.

Except when it isn’t. I had heard of this checkpoint inversion — slow is fast, fast is slow — but didn’t believe it until I arrived for a recent flight in Anchorage. The regular line had four or five passengers, while the PreCheck line was at least 20 passengers deep.

“Why is the PreCheck line so long?” I asked the TSA agent checking my boarding pass.

“Oh,” he shrugged. “They sometimes randomly give PreCheck status to passengers.”

Is it over for the Social Democrats? John Lloyd:

In almost every country in Europe, parties of the center-left struggle to remain competitive in the political arena. Yet social democracy – though it can claim success in creating and developing public services which have improved the lives and health of citizens – can now rarely convince its former supporters that it’s still worth their votes.

What’s gone wrong?

Of the few in power, only the Portuguese socialists presently enjoy strong ratings. The Swedish social democrats regularly poll fewer than 30 percent and lead a minority government in coalition with the Greens. The Luxembourg Socialist Workers Party is a junior partner in a center-right-led coalition. In Malta, the EU’s smallest state, Labour is in power, but not held in high esteem after Daphne Caruana Galizia, the investigative journalist killed in October, reported extensively on charges of corruption involving Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his allies. (Muscat has denied all allegations and said he “will not rest before justice is done” for the “barbaric act” of Galizia’s murder.) ….

Since the war, social democratic parties offered capitalism a deal. The state would be largely responsible for public welfare and education, and organized labor would – in varying degrees – be granted strong bargaining rights, even co-determination in enterprises. The internal, mostly unstated, agreement within the social democratic movements was that the unions would deliver the bulk of their members’ votes to the party. Capitalism would be  regulated, but could be successful – as it usually was.

As the post war decades rolled on, the social democratic end of the deal softened, if at different times in different ways. Social democracy, once ambiguous about capitalism, came to work with and depend on it. In Britain, France, Germany and Italy, parties which had once embraced socialism (in Italy’s case, communism) clawed away from commitment to nationalization, ever-higher public expenditure and any form of class struggle. Both the United States under the Democrat president Bill Clinton and Germany under the SPD’s Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, in the 1990s and after, adopted elements of British New Labour’s “Third Way,” essentially a new form of adaptation to capital in its more globalized form, but with relatively high public spending and liberal social policies as part of the bargain.

Screen time, depression, once again:

Hour after hour spent in front of phones, computer screens and tablets might aid depression and thoughts of suicide in teenagers, new research finds.

Researchers from San Diego State and Florida State universities discovered nearly half of teens who got five or more hours of screen time each day had experienced thoughts of suicide or prolonged periods of hopelessness or sadness. That’s nearly double that of teens who spent fewer than an hour in front of a screen.

The numbers come as the suicide rate among teenage girls has increased drastically, climbing 65% from 2010 to 2015. An author of the study hints the numbers could serve as a cry for help from a generation struggling with mental health.

“These increases in mental health issues among teens are very alarming,” said study author Jean Twenge, an SDSU psychology professor. “Teens are telling us they are struggling, and we need to take that very seriously.”

That’s how they chose the 13th apostle, no?

BOLTON, Conn. (AP) — An election for the governing board of a small Connecticut town has been decided by a coin toss.

The Journal-Inquirer reports that Republican Michael Eremita on Tuesday kept his seat on Bolton’s five-member Board of Selectmen with a coin-toss win over Democratic challenger Kim Miller.

Both received 718 votes in last week’s election.

Under the town charter, tied elections can be decided by a special election or a coin toss. Eremita and Miller agreed on the latter because a special election could have cost up to $3,000.

Eremita, Miller, and Town Clerk Elizabeth Waters all flipped coins. Eremita won because he and Waters both tossed tails. Miller came up heads.

Eremita’s victory gave the board in the town of about 5,000 residents, located 10 miles (16 kilometers) east of Hartford, a 3-2 Republican advantage.

Americans in debt:

The average American household carries $137,063 in debt, according to the Federal Reserve’s latest numbers.

Yet the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the median household income was just $59,039 last year, suggesting that many Americans are living beyond their means.

Here’s how much debt the average U.S. household owes in credit cards, auto loans, student loans, and mortgages.

Those numbers are unlikely to shrink anytime soon, according to NerdWallet. That’s because the cost of living in the U.S. rose 30% over the past 13 years, yet household incomes only grew 28%. As a result, more Americans are using credit cards to cover basic needs like food and clothing.

Medical expenses have grown 57% since 2003, while food and housing costs climbed 36% and 32%, respectively. Those surging basic expenses could widen the inequality gap in America, as a quarter of Americans make less than $10 per hour.

On the bright side, education costs rose 26% during that period, and growth in student loan balances has slowed, so the picture could be improving for financially disciplined Millennials.

Matt Krupnick:

FONTANA, Calif. — At a steel factory dwarfed by the adjacent Auto Club Speedway, Fernando Esparza is working toward his next promotion.

Esparza is a 46-year-old mechanic for Evolution Fresh, a subsidiary of Starbucks that makes juices and smoothies. He’s taking a class in industrial computing taught by a community college at a local manufacturing plant in the hope it will bump up his wages.

It’s a pretty safe bet. The skills being taught here are in high demand. That’s in part because so much effort has been put into encouraging high school graduates to go to college for academic degrees rather than for training in industrial and other trades that many fields like his face worker shortages.

Now California is spending $6 million on a campaign to revive the reputation of vocational education, and $200 million to improve the delivery of it.

“It’s a cultural rebuild,” said Randy Emery, a welding instructor at the College of the Sequoias in California’s Central Valley.

The luster on diamonds: is it fading? Looks like it.

Kay, Jared and Zales’ diamonds are losing their sparkle.

Sales fell at the three mall-based affordable jewelers. Parent company Signet warned that profit heading into next year will be light.

Hurricanes and weak sales on engagement and wedding rings led to a “challenging” quarter, CEO Virginia Drosos said on Tuesday.

Revenue fell $30 million during the quarter ending in late October, pushed lower by a 7% decline at Kay.

A customer service mishap contributed to Kay’s slowdown. Kay was in the middle of overhauling its store credit program, and disruptions with the switch caused some customers to cancel rewards plans.

Kay has more than 1,200 stores across the country and makes up about a third of Signet’s total revenue, estimated Citi senior analyst Paul Lejuez.

The sluggish report alarmed investors: Signet’s (SIG) stock plunged 30% on Tuesday. It was the worst day for the stock in 25 years. Shares have now dropped 44% this year.

Signet holds a 13% market share on a $43 billion affordable jewelry industry, more than double its nearest rival, according to Cowen retail analyst Oliver Chen.

But lagging mall traffic is squeezing stores, said Lejuez.

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