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Week in Geek: You've got a starry show to catch

11/16/14 10:14AM

Just in case you haven't gotten your fill of comets yet, I've got another one for you: Comet 55P Tempel-Tuttle, the source of the Leonids meteor shower which peaks in this Monday, November 17 (but with the best viewing in the wee hours of Tuesday morning).

Meteor showers are often associated with a comet or asteroid that has a left a trail of dust and ice particle strewn out along its orbit. When Earth passes through this trail, the particles enter our atmosphere, heat up and vaporize in a brilliant light show. The denser the trail of particles -- and the faster they're moving -- the more meteors you're likely to see. Comets shed more particles when passing through the inner solar system, where they heat up more, so the more recently the parent comet of a given meteor shower has passed by, the better the show.

Comet 55P Tempel-Tuttle completes its orbit of the Sun once every 33 years. Consequently, the

 Leonids peak on the same interval. The next peak of the Leonids is not expected until 2030, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't still get out there this week to catch a glimpse. The predicted peak rate for the Leonids this year is roughly 15 meteors per hour, still well above the average number of meteors you could expect to see on any random night. On a historical note, the Leonids are known to produce meteor storms (over 1000 meteors per hour) from time to time with hourly rates upward of 100,000 in 1883 and 1966. NASA has a great collection of some eyewitness accounts from the latter.

The Leonids name actually refers to the "radiant point" of the meteor shower -- where they appear to be coming from in the sky. In this case, it's the constellation Leo. You don't need to have a clear view of Leo to see the shower. It's almost better to look in the opposite direction since you'll be more likely to see the full trails of the meteors as they streak across the sky. Looking directly at Leo means you'll see the start of a lot of meteors, but not get the full effect. (At over 150,000 miles per hour, the Leonids are some of the fastest meteors ever recorded.)

So come Monday night, bundle up, make some hot chocolate, and get yourself to a dark spot!

Here's some geek you don't have to stay up all night to enjoy:

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This Week in God, 11.15.14

11/15/14 09:10AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a story out of Maryland, where the state's largest school district has approved a pretty significant, religiously inspired change to its school calendar. The Washington Post reported this week:
Christmas and Easter have been stricken from next year's school calendar in Montgomery County. So have Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.
Montgomery's Board of Education voted 7 to 1 Tuesday to eliminate references to all religious holidays on the published calendar for 2015-2016, a decision that followed a request from Muslim community leaders to give equal billing to the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha.
Note, the county hasn't eliminated religious holidays, and students will still be off for major holidays like Christmas. The schools will still be closed when all other state agencies are closed.
But to avoid references to Muslim holidays, the calendar won't specifically reference any religious holidays associated with those days off.
Libby Nelson noted, "The school board's decision seems to have made everyone mad: Muslim leaders are furious that the board would get rid of religious holidays before acknowledging Muslim ones, while conservative media outlets are accusing the board of 'banning' Jewish and Christian religious holidays in order to appease Muslims."
In fact, Fox News' Bill O'Reilly told his audience this week that this story is -- you guessed it -- the "first salvo this season in the ongoing war on Christmas." He added, "They just wiped out all our traditions because [of] these people."
Aren't the holidays fun?
For more on this story, our friends at msnbc's "Politics Nation" did a great segment earlier this week.
Also from the God Machine this week:
ISIS fighters spawned from US Iraq invasion

ISIS fighters spawned from US Iraq invasion

11/14/14 09:17PM

Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, traces the roots of ISIS to the insurgents who fought against the U.S. in Iraq, and talks with Lieutenant General Michael Barbero about how readily the Iraqi Army fell apart in the face of ISIS. watch

Friday's Mini-Report, 11.14.14

11/14/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
* On to the Senate: "The Republican-led House approved the Keystone XL pipeline for the ninth time on Friday, with the Senate poised to vote on the measure next week in an effort to boost Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu's re-election chances."
* Would President Obama veto? It sure looks like it.
* Important: 'Swedish officials said Friday that a mysterious vessel detected in the waters off Stockholm last month was a foreign submarine that had violated its territorial waters. Although many in Sweden and elsewhere suspected that the submarine was Russian, the Swedish authorities said they were unable to determine the nationality of the intruder. Russia has denied conducting any recent operations in Swedish waters."
* Related news: "Vladimir Putin is underlining his presence at a major summit of world leaders in Australia by stationing warships in waters off the country's northeastern coast, prompting the Australian prime minister to angrily accuse Russia of trying to reclaim the 'lost glories' of the Soviet Union."
* 300 million miles away: "Less than two days after its historic landing, Rosetta's probe may be reaching its final hours, and the scientific team is racing to collect as much data as possible before Philae's batteries run out. It's do or die, and at this point there's very little to lose in terms of its lifespan."
* Open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act begins tomorrow. The website works.
* Policymakers would be wise to take note: "The nation's nuclear forces lack resources, support and effective leadership, a legacy of neglect that could impact America's security, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday."
* Don't panic: "A surgeon working in Sierra Leone has been diagnosed with Ebola and will be flown Saturday to the United States for treatment, officials from Sierra Leone and the United States said."
* Secret Service: "Layer after layer of security measures that were supposed to block an intruder from getting into the White House all failed in stunning succession on the evening of Sept. 19, according to an internal review of a fence jumper's breach."
* Cabinet: "Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch said Thursday he believes U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch will get approved by the Senate to replace outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, but that the confirmation process should wait until after the new Senate has taken office in January. 'Looking at it, I have to say, she looks like she will be a good person,' said Hatch on the Steve Malzberg Show."
* In 1983, American health regulators stopped allowing gay men to donate blood. More than three decades later, this ridiculous policy is still in place, though it's finally poised to change.
Bernie Sanders (I-VT) awaits the start of a hearing by the Senate VeteransÕ Affairs Committee September 9, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Right pans Bernie Sanders' 'Democracy Day' idea

11/14/14 04:39PM

About a week ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) unveiled legislation to make Election Day a national holiday. It's not a bad idea -- plenty of folks might want to vote on the first Tuesday in November, but face scheduling restrictions. Early voting is available in many states, but not all.
Many have suggested moving Election Day to a weekend, but if that's not going to happen, it's not unreasonable to think voter participation would improve if there were a declared "Democracy Day," as Sanders suggests.
"In America, we should be celebrating our democracy and doing everything possible to make it easier for people to participate in the political process," Sanders said in a statement. "Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote. While this would not be a cure-all, it would indicate a national commitment to create a more vibrant democracy."
So what's wrong with this? Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything, though National Review appears to have some concerns.
If Bernie Sanders has his way, "Democracy Day" will be the crowning holiday of America's dystopian future. Imagine: Everyone in slab-gray uni-gender tunics and biodegradable Crocs, all lined up in perfect uniformity to cast a legally mandated vote for the single party that remains. Democracy! Pharrell's "Happy" will play over loudspeakers in the background. On loop.
Um, no. Making Election Day a holiday does not lead to a dystopian nightmare resembling 1984 Apple commercials.
Low turnout might well indicate a small group of very interested people, and that might be a better indication of the country's desires than truckloads of people completing a ballot because they felt obligated -- or, worse, faced a penalty if they did not.
I'm not sure if this is intended as satire, but National Review seems to be arguing that if a significant number of Americans want to participate in their democracy, and feel a civic duty as a citizen, but they can't vote because of time constraints, that's OK -- because people with more leisure time are better motivated?
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the White House in Washington on Sept. 26, 2014. (Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

A president bounces off the ropes

11/14/14 01:21PM

It's not uncommon to hear the political media face criticism for a "pack mentality." The point often has merit -- when the political establishment starts to embrace a consensus, and a conventional wisdom takes hold, many are loath to ignore the direction of the prevailing winds.
But after a while, the conventional wisdom gets dull and an entirely different instinct kicks in: rejecting what the pack says and embracing the opposite. (See every piece with some variation on the headline, "Everything you know about _______ is wrong.")
So, the pack says President Obama is flailing and unpopular, smacked down by the electorate in the midterms, lacking capital and prospects, and no longer relevant with the 2016 race already on the horizon? That was last week's narrative; this week Obama is the comeback kid.
The front page of today's New York Times:
President Obama emerged from last week's midterm election rejected by voters, hobbled politically and doomed to a final two years in office suffering from early lame-duck syndrome. That, at least, was the consensus in both parties. No one seems to have told Mr. Obama.
In the 10 days since "we got beat," as he put it, by Republicans who captured the Senate and bolstered control over the House, Mr. Obama has flexed his muscles on immigration, climate change and the Internet, demonstrating that he still aspires to enact sweeping policies that could help define his legacy.
Last week, President Barack Obama's party took a beating in the midterm elections, but this week there's already some swagger returning to his step.
Obama's landmark deal with China to cut greenhouse gas emissions, announced Wednesday, is a move that, the White House feels, shows just how much the president can do without Congress.... As Obama trumpeted the climate deal during a news conference here, he didn't sound much like a president who just got his hat handed to him back home.
Activists rally for immigration reform in front of the U.S. Capitol, Oct. 23, 2013.

Will immigration become 'toxic for a decade'?

11/14/14 12:18PM

There's been no shortage of provocative political rhetoric on immigration policy, but one quote yesterday stood out for me. In context, the comment came from a congressman opposed to President Obama's likely executive actions.
"He will make the issue absolutely toxic for a decade," Rep. David Schweikert, R-Ariz., said Thursday.
Norm Ornstein joked in response, "From the lovefest it's been for the past decade."
It's an important point. I've seen some suggestions in recent years that congressional Republicans refuse to consider immigration reform -- in any form -- because they're reflexively opposed to giving Obama a "win." If GOP lawmakers simply say no to everything, including ideas they support, the president will have fewer accomplishments, the public will grow angrier by Washington dysfunction, and maybe Republicans will benefit.
And while there may be something to this, I don't think the argument fully captures a more basic truth: Republicans really don't like immigration reform.
A sign at an Affordable Care Act outreach event in Los Angeles, California, September 28, 2013.

New ACA data points to systemic success

11/14/14 11:30AM

In recent years, Republican critics of the Affordable Care Act have insisted that "Obamacare" would send premiums soaring. Even after all of the GOP's other talking points were discredited or abandoned, the right hoped higher premiums would be the key failure that helped undermine the U.S. system.
Reality just doesn't seem to be in a cooperative mood. There was some preliminary evidence that the ACA was helping keep premiums in check, and as Margot Sanger-Katz reports, the new data is even more encouraging.
Early evidence suggests that competition in the new Affordable Care Act marketplaces is working. Health insurance premiums in major cities around the country are barely rising.
That's the conclusion of two studies of data about newly public insurance rates. One, from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health research group, looked at 49 cities and found that prices for a popular type of plan are actually going down, on average. A second, from the actuarial firm Wakely Consulting Group, looked at the largest county in each of the 34 states with marketplaces run by the federal government and found an average rate increase of zero.
Decreases in the price of health insurance are basically unheard-of.
Indeed, before "Obamacare," consumers routinely faced annual premium increases. The question wasn't whether the cost would go up, but rather, how much. But the ACA model is succeeding even more than expected.
In fairness, it's worth noting that we're looking at averages across a vast marketplace, and some consumers will benefit more than others. The Affordable Care Act is having a positive impact, but if you look hard enough, it's possible to find some pockets where premium increases are higher.
But as Sanger-Katz added, "[I]f you take out the outliers on either side ... most of the rates are either single-digit increases or single-digit decreases, moderate changes for health insurance."
That's not only amazing, it's the polar opposite of what Republicans predicted. What's more, it's not the only good news.
Ronald Reagan -Sarah Muller - 09/5/2013

On immigration, Obama may follow an existing trail

11/14/14 10:55AM

To hear Republicans tell it, the outrage about President Obama's likely executive actions on immigration is less about the policy and more about the legal principles. Presidents, the argument goes, simply aren't supposed to shape immigration policy unilaterally -- such actions are unprecedented, unconstitutional, and at odds with the American tradition.
The trouble, of course, is that if Obama does take policy steps on his own, he won't be blazing a new trail; he'll be following a trail that already exists. Mark Noferi had an interesting piece last week on some of this president's recent predecessors.
The story begins on November 6, 1986, when Reagan signed the last comprehensive legalization bill to pass Congress. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) gave up to 3 million unauthorized immigrants a path to legalization if they had been "continuously" present in the U.S. since January 1, 1982. But the new law excluded their spouses and children who didn't qualify. As the Senate Judiciary Committee stated at the time, "the families of legalized aliens ... will be required to 'wait in line'."
Immediately, these split-eligibility families became the most polarizing national immigration issue. U.S. Catholic bishops criticized the government's "separation of families," especially given Reagan's other pro-family stances. In early 1987, members of Congress introduced legislation to legalize family members, but without success.
When Congress failed to act, the Reagan administration decided to change the policy on its own, announcing that federal law enforcement would use its "discretion" and extend protections against deportations. And at that point, congressional Republicans condemned Reagan's outrageous and dangerous abuses, calling for his immediate impeachment.
Wait, actually that never happened. My mistake.
A few years later, the Bush/Quayle administration pursued its own executive actions on immigration -- again, without Congress -- concluding that the law should be enforced "humanely" and without splitting up families.
George H.W. Bush wasn't impeached, either.
Speaker of the House John Boehner looks on as U.S. President Barack Obama meets with bipartisian congressional leadership in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House on Nov. 7, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Boehner may expand anti-Obama lawsuit that doesn't exist

11/14/14 09:48AM

In all likelihood, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) does not want to shut down the government. He'd probably also prefer to avoid a pointless presidential impeachment crusade.
But the Republican leader also realizes many in his party want both a shutdown and impeachment, putting the Speaker in a position where he'll need to find some alternative approach that rebukes the White House, satiates his rabid allies, but doesn't actually do anything meaningful or potentially scandalous.
Robert Costa and Ed O'Keefe report that Boehner has just such a solution in mind.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is considering expanding a proposed federal lawsuit over President Obama's executive orders to include action on immigration. Filing a separate lawsuit over the president's authority to protect millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation is another option that gained traction Thursday during talks among party leaders.
The idea to use the courts as an initial means of dissent, should the president move forward in the coming weeks to protect millions from deportation, moved to the front of the House GOP's playbook after the leadership reviewed it. Boehner reportedly wants to respond forcefully and quickly should the president act and believes a lawsuit would do that, as well as signal to conservatives in his conference that he shares their frustrations about the president's use of executive power.
And if the goal is to give the appearance of action without doing anything too meaningful, this might do the trick. Republicans are convinced executive actions on immigration policy are a flagrant violation of the Constitution -- but only when Obama does it? Fine, go to the courts.
The lawsuit would almost certainly fail, but that's not really the point. By pursuing a legal recourse, Boehner gets to "stand up" to President Obama, he gives Republicans something specific to rally behind, and he throws cold water on the more ridiculous alternative tactics. All he has to do is add some complaints to his current anti-Obama lawsuit.
Of course, that'd be easier if the anti-Obama lawsuit actually existed.
Female sniper: ‘Kobani is our home’

Female sniper: ‘Kobani is our home’

11/14/14 09:28AM

Former school teacher turned sniper Viyan Peyman talks to NBC’s Richard Engel about why she decided to stay in Kobani and participate in the fight against ISIS, saying “it’s especially important for women to be strong in the Middle East.” Watch more... watch