Stargazers are in for a treat if they're willing to wake up really early Saturday morning.
The annual Geminid meteor shower peaks tonight, potentially serving up more than a hundred shooting stars per hour. The meteors will appear to emanate from the constellation Gemini (thus the name) but that's just an optical illusion. The meteors are actually remains of an asteroid whose fragments burn up in earth's atmosphere as our planet passes through the field of debris.
Unfortunately, this year the prolific shower will have to compete with the bright rays of the waxing moon. A few of the bigger meteors will still be visible in the moonlight, but you'll catch many more if you look up after the moon sets — around 3:45 AM for much of the contiguous United States. (You can find out the exact moonset time for your area here.)
The Geminids travel slower than most meteors (a mere 78,000 mph), so their bright white trails linger longer in the sky. If you can avoid the city lights and winter clouds, you'll witness one of the best meteor showers of the year.
The House adjourned for the holidays Thursday night after passing a two-year budget agreement. But despite pressure from Democrats, it did not include an extension of the long-term unemployment benefit program.
While the issue may be reconsidered in January, more than a million Americans will lose their benefits between Christmas and New Year's.
Among them is Joan Boudro, who lost her job as an administrative assistant almost three years ago. Since then, she's found only temporary work for a few months at a time. Friends sometimes ask Boudro if she's out there "pounding the pavement." Lately, she says, it's hard finding an employer who will even look at her resume.
"There are no jobs. And that's where the big problem is: there are not enough jobs to go around," Boudro says.
Boudro has been relying on the extended unemployment benefits that the federal government has been offering since the beginning of the recession more than five years ago. The $363 a week is a lot less than she used to earn. But Boudro, a Republican who lives in New Berlin, Wisconsin, says it's been a lifeline.
"It means that I can stay in my apartment. I can put food on the table. I can pay my bills," she says. "If unemployment stops, I'm going to have to move in with my son and his wife and I really don't want to have to do that."
Boudro's unemployment benefits, along with those of 1.3 million others, will run out on Dec. 28. President Obama urged lawmakers to extend the temporary federal program, but he didn't insist that it be part of this week's mini-budget bargain.
And Republican House Speaker John Boehner says Obama didn't suggest alternative spending cuts to offset the program's $25 billion price tag.
"When the White House finally called me last Friday about extending unemployment benefits, I said we would clearly consider it, as long as it's paid for and as long as there are other efforts that will help get our economy going again," Boehner says. "I have not seen a plan from the White House that meets those standards."
The Obama administration notes that in the past, lawmakers haven't insisted that extended unemployment benefits be offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget. White House economic adviser Jason Furman adds that while the job market is improving, there are still more than four million Americans who've been out of work six months or more.
"We don't think that at a 7 percent unemployment rate, that now is the time to cut off their unemployment insurance," Furman says. "That doesn't just hurt those families. It hurts the economy by taking money out of their wallets that they otherwise would have spent."
The White House and congressional Democrats promise to renew their push for an extension in early January. But that's little comfort to those like Boudro who will see their checks cut off in just over two weeks.
"I don't understand why it's OK for Congress to go home and have a good Christmas when there's still things that are left to be done," she says.
The White House warns that without an extension, millions more Americans will exhaust their unemployment benefits next year, before they find new work.
A student armed with a shotgun killed himself after opening fire at a Colorado high school, wounding two fellow students, police said Friday.
Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson said the armed student entered the school and said he was looking for a specific teacher. Robinson said another student confronted the gunman and then was shot.
Robinson said police later found another student inside the school whose injuries were considered minor.
The shooting took place at Arapahoe High School, located about 8 miles from Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where 13 people were killed in 1999.
The Associated Press quotes a hospital spokesman as saying the wounded student was taken into surgery.
It's the fall of 1970. Neil Young takes the stage at a small club in Washington, D.C. His career is heading in a new direction: His folk-rock group, Buffalo Springfield, has dissolved; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young is on the way out, and he's going solo.
His new album, Live at the Cellar Door, is one of three recent live albums, all from about the same time period. Thelonious Monk's Paris 1969 performance preceded Young's, while one disc of a four-CD anthology from the late R&B and soul singer Donny Hathaway, Never My Love, was recorded in 1971.
In a discussion with NPR's Melissa Block, music critic Tom Moon looks back at the time when all three albums were recorded. Moon says each record shows an influential musician at a turning point in his career.
On Sunday, South Africans will lay to rest the remains of Nelson Mandela.
The legacy left by the activist and political prisoner who transformed a nation and became president is being remembered by politicians, historians and artists.
Among them is Thabiso Mohare, a young South African spoken word artist who performs under the name Afurakan. He wrote a poem for NPR about Mandela called "An Ordinary Man."
"An Ordinary Man"
In the end he died an ordinary man
Only rich in wrinkles from where the spirit had been
It would be the saddest days
And we watched the world weep
For a giant bigger than myths
A life owned by many
Now free as the gods
Some cried as though tomorrow was lost
Some celebrated, questioned freedom and its cost
Some seized the chance to stand on his shoulders
While others cursed his grave and scorned wisdom of the elders
Stadiums were littered
And those in the know spoke their fill
Mourners paid tribute
Monarch to President made the bill
Where do I we begin
In telling our children where these old bones have been
And that we as next of kin
Have inherited his struggle
And he forever lives through our skin
And on his last day
When the earth reclaims what's hers
We will surrender his body but reignite his spirit
We will write all we know and let history read it to our children
And remind both scholar and critic
That there once was a prisoner of freedom
Who gave the world back its heart
But in the end
He died an ordinary man.