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ISIS bombings in Baghdad—a sign of things to come?

Security forces and citizens inspect the scene after a suicide car bombing hit a crowded outdoor market in Baghdad's eastern Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, Iraq, Tuesday, May 17, 2016. A wave of bombings struck outdoor markets in Shiite-dominated neighborhoods of Baghdad on Tuesday, killing and wounding dozens of civilians, officials said, the latest in deadly militant attacks far from the front lines in the country's north and west where Iraqi forces are battling the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)They say a candle flickers most violently just before it goes out. Could that be what we're seeing with ISIS in Iraq? Or is the recent onslaught of suicide bombings, with more than two hundred killed in the last week, a sign of something else? The terrorist group has lost roughly 45% of the territory it once controlled in Iraq, to go along with 20% of their Syrian holdings, and appears to be increasingly incapable of waging the kind of war that won them so much of the region back in 2014.

So it's quite possible that these suicide bombings are simply a last ditch effort to inflict as much damage as possible before their decline leads to eventual defeat. Perhaps, though, speaking about this conflict in the past tense is a bit premature. You see, such attacks were a regular part of the group's playbook when they were still part of Al Qaeda. That strategy proved quite successful in eliciting fear and deepening the prejudice between the Sunni terrorists and the Shiite majority throughout Iraq.

Back in 2013, a similar wave of suicide bombings elicited such a strong response from the Shiites that the Sunnis in the country welcomed ISIS and the protection they claimed to offer. As Tim Arango of The New York Times speculates, the recent attacks could have a similar purpose. Moreover, as Arango notes, "The reflex of the Shiite leadership is to protect Baghdad . . . and that is likely to prompt calls for military and police units to be pulled from the front lines to secure the capital."

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111 Methodist Ministers Come Out as Gay

inside of a church (Matt Apps via fotolia)111 pastors, deacons, elders and candidates for ministry came out as homosexual in a public letter earlier this week. In the open letter posted online, these individuals accused the Methodist church of not allowing them to "bring our full selves to ministry, that we hide from view our sexual orientations and gender identities." They concluded that "you cannot legislate against God's call," and thus are hoping their strength in numbers will create a policy change in the Methodist Church.

The large coming out contingent came one day before the United Methodist Church, numbering 8 million members in the U.S., convened its quadrennial General Conference in Portland, Oregon. For the next ten days, more than 800 international delegates will debate changes to church policy, including ones that seek to lift bans on practicing homosexual ministers and same-sex marriages. This is the first Methodist General Conference since the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage back in 2015.

"The 'LGBTQI issue' is not one that can be resolved through restrictive legislation but instead by seeing that all persons are made in the image of God and welcomed into the community of faith," the letter said. Though some have been welcomed, others have not. "While some of us have been lucky to serve in places where we could serve honestly and openly, there are others in places far more hostile. . . who do not receive the fullness of their pastor's gifts because a core part must remain hidden."

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Opium feeding the Taliban's ranks and its banks

Afghan farmers collect raw opium as they work in a poppy field in Khogyani district of Jalalabad east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, May 10, 2013. Opium poppy cultivation has been increasing for a third year in a row and is heading for a record high, the U.N. said in a report. Poppy cultivation is also dramatically increasing in areas of the southern Taliban heartland, the report showed, especially in regions where thousands of U.S.-led coalition troops have been withdrawn or are in the process of departing. The report indicates that whatever international efforts have been made to wean local farmers off the crop have failed. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)When it comes to illicit activity, the Taliban are known primarily for their violence and acts of destruction. As Taimoor Shah and Mujib Mashal describe for The New York Times, however, each spring many in the terrorist organization take a break from fighting to engage in a different sort of crime. You see, that's when the opium harvest occurs, and the Taliban takes a fairly large share of the roughly $3 billion trade. This year's harvest was especially bountiful after the winter brought more rain than usual, with some estimating a four-fold increase over last year's production.

The UN describes the Taliban as being "more like 'godfathers' than a 'government in waiting,'" and their relationship with the local farmers often seems like something out of a mafia movie. As one farmer in the Musa Qala district described, "There is no security concern for a single laborer being checked or robbed by the police . . . The entire district is under Taliban control and the bulk of the harvesters are Taliban." To the farmers who depend on the opium harvest to survive, the presence of such terrorists is preferable to that of the Afghan government.

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Video game could help diagnose dementia

young man holding game controller playing video games (Credit: wayne_0216 via fotolia)Let's face it, most of the apps on our phones are good for little more than a brief diversion and a bit of fun. That's not a bad thing, but what if the time we spent playing a game or checking social media could serve a larger purpose? A new, free to play, game called Sea Hero Quest could potentially do just that.

The game was developed by a group of scientists looking for a way to detect the early warning signs of dementia—an insidious illness that impacts more than forty-six million people around the globe. Given that roughly one-third of such cases could be prevented or mitigated by changes in a person's lifestyle, early detection could go a long way towards helping some of those at risk avoid or delay the debilitating disease.

The basic premise of the game is that you are a son who traveled around the world with his father discovering incredible sea creatures. However, your father now has dementia and can't remember those voyages. So you, playing as the son, attempt to retrace his steps and take pictures of the creatures that you saw together on those first trips. The game powerfully states that, by recapturing your father's memories, "you are helping to save the memories of the future."

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Arms race beneath the Pacific

Large landing ships The Pacific Ocean and its neighboring seas are getting increasingly crowded these days as the countries that call those waters home try to keep up with China's growing naval presence in the region. As CNN's Charles Riley writes, Australia recently became the latest entrant to the arms race when they ordered twelve new submarines at a cost of $39 billion. The 4,700 metric ton Shortfin Barracudas will offer their navy better sensory and stealth performance without compromising the range and endurance of older models. Australia described them as the "largest and most complex" submarines it has ever employed. Their Pacific neighbors are likely to follow suit, with at least eight of the twelve nations in the area that currently utilize subs looking to upgrade their respective fleets.

Such expansion is merely the latest example of a recent trend in the region. Defense spending among Asian countries has risen steadily by an average of five percent each year at a time when military budgets in most of Europe have remained stagnant. While the region's growing economic power has enabled its countries to make such an investment, the primary cause is often thought to be China's aggressive territorial expansion through man-made islands in the Pacific and disputes with Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Japan, among others.

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