CNN Allows Captain Obvious to Write Headlines

| Wed Sep. 5, 2007 10:28 AM PDT

CNN headline for an AP story:

"Men want hot women, study confirms."

Note that other outlets found more informative ways to summarize the article. From "Women choosy, men competitive in picking mates." From the Tacoma News-Tribune: "Dating study finds superficial guys, choosy ladies."

Tomorrow on CNN: "Parents love children, study shows" and "Americans overweight, census data indicate."

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Hooray for Beard Team USA!

| Wed Sep. 5, 2007 10:19 AM PDT

If you are, like me, devastated that you missed the World Beard and Moustache Championships in England last weekend, despair no longer: You can find pictures on Time's website. The sideburns freestyle competitor alone makes it worth a look.

In case you're wondering, which you obviously are, how Beard Team USA did, they made our country proud and picked up a few awards. You can read about it on their blog. (Yes, really.)

Bill Clinton, Still the Charmer-in-Chief

| Wed Sep. 5, 2007 9:08 AM PDT

Politico has a wonderful little article on Bill Clinton today. There's almost no analysis, just the sights and sounds of Bill Clinton wandering a state fair while ostensibly campaigning for his wife. Take a look if you'd like. Here's a neat moment.

At the state fair, Bill finally makes his way to where Hillary and her press corps are waiting, in a shed with enormous pumpkins the size of beanbag chairs. The blue-ribbon-winning pumpkin is an incredible 1,004 pounds.
I ask Bill Clinton if the famous watermelons in Hope, Ark., his hometown, ever get this big.
"Watermelons don't get this big," he says. "Last one I saw was some 270 pounds. That's a big watermelon."
He talks about pumpkins and watermelons — are you surprised that he knows about pumpkins and watermelons? — and how these competition fruits cannot have any holes or breaks in the skin.
"It's seeds plus soil plus care," he says. "Too much water and the skin breaks and you are eliminated. Use too little, and somebody beats you. It is about constant judgment. Like the presidency. Make it as big as you can without breaking the skin."

I don't know what that means exactly, but I'm pretty sure if I had been there and Bill Clinton had said it to me, I'd have immediately written it down like it was a brilliant Yoda-esque koan.

Larry Craig Badly Deluded About Future Prospects

| Wed Sep. 5, 2007 8:11 AM PDT

Larry Craig sure isn't making this easy on the GOP. I'm sure Republican leadership in Congress wants ol' Wide Stance out of the public eye as quickly as possible, but with Craig fueling new rumors almost daily that he is reconsidering his resignation (is that allowed?), it looks like this sordid drama might be drawn out for a while.

From what can be deciphered from news reports, it appears Sen. Arlen Specter made a courtesy phone call to Craig after Craig announced his intention to resign, just to tell the disgraced Idaho senator to keep his chin up. Craig interpreted that as meaning he has the support of his colleagues (which he doesn't). He may hold off on giving up his seat while he seeks to have his conviction overturned.

Now, it's unclear why Larry Craig wants to undo his guilty plea so he can take this case to court, because a public hearing is only going to put the senator's conduct, which is already a joke, under harsher light. Everyone familiar with the details of cruising seems to say Craig followed the patterns of a man seeking anonymous gay sex perfectly.

Maybe that's why Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had this to say about the will-resign-won't-resign rumors: "I think the episode is over. We'll have a new senator from Idaho at some point in the next month or so, and we're going to move on."

New(-ish) Music: Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators

| Tue Sep. 4, 2007 10:29 PM PDT

Because of the holiday weekend and a jaunt to DJ down in LA, I thought I'd take a week off from the Top Ten Stuff 'n' Things. But don't fret, Riff readers, I've still got lots to say about new music, I'll just post about it randomly.

Keep Reachin' Up
My first exposure to Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators was via their single, "If This Ain't Love." At first it's easy to lump the track into the current neo-soul trend with Amy Winehouse and her backing-band-sharing compadre Sharon Jones. With Willis' silky-smooth voice and the jazzy backing track (not to mention the retro album cover), "Love" seems like a straightforward throwback at first listen; but closer attention shows there's more going on here.

"If This Ain't Love"

The track's minor-seventh piano chords and unexpected melodic twists are unabashedly modern, and the flute solo at the end verges on psychedelia. This is retro, but set entirely in the present.

Afghan Women Lack Rights and Access to Courts

| Tue Sep. 4, 2007 4:12 PM PDT

In a country where an estimated 60 to 80 percent of marriages are arranged—often to settle blood feuds and debts—and 57 percent of marriages are between a man and a young girl under the age of 16, there have been some half-hearted attempts over the past few years to introduce more just laws in order to give girls and women a stronger voice. These laws include raising the minimum age of a marrying girl and one that grants women the right to file for a divorce if her husband is absent for more than four years. Thousands of women have been abandoned by men who left them due to the economic insecurity, unemployment, and violence in their home towns.

But practices don't always mirror what's on paper: The Supreme Court has conservative ties that, in the past, have led them to uphold stringent measures. Recently, the Court upheld the marriage of a man and a nine-year-old girl. The justice system hasn't been kind to Afghan women either: A recent United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report found that there are currently around 300 female prisoners and that "many women who find themselves in the criminal justice system cannot be defined as criminals...most having been imprisoned for 'moral crimes.'"

And lack of access to courts creates a barrier to justice as well. Afghan courts are found in cities, but nearly 80 percent of Afghanistan's population lives in rural areas. Even for the few women who are able to turn to the courts, the outcome of their cases is often not desired. Afghan courts still favor men, especially in abuse and custody cases, whereby social and family connections are the deciding factor. Women are rarely granted divorce and many that want a divorce won't turn to the courts because of the social taboo associated with them.

Unbearable marriages, contentious relationships with in-laws, and feeling as though they have nowhere to go have led many Afghan women to turn to suicide. In the past six months, more than 250 have committed suicide, many using the painful method of self-immolation.

In the July/August issue of Mother Jones, photographer Lana Šlezić explores the issues facing Afghan women and the prevalence of suicide by self-immolation in her photo essay "The Hidden Half."

—Neha Inamdar

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Klaxons Win Mercury Prize

| Tue Sep. 4, 2007 3:06 PM PDT

In a surprise upset, London-based trio The Klaxons have won the Mercury Music Prize for best British album of the year, moments ago at a ceremony in their hometown. The band were dubbed "new rave" by snarky critics who took their often sci-fi or mystical references (and somewhat danceable beats) as a sign of the return of ecstasy and glowsticks, I guess. However, the band's debut album, Myths of the Near Future, is actually far more complex and textured than such a description might imply. "Gravity's Rainbow" is an intense, bass-led track reminiscent of Bloc Party, while "Golden Skans" is more acoustic, with its falsetto refrain of "ooh-ee-oohs," although just as urgent. It's a very good album, but the best one from a British artist this year? Well, sorry, Bat For Lashes!

Pope Issues Plea for the Earth at First-Ever 'Green' Youth Rally

| Tue Sep. 4, 2007 3:03 PM PDT

Yesterday, The Catholic Church's first eco-friendly youth rally featured a plea from Pope Benedict for humans to make "courageous choices" that will help save the earth "before it is too late."

The rally, held in Italy, lasted through the weekend and attracted nearly half a million attendees. Usually a crowd of that size would create a huge amount of environmentally unfriendly garbage, but not so in this case. Participants were issued kits including a recyclable backpack and color-coded trash bags to organize personal recyclables, and meals were served on biodegradable plates.

And They're Off!

| Tue Sep. 4, 2007 2:37 PM PDT

Following on Jonathan's summary of the GAO report findings, I attended the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting this afternoon in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Senator Kerry presided over the meeting, joined by colleagues Lugar, Feingold, and Hagel, among others. Testifying was U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker, who led GAO staff in preparing the report.

Microphones continually cut out as the senators expressed their frustration with how poorly things are going in Iraq. The question was put to Walker repeatedly of whether recent progress in Anbar province would be sustainable in the absence of U.S. troops. The general feeling appeared to be no. Walker did not argue the point.

It was striking how uniform the senators were in their pessimism. Only Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota, challenged Walker on his findings. Coleman, who had just returned from Baghdad after spending the weekend with General Petraeus, said that the general had shown him data suggesting the number of enemy attacks declined during the month of August. Kerry interrupted, pointing out that, historically, the month of August is usually quiet. Coleman responded that the numbers he had seen in Baghdad were undeniable and compensated for any seasonal fluctuation in insurgent activity. Walker admitted that he had not seen the numbers for August (despite requesting them), but that anecdotal information suggested that there was no discernible downturn in the overall number of attacks.

Aside from Coleman, however, the senators did not argue against GAO's findings. If anything, they pushed Walker further. Lugar said that, by all appearances, the Iraqis don't seem to want to be part of a unified Iraq. If true, he said, "then we have an awesome problem." Later, Hagel asked whether the Iraqi government could be described as functional, whether it could defend, support, and govern itself. Walker's response: "I think I would have to say it's dysfunctional. The government is dysfunctional."

It was then that I saw what appeared to be an Iraqi diplomat, who had been sitting quietly in the back of the room, get up and leave.

More hearings on the GAO report tomorrow...

GAO Report Now Available: Iraqi Gov't Meets 3 of 18 Benchmarks

| Tue Sep. 4, 2007 2:16 PM PDT

The GAO report on the Iraqi government is out (background here). Key results: At the end of August, the Iraqi government had met three, had partially met four, and had not met 11 of 18 legislative, security, and economic benchmarks.

Benchmarks met:

  • Establishing supporting political, media, economic, and services committees in support of the Baghdad security plan.
  • Establishing all of the planned joint security stations in neighborhoods across Baghdad.
  • Ensuring that the rights of minority political parties in the Iraqi legislature are protected.

Benchmarks partially met:

  • Enacting and implementing legislation on procedures to form semi-autonomous regions.
  • Providing three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations.
  • Ensuring that, according to President Bush, Prime Minister Maliki said ''the Baghdad security plan will not provide a safe haven for any outlaws, regardless of [their] sectarian or political affiliation.''
  • Allocating and spending $10 billion in Iraqi revenues for reconstruction projects, including delivery of essential services, on an equitable basis.

Benchmarks not met:

  • Forming a Constitutional Review Committee and then completing the constitutional review.
  • Enacting and implementing legislation on de-Ba'athification.
  • Enacting and implementing legislation to ensure the equitable distribution of hydrocarbon resources of the people of Iraq without regard to the sect or ethnicity of recipients, and enacting and implementing legislation to ensure that the energy resources of Iraq benefit Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, Kurds, and other Iraqi citizens in an equitable manner.
  • Enacting and implementing legislation establishing an Independent High Electoral Commission, provincial elections law, provincial council authorities, and a date for provincial elections.
  • Enacting and implementing legislation addressing amnesty.
  • Enacting and implementing legislation establishing a strong militia disarmament program to ensure that such security forces are accountable only to the central government and loyal to the Constitution of Iraq.
  • Providing Iraqi commanders with all authorities to execute this plan and to make tactical and operational decisions, in consultation with U.S. commanders, without political intervention, to include the authority to pursue all extremists, including Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.
  • Ensuring that the Iraqi security forces are providing even-handed enforcement of the law.
  • Reducing the level of sectarian violence in Iraq and eliminating militia control of local security.
  • Increasing the number of Iraqi security forces' units capable of operating independently.
  • Ensuring that Iraq's political authorities are not undermining or making false accusations against members of the Iraqi security forces.