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De-Stuffing the Holidays

| Fri Dec. 14, 2007 5:32 PM EST

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Winter solstice

In keeping with the revelations of The Story of Stuff, maybe you've decided to transition to a non-gift holiday? ChangingThePresent floats a few ideas for weaning the greedy:

For the wine connoisseur: ($10) Clear landmines in Afghanistan with Roots of Peace and replace them with grapevines. • For the karaoke junky ($5) Help 50,000 people improve their reading skills by providing Same Language Subtitling (SLS) on Bollywood film songs on TV through PlanetRead. Your gift provides 30 minutes of weekly reading practice to 50,000 people, for one year. • For the friend who never comes to your show: ($5) A bag of concrete. This gift through KaBOOM! will provide an 80 lb bag of concrete which will be used to anchor a swingset, slide, or climbing structure for kids to play on. • And more

Grist also suggests interesting de-stuff alternatives—though their carbon offsets are questionable, as are carbon offsets in general:

Write I.O.U.s: Dust off your babysitting, pet-care, housecleaning, gardening, snow-shoveling, or haircutting skills—whatever you've got—and make someone's day just a little bit easier. • Stop junk mail: Subscribe your gift recipient to a stop-the-junk-mail service like...

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Double Trouble: China and the U.S. Gang Up on the Environment

| Fri Dec. 14, 2007 4:20 PM EST

bali-conference.jpgChina and the U.S. have been quite the bosom buddies lately, both on economic and environmental issues. But is it any wonder? As we discussed in our current feature article, "The Last Empire," China's booming economy is based on a high-consumption, capitalist, American model.

The two countries recently pledged to "conduct extensive cooperation over a 10-year period to focus on technological innovation, adoption of clean technology and sustainable natural resources." The promise to adopt clean technology seems like nothing more than a false gesture, considering both China and the U.S. refused mandatory emissions cuts of 20 to 40 percent by 2020 at the U.N. climate change conference in Bali this week.

For more on this subject, continue reading this post on Mother Jones' environment and health blog, The Blue Marble.

License to Bill: Congress Cracks Down on Contractors

| Fri Dec. 14, 2007 4:13 PM EST

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This morning's Washington Post includes a front page story detailing alleged mismanagement and questionable expenditures by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), headed by Stuart W. Bowen, Jr., a former Bush adviser who has earned equal praise from Democrats and Republicans alike for his dogged approach to uncovering... well, mismanagement and questionable expenditures in the Iraq reconstruction.

According to the Post, Bowen's office is the target of at least three ongoing investigations, by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the Presidential Council on Integrity and Efficiency, and the U.S. Army's Equal Employment Opportunity Office. Echoing State Department Inspector General Howard "Cookie" Krongard's recent troubles, all three are said to have resulted from complaints brought by members of Bowen's own staff. Among the charges: that due to abuse of federal overtime policies, at least 10 staff members netted more than $250,000 last year (General Petraeus pulled down $174,900, by comparison); that Bowen's pursuit of a $3.5 million book project about the Iraq reconstruction became a financial sink hole; and that Bowen and his deputies reviewed employee emails without permission, allegedly to identify "who was loyal and who was not," according to one aggrieved staffer. Compounding the misery at SIGIR—which according to another employee quoted by the Post, is "gripped by paranoia" and has taken on "a siege mentality"—is the revelation earlier this year that the office's claim to have saved taxpayers $1.87 billion in reconstruction spending was not only untrue, but way, way off the mark: a new estimate last summer put the figure at just $95 million, or five percent of SIGIR's original claim.

Despite all this, the SIGIR model stands to be expanded in the latest version of the 2008 Defense Authorization Bill, which was passed by the House earlier this week and is now awaiting Senate approval before making its way to President Bush's desk. It would create a Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to "conduct, supervise and coordinate audits and investigations of the treatment, handling and expenditures of appropriated funds by the United States government, and of the programs, operations and contracts carried out utilizing such funds in Afghanistan in order to prevent and detect waste, fraud and abuse," according to the bill.

Late Night TV Hosts to Make United Return?

| Fri Dec. 14, 2007 3:59 PM EST

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And yes, that's really David Letterman up there on the left. Jeez. "Late Night With Beardy McSantapants?" Wow. Anyway, Variety is reporting that some or all of the big network late night hosts could be back on the air in early January, perhaps at the same time. Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Craig Ferguson have all stayed off the air since the beginning of the ongoing Writers Guild strike in support of their joke-penners, even paying the staffs out of their own pockets. But with the shows in reruns, ratings are taking a nose-dive, and the hosts are getting antsy:

Double Trouble: China and the U.S. Gang Up on the Environment

| Fri Dec. 14, 2007 3:17 PM EST

bali-conference.jpgChina and the U.S. have been quite the bosom buddies lately, both on economic and environmental issues. But is it any wonder? As we discussed in our current feature article, "The Last Empire," China's booming economy is based on a high-consumption, capitalist, American model.

Just yesterday, the two countries concluded the annual conference between high-ranking Chinese and American economic and environmental officials, the Sino-U.S. Strategic Economic Dialogue, in which they discussed economic policies for upcoming years. According to government-run Chinese newspaper Xinhua, during the talks the two countries set up Chinese manufacturing and inspection regulations to prevent mishaps like the tainted pet food and toy recalls. Xinhua also reports that "China and the United States agreed to conduct extensive cooperation over a 10-year period to focus on technological innovation, adoption of clean technology and sustainable natural resources."

The promise to adopt clean technology seems like nothing more than a false gesture, considering both China and the U.S. refused mandatory emissions cuts of 20 to 40 percent by 2020 at the U.N. climate change conference in Bali this week. (Japan, Russia, and several other countries also rejected mandatory emissions limits.) Instead, the U.S. suggested emissions cuts could be "voluntary." While such a response is typical for the Bush administration, it could potentially derail the Bali agreement entirely and basically tell any nation, including fast-developing ones like China and India, to keep on polluting.

European Union representatives have said they won't attend next month's American-led climate conference in Hawaii if the U.S. does not sign up for mandatory cuts because it would essentially be "meaningless."

Friday Have a Seat on the Lanai for Music News Day

| Fri Dec. 14, 2007 3:08 PM EST

Music News

  • The iTunes year-end charts should have been a warning: Billboard's official tally of the year's biggest-selling albums is out, and ladies and gentlemen, your #1 album of 2007 is: Daughtry. The "American Idol" guy. Rolling Stone points out that "in what has to be further proof that the recording industry had a terrible year," the top seven best-selling albums of 2007 were all released in 2006.

  • Perhaps due to this terrible year for the music industry, there's been a bit of a shakedown at major record labels, with Geffen and Interscope (both subsidiaries of Universal Music) laying off 15 employees yesterday; the last few weeks saw layoffs at Sony BMG and Island Def Jam as well. Rumors had been circulating that Geffen was about to close its doors but CMJ says now "that seems unlikely."
  • In an investigation into the still-unsolved murder of Jam Master Jay, MTV News uncovers a mystery about a missing security camera tape that might show the identity of the assailant or assailants; Jay's friend Randy Allen hinted in an interview that he knows the whereabouts of the tape but isn't talking.
  • Singer Tori Amos (or an alter ego?) had a bit of a fit at a gig in San Diego on Wednesday night, evicting two fans from the venue. "Get the f*** out of my show," Amos shouted, reportedly because the two women had been repeatedly getting up and down from their seats in the front row. "It's a privilege to sit in the front row and I reserve those seats for people who appreciate music," continued Amos. Ulp! Watch the excitement here:
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    Steroids: Why We Can't Live Without Them

    | Fri Dec. 14, 2007 1:17 PM EST

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    Alright, so there's steroids in baseball. With the Mitchell Report (spearheaded by former Senator George Mitchell, who is also on the board of directors of the Boston Red Sox) hitting the public yesterday, the world is aghast. This morning President Bush said both that, "My hope is that this report is a part of putting the steroid era of baseball behind us," and that "we can jump to this conclusion: that steroids have sullied the game."

    Say what?

    Steroids may be dangerous, and cheating, but make no mistake about it: The steroid era is what brought us increased revenues, fancy new stadiums, and a renewed interest in what, when Bush was owner of the Texas Rangers, was a serious flagging interest in America's favorite pastime.

    Predictions are now that the blacklisted players, 85 in all, will be summarily booed when they hit spring training (or the signing circuit). Glass houses, folks. The accused, surely not a comprehensive list, includes seven MVPs, two Cy Young Award winners, and 31 All-Stars. Remember, we the fans vote for All-Stars, so we essentially have been voting for steroids, cheering on the muscled, big-headed, giants who give us what we pay the big bucks for: home runs, strikeouts, monster moments.

    Text You and Everyone Who Looks Like You

    | Fri Dec. 14, 2007 11:56 AM EST

    Like K-Fed, one in seven people report having been dumped via text message or email. Another 4% simply cut off all communication. What a flock of cowards. Back in my day, we had a little something called integrity. Whatever happened to the old-fashioned backbone required for dumping someone via voicemail?

    You know the drill: call the loser's office - reception, not his direct line - to make sure he's at work. Then, fire up that fake, unplaceable accent normally reserved for dodging the collection agencies and student loan folks ("wha? who? no De-ba Deek-son he-ah. You got-ta baad num-ba. No De-ba he-ah. Call some more, me curse you whole fam-ly."). With him safely away for nine or so hours, bravely enumerate his failings and let his machine know exactly how dumped he is. Next, block his number or screen like a son of a gun whilst hiding at an out of town girlfriend's for a few days til you have enough contact attempts for a restraining order. But text and email? Ah, for the good old days of American forthrightness.

    Reason 4,321 To Hate Wal-Mart

    | Fri Dec. 14, 2007 11:50 AM EST

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    Panties found by a reader of Feministing.com in a North Carolina Wal-Mart—in the section that caters to 12-year-old girls.

    After Feministing posted the photo and it made its way through the blogosphere, Fox News reported on Wednesday that outraged parents had prompted Wal-Mart to pull the $2.96 panties off the shelves.

    Will Jeopardy Host's Heart Attack Make Him Stop Frontin'?

    | Fri Dec. 14, 2007 10:35 AM EST

    Jeopardy host Alex Trebek had a minor heart attack this week and is recovering at a LA hospital. Given that recovery, I might as well admit that I dislike Trebek. Intensely. I'm sure he's a great guy. So why do I always want to smack him on sight?

    Who does he think he is peering over those little half-glasses at the contestants, sniffing out the answers as if from his own brain and not those little index cards that underpaid liberal arts majors labored over for sub-union wages? No one else in Hollywood wears glasses in public; you know he's had laser correction and just wears those to fake being brainy. And that smarty-pants, high falutin' attitude when delivering the answers - what a poseur! This is America, you Canuck: the ability to read someone else's work aloud isn't much of an accomplishment. If they ever spin-off a medical Jeopardy, I guess he'll be fronting in couture scrubs with a stethoscope dangling from his neck. Imagine the hours he'd put in learning to pompously pronounce all those complicated words so he could pretend to be as smart as the contestants. Or his own staffers. Not even this killer X files cameo can make him bearable.

    I've never understood the allure of TV game/quiz shows, and Jeopardy even less since you have to endure Trebek's smug fakery to get to the questions.

    But, dude, get well soon.