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Stepping off the plane in Zimbabwe a quarter century ago was a huge shock. A college student on my very first visit to Africa, I was surprised how familiar everything felt.

It was Christmas Eve 2002, at the height of midsummer, when I arrived to take up a year-long job as doctor at Halley base – the most remote research station operated by the British in Antarctica.

As we cruised up to the Caird Coast of Antarctica, a crowd of us stood out on the deck of the supply ship RRS Ernest Shackleton, singing Christmas carols in the 24-hour sunlight, wearing Santa hats and reindeer antlers.

"The dog ate my homework?" Try, "I was protesting a grand jury decision," instead.

Students at some top law schools want exam extensions for what they are calling the trauma of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions. But other law students are wondering what message that sends to future employers.

On a day when President Obama added his voice to criticisms over the decision to pull the satire The Interview, Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton says the studio "did not capitulate" to hackers, and that its actions have been misunderstood.

Lynton defended his studio in an interview on All Things Considered, saying that Sony still wants an audience to see The Interview — if not in theaters, then by other means.

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It was an honest mistake. But when President Obama meant to talk about James Franco and instead said "James Flacco" — on a Friday marking the full-on start of the holidays, no less — the slip was eagerly received by people on Twitter and elsewhere.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The main boulevard in Tunisia's capital, Tunis, is alive with political debate about the two candidates for president in this Sunday's election.

In one tent, campaign workers play music and hand out fliers for Beji Caid Essebsi, an 88-year-old candidate who held posts in the old regime and then served as an interim prime minister after the country's revolution in 2011.

Today, details of the Obama administration's plan known as the Postsecondary Institutional Ratings System, or PIRS, finally saw the light of day. The idea, in this incarnation, was just under three years old.

The president announced its conception during his State of the Union address in 2012.

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued new national standards designating coal ash – a nearly ubiquitous byproduct of coal-fired power plants that contains arsenic and lead – as non-hazardous waste.

NPR's Christopher Joyce reports that coal-fired power plants produce more than 130 million tons of the coal ash each year and they have long stored millions of tons of it in giant ponds.

But many of those ponds have failed in recent years, allowing contaminated water to get into rivers and streams, and ultimately into drinking water.

Some witnesses were clearly lying when they spoke to a grand jury about the August police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., according to St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch. In an interview about the case Friday, the prosecutor says he won't seek perjury charges.

Jeff Williams, Apple's senior vice president for operations, has responded to a BBC report that workers at Asian suppliers for the iPhone 6 are mistreated and overworked, saying he's "deeply offended" by the accusations.

In an email to some 5,000 Apple staff in the United Kingdom, Williams hit back at the British broadcaster's Panorama program, which sent in undercover reporters to observe conditions at the Pegatron factory, near Shanghai, where iPhones are assembled.

Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps was sentenced to 18 months' supervised probation today after pleading guilty to drunken driving.

He was arrested in September after leaving a casino in downtown Baltimore. Police documents show that he swerved over a yellow line while going 84 in 45-mph zone. Police say Phelps failed field sobriety tests and registered a 0.14 on a blood-alcohol test. In Maryland, the legal limit is 0.08.

This Christmas Eve, many Latinos will celebrate the holiday by unwrapping delicious little presents: tamales.

At its essence, a tamale consists of masa (dough made from corn or another starch) that's been wrapped in aromatic leaves, then steamed or boiled. Some come bundled in corn husks, others in plantain, banana or mashan leaves. Some are sweetened with molasses or coconut milk, others spiced with mole or seasoned with achiote. Some are plain; others are filled with meat, cheese or vegetables.

Less than three years after Facebook purchased Instagram for $1 billion, the photo-sharing service is now worth $35 billion, according to analysts at Citigroup.

Instagram's user base has skyrocketed since the acquisition, in part because of its integration with Facebook but also because the purchase roughly coincided with the release of an Instagram app for Android smartphones.

Earlier this month, Instagram announced that it surpassed 300 million users.

At Last, I Meet My Microbes

17 hours ago

A veritable jungle of organisms is helping keep each of us alive. But we've been rather negligent hosts. For starters, we don't even know who has shown up for the party.

Updated at 6 p.m. ET

President Obama spoke to reporters in a year-end news conference at the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House.

One of the topics that came up was Sony Pictures Entertainment's decision to cancel distribution of the film The Interview following North Korea's cyber attack against the company's servers.

Updated at 6:00 p.m. ET

President Obama called Sony's decision to pull its film The Interview, following threats to movie theaters, a "mistake."

"We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States," the president said in his year-end news conference.

He added that he was "sympathetic" to Sony's concerns, but, "I wish they would have spoken to me first."

Even in the coldest months, we relish the refreshing, icy taste of peppermint — in seasonal treats like peppermint bark, peppermint schnapps, even peppermint beer.

Three advocacy organizations — across ideological lines — are telling congressional investigators to back off in a probe of EPA ties to a leading environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana are leading the investigation. They contend that NRDC lobbyists have exerted too much influence over EPA on the issues of carbon reduction and the proposed Pebble Mine at Bristol Bay, Alaska.

A Nurse's Desperate Plea: Show Me The Ebola Money

19 hours ago

I found her curled up in the fetal position on the ground, under a piece of cardboard wet from the rain, breathing quietly. Dried blood all around her mouth. Naked. Most likely she had stumbled from her ward in the middle of the night, making it past the gates meant to separate the area where patients live from the triage area, where ambulances pull in — gates that frustratingly still won't close.

Beginning next year, colleges and universities will be judged on three broad criteria when it comes to meting out federal financial aid: access, affordability and student outcomes, according to a new "framework" released by the Education Department.

The ratings plan was first announced by President Obama in August 2013, but the framework announced today is only an interim step. Public input is being sought by Feb. 17 on the proposed system.

Most of us don't remember our first two or three years of life — but our earliest experiences may stick with us for years and continue to influence us well into adulthood.

Just how they influence us and how much is a question that researchers are still trying to answer. Two studies look at how parents' behavior in those first years affects life decades later, and how differences in children's temperament play a role.

Soccer's governing body is sticking to its guns.

FIFA has voted not to revisit the bidding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. It also decided to release, at some later date, at least part of a 430-page confidential report produced by American lawyer Michael Garcia.

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