- Protests force out Tunisian leader. "Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has stepped down after 23 years in power as protests over economic issues snowballed into rallies against him. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi has taken over as interim president, and a state of emergency has been declared. Mr Ben Ali and his family are said to have left Tunisia, and are now looking for a place of asylum. Unconfirmed reports suggest his plane has arrived in the Saudi city of Jeddah. Earlier, French media said President Nicolas Sarkozy had rejected a request for the aircraft to land in France."
- Far too small a step, far past time. "US President Barack Obama has said he will ease restrictions on US citizens travelling to Cuba. The president said he had instructed the relevant government departments to allow religious groups and students to travel to the communist-run island. President Obama said he believed the new, more relaxed, rules which also make it easier to send remittances to Cuba will support civil society there. The changes will not end the decades-old US trade embargo."
- Worst in half a century. "Emergency crews in Brazil are struggling to reach areas affected by deadly mudslides and floods because of renewed rainfall. Officials say more than 500 people are known to have died in the floods - the country's worst in decades. Local media reported rescuers had to reach worst-hit areas on foot because vehicles cannot cross blocked roads. Mountainous areas north of Rio de Janeiro have been hit by the heaviest downpours in 44 years. The rain caused rivers of mud to rush down the mountains and tear through towns, levelling houses and throwing cars over buildings. More than 5,000 people have been left homeless, and officials said at least 511 people had died."
- Like we keep telling you, religion is dangerous to your health. "At least 64 pilgrims have been killed in a stampede at a religious festival in the southern Indian state of Kerala, officials say. Scores more have been injured in the crush, which was reportedly triggered by a road accident. The pilgrims were returning from the Hindu shrine of Sabarimala, which is in a remote, mountainous, densely-forested area. The authorities say the death toll could rise."
- More post-Saddam improvements. "Twelve militants linked to al-Qaeda have broken out of a prison in Basra in southern Iraq, the authorities say. The men were awaiting trial when they obtained police uniforms and walked out of the detention centre - in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces - before dawn, security officials said. They are said to have ties with the Islamic State of Iraq - a Sunni insurgent group affiliated to al-Qaeda. All the prison guards have been arrested and a manhunt is under way. "Of course, there was collusion from within the compound, but we do not know who is involved at the moment," said Ali Ghanim al-Maliki, head of the security committee at Basra's provincial council."
- "A true giant of American foreign policy." "US and world leaders have gathered to honour Richard Holbrooke, the veteran US diplomat who died last month at 69. Mr Holbrooke, whose diplomatic service reached back to the Vietnam War era, was President Barack Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mourners included Mr Obama, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton. Mr Holbrooke was credited in part with ending war in the Balkans in the 1990s. The ceremony was taking place on Friday afternoon at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Mr Obama, who had previously hailed Mr Holbrooke as a "true giant of American foreign policy", addressed the memorial service."
- Secularist courage in Pakistan. "Pakistan's minorities minister and an MP have told the BBC they will defy death threats they have received for their efforts to reform blasphemy laws. Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti said he had been threatened with beheading, but he would not be intimidated. Sherry Rehman, a woman MP who has put forward an amendment in parliament, says she receives death threats every half hour by e-mail and telephone. The blasphemy law holds a death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. Critics, including Mr Bhatti, say it has been used to persecute minority faiths in Pakistan."
- Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong! Farhad Manjoo is adamant that there should only be one space after a period when one is writing; and indeed this blogging platform does strange things to the layout if we use two spaces -- but nonetheless, two spaces after a period and one space after a comma, colon or semi-colon. And we still have the voices of our high school typing teachers ringing in our ears, their exhortations verified by the MLA handbooks and Hodge's Harbrace Handbooks that have had a place on our bookshelves since Rhetorical Writing/Comp I. And they are from the era when college was still a challenge and the scandal of grade inflation hadn't set in yet, so our degrees aren't suspect. (Unless he is being satirical -- and it's really hard to tell with those grammar satirists. If it's satire, oops, our bad.)
- Brownback is determined to make Kansas the Mississippi of the Midwest He has proposed balancing the state's budget by zeroing out all funding for public broadcasting, and he wants to close the state mental hospital. The Kansas Neurological Institute serves about 160 patients with severe mental deficits. Only about 1/3 are ambulatory, and only about 1/5 can speak. But Sam "Compassionate Conservative"Brownback wants to close the place down by 2014, putting the patients out on the streets or back with families that are ill-equipped to take care of them.
- We kinda hope some of the stupider ones take him up on it. Wisconsin's new wingnut governor, Scott Walker, is urging people who live in Illinois to "escape to Wisconsin!" after Illinois raised income taxes at the end of the lame duck legislative session a few days ago by two percentage points, from 3% to 5% for individuals. What he didn't bother telling the folks he wants to move to WIsconsin for tax purposes that Wisconsin has brackets, and the lowest one is 6.15%. That makes Walker's hyperbole not just hyperbole but a false economy, too.
- We know this will catch you unawares and may even give you the vapors, but Louie Gohmert never has any idea what he's talking about. "The tragic shooting in Tucson last weekend has sparked a host of proposed legislative responses, but none is as hare brained as Rep. Louie Gohmert's (R-TX) idea to allow members of Congress to pack heat inside the Capitol Building, and even when on the House floor. Appearing on WorldNetDaily's Radio America today, Gohmert explained the need for his bill by falsely claiming that Washington, DC has a "gun ban" (the Roberts Supreme Court did away with DC's handgun ban in 2008). But later on in the interview, apparently oblivious to the irony, Gohmert noted that there was a era when lawmakers solved problems with armed duels and warned, "we've come a long way since those days and we just don't need to be reverting backwards.""
- Our suspicions have been confirmed "Ronald Reagan's youngest son says in a new book that he believes his father suffered from Alzheimer's disease while in the White House, according to a column in U.S. News & World Report. ... Ron Reagan makes the suggestion in his new book "My Father at 100," due out next week, Paul Bedard writes in the news magazine's "Washington Whispers" column. Ronald Reagan, who was president from 1981-1989, and his wife Nancy publicly revealed he had Alzheimer's in 1994. ... His son Ron, who became a liberal and atheist, suggests he saw hints of confusion and "an out-of-touch president" during the 1984 campaign and again in 1986, when his father couldn't recall the names of California canyons he was flying over, according to the U.S. News & World Report column. ... In his memoir, Ron Reagan notes that doctors today know that the disease can be present before it is recognized, according to the report. "The question, then, of whether my father suffered from the beginning stages of Alzheimer's while in office more or less answers itself," Ron Reagan writes, according to the column."
- We don't know how to break it to anyone who hasn't figured it out by now, but women ARE in combat and have been for a decade because policy doesn't get the job done, people who can think and act in a practical way, however, do. A military advisory commission is recommending that the Pentagon do away with a policy that bans women from serving in combat units, breathing new life into a long-simmering debate. ... Though thousands of women have been involved in the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have done so while serving in combat support roles - as medics, logistics officers and so on - because defense policy prohibits women from being assigned to any unit smaller than a brigade whose primary mission is direct combat on the ground. On Friday, a special panel was meeting to polish the final draft of a report that recommends the policy be eliminated "to create a level playing field for all qualified service members." ... If it were approved by the Defense Department, it would be yet another sizeable social change in a force that in the past year has seen policy changes to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly for the first time in the military and to allow Navy women to serve on submarines for the first time."
- Kids these days A Florida four-year-old called 9-1-1 because he wanted to get a message to Santa to put his dad on the "naughty" list. The operator sent a cruiser by to make sure that there was no criminal activity going on, and we're sure that the cops who got the call had quite a chuckle when they told Dad that Jr. had called to rat him out to Santa. Nothing nefarious was afoot, the kid was just mad at his dad, probably because Dad was doing his job and making him behave.
- Why stop with one boondoggle that will never work? Zero out the budget for missile defense too. "The Obama administration on Friday ended a high-tech southern border fence plan that cost taxpayers nearly $1 billion but did little to improve security. Congress ordered the high-tech fence in 2006 amid a clamor over the porous border, but the project yielded only 53 miles of protection. ... Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the lesson of the multimillion-dollar program is there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution for border security. ... Napolitano said the department's new technology strategy for securing the border is to use existing, proven technology tailored to the distinct terrain and population density of each region of the nearly 2,000-mile U.S-Mexico border. That would provide faster technology deployment, better coverage and more bang for the buck, she said. ... Although it has been well known that the virtual fence project would be dumped, Napolitano officially informed key members of Congress Friday that an "independent, quantitative, science-based review made clear" the fence, known as SBInet, "cannot meet its original objective of providing a single, integrated border security technology solution.""
- Our feckless congress, beholden to "Big Awl" refuses to get with the green energy program and screws our kids and grandkids in the process. "Aided by at least $43 million in assistance from the government of Massachusetts and an innovative solar energy technology, Evergreen Solar emerged in the last three years as the third-largest maker of solar panels in the United States. ... But now the company is closing its main American factory, laying off the 800 workers by the end of March and shifting production to a joint venture with a Chinese company in central China. Evergreen cited the much higher government support available in China. ... The factory closing in Devens, Mass., which Evergreen announced earlier this week, has set off political recriminations and finger-pointing in Massachusetts. And it comes just as President Hu Jintao of China is scheduled for a state visit next week to Washington, where the agenda is likely to include tensions between the United States and China over trade and energy policy. "
- The next time a wingnut snorts something about dead people voting for Democrats, point out that dead people also give scads of money to tea party front groups. "The California-based Tea Party Express has been getting donations from a dead woman for more than two years, records released Friday showed. ... Joan Snyder Holmes died of cancer on Feb. 1, 2007, but gave the Our Country Deserves Better PAC, the group's political action committee, donations totaling $2,500 in 2009, according to research by the Center for Responsive Politics. ... In Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, the PAC reported receiving an additional lump sum donation of $5,000 in September. ... The FEC has no record of Joan Holmes making any reportable contributions to campaigns or political committees prior to her death."
- Maybe he wasn't aware there would be an open bar? "This week, House Speaker John Boehner raised eyebrows by turning down an offer to ride on Air Force One with President Obama and others headed to a memorial service in Tucson. Instead, he appeared at a reception for Republican operative Maria Cino. Now, on the heels of renewed calls for bipartisanship and toned-down political rhetoric, Boehner is saying "thanks, but no thanks" to another offer to appear at an event with the president - Wednesday's White House state dinner. ... The dinner, honoring the Chinese President Hu Jintao, will pull together leaders on both sides of the aisle, along with celebs, CEOs, Cabinet members, Supreme Court justices and media bigwigs. ... A Boehner aide confirmed that the House speaker was invited to the dinner but will not be attending. Boehner also turned down invitations to the previous two state dinners held during Obama's presidency, one honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November 2009, and the most recent state dinner honoring Mexican President Felipe Calderon in May 2010, the aide said."
- History revealed in the wood. An extensive study of tree growth rings says there could be a link between the rise and fall of past civilisations and sudden shifts in Europe's climate. A team of researchers based their findings on data from 9,000 wooden artifacts from the past 2,500 years. They found that periods of warm, wet summers coincided with prosperity, while political turmoil occurred during times of climate instability. The findings have been published online by the journal Science. "Looking back on 2,500 years, there are examples where climate change impacted human history," co-author Ulf Buntgen, a paleoclimatologist at the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape, told the Science website. The team capitalised on a system used to date material unearthed during excavations. "Archaeologists have developed oak ring width chronologies from Central Europe that cover nearly the entire Holocene and have used them for the purpose of dating artefacts, historical buildings, antique artwork and furniture," they wrote. "Chronologies of living and relict oaks may reflect distinct patterns of summer precipitation and drought." "