U.S. Airstrike Kills Afghan Police Members; Local Officials Say 16 Died

An Afghan policeman holds a rocket-propelled grenade during an ongoing battle with Taliban militants in the Gereshk district of Helmand province Saturday. A U.S. airstrike killed 16 policemen in the area on Friday, local officials said.

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Noor Mohammad/AFP/Getty Images

Afghan officials say 16 members of the Afghan National Security Forces died in a U.S. airstrike Friday, during operations against Taliban fighters in southern Helmand province. The U.S. says it is investigating the circumstances that led to the mistake.

Afghan media report that 16 members of the security force died, citing local government officials. Although a U.S. statement acknowledging the strike did not specify the number of casualties, a Pentagon spokesman later put the figure at from 12-15 deaths.

The strike hit Afghans who were in a compound that local media describe as a security outpost in a village that had come under attack by the Taliban in the Gereshk district.

From Islamabad, NPR’s Diaa Hadid reports, “The position had just been hit by airstrikes to repel Taliban fighters. An Afghan journalist in Kabul who covered the incident says local forces then rushed in and were hit by another NATO strike.”

“The U.S. Marines guiding the strike Friday afternoon in Gereshk district, thought the men gathered in the compound were Taliban, not police,” Jennifer Glasse reports from Kabul for NPR’s Newscast unit. “The checkpoint they were inspecting had changed hands a number of times during days of fighting in the south. The son of the Taliban’s leader Abdul Rahman Khalid helped launch the Taliban offensive Thursday, blowing himself up in a car bomb.”

In a statement about the strike, U.S. Forces Afghanistan said, “We would like to express our deepest condolences to the families affected by this unfortunate incident.”

Local media outlet Pajhwok News reports that two commanders were among the policemen killed.

“The strike comes during a period of already poor morale among Afghan forces fighting for the government,” Diaa says. “But U.S. airpower is key to helping the Afghan government stay its ground. Afghan forces are struggling to hold areas that U.S.-led troops helped take from the Taliban.”

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NAACP Holds First Trump-Era Convention With No National Leader

Attendees stand behind a sign with the NAACP’s logo at a 2015 rally in Washington, D.C. The civil rights group is holding its annual convention in Baltimore this year.

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Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Members of the oldest civil rights organization in the U.S., the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, are heading into their annual meeting with no national leader and no speaker from the White House. The meeting starts Saturday in Baltimore.

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that for the second year President Trump declined the NAACP’s invitation to speak at the national convention, which has hosted both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush while they were in office. Trump skipped the event last year as a presidential candidate.

Sanders said that the Trump administration would like to have dialogue with the group. In a written statement, the chair of the NAACP’s national board of directors, Leon Russell, said they’re ready.

But he also added that Trump’s decision “underscores the harsh fact … we’ve lost the will of the current administration to listen to issues facing the Black community.”

Despite not appearing on the convention’s schedule as a speaker, Trump is expected to be a main topic of discussion, especially during sessions how activists can strategize under his administration.

Besides voting rights, policing and criminal justice reform, another major focus for members will be who will take over as the NAACP’s next president and CEO. The group’s most recent leader, Cornell Brooks, stepped down a few weeks ago after its national board of directors decided to not renew his contract.

It’s not clear when the NAACP will announce its next leader. For now, Russell is helping to run the organization, which is set to launch a national listening tour. The tour starts in Detroit in August followed by San Antonio in September and then will go to five additional cities. Russell says he wants to hear from NAACP members and other activists around the country.

“What we’re doing is giving them an opportunity to have input,” he says. “We want the entire organization to buy into supporting our leadership going forward.”

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Fresh Air Weekend: Billy Bragg On Skiffle; 'Crime And Punishment In Black America'

Billy Bragg says he initially pursued songwriting as a way to escape working in the local car factory.

Andy Whale/Courtesy of Faber & Faber

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Andy Whale/Courtesy of Faber & Faber

Fresh Air Weekend highlights some of the best interviews and reviews from past weeks, and new program elements specially paced for weekends. Our weekend show emphasizes interviews with writers, filmmakers, actors and musicians, and often includes excerpts from live in-studio concerts. This week:

Billy Bragg On Skiffle, The Movement That Brought Guitar To British Radio: The singer describes skiffle as “a bunch of British school boys in the mid ’50s playing Lead Belly’s repertoire … on acoustic guitars.” Bragg’s new book is Roots, Radicals And Rockers.

How Black Leaders Unwittingly Contributed To The Era Of Mass Incarceration: James Forman Jr., son of civil rights activists, says that African-American leaders seeking to combat drugs and crime often supported policies that disproportionately targeted the black community.

You can listen to the original interviews here:

Billy Bragg On Skiffle, The Movement That Brought Guitar To British Radio

How Black Leaders Unwittingly Contributed To The Era Of Mass Incarceration

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What Really Happened At That Robotics Competition You've Heard So Much About

The DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. was transformed into a competitive robotics arena, when teenagers from 157 countries gathered for the FIRST Global Challenge on July 17.

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Liam James Doyle/NPR

This week a highly-anticipated robotics competition for 15- to 18-year-olds from 157 countries ended the way it began — with controversy.

On Wednesday, the team from the violence-torn east African country of Burundi went missing. Well before the competition even began, the teams from Gambia and Afghanistan made headlines after the U.S. State Department denied them visas. Eventually, they were allowed to compete.

The team from Honduras tend to their robot creation in preparation for competition.

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Liam James Doyle/NPR

The drama marred an otherwise upbeat event focused on kids and robots.

Every team arrived with a robot in tow, each built with the exact same components, but designed, engineered and programmed differently. The goal: to gobble up and sort blue and orange plastic balls representing clean water and contaminated water.

For two days, teenagers — rich and poor, male and female — competed on a level playing field.

Pictured top-left going clockwise, Brendan Alinquant of Ireland, Andrea Tera¡n of Mexico, Helder Mendonca of Mozambique, twins Rinat and Shir Hadad of Israel, Sarah Lockyer of Australia and Anis Eljorni of Libya.

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Liam James Doyle/NPR

But there were reminders that in some parts of the world there is no such thing as a level playing field. And no team understood that better than Team Hope, made up of Syrian refugees who’ve fled to Lebanon.

As Fadil Harabi, the team’s mentor, pointed out, “more than 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon don’t have legal status. They don’t have passports.”

Getting passports for the team, Harabi said, turned out to be a lot more complicated than building a robot.

Competing teams created robots with the goal to gobble up and sort blue and orange plastic balls, which represented clean water and contaminated water, respectively.

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Liam James Doyle/NPR

Team Hope’s robot didn’t do very well, but every time the Syrian kids competed, they attracted a crowd that would clap and chant, “Team Hope, Team Hope!”

For Colleen Johnson 18, a member of the all-girl U.S. team, that’s what this event was all about.

“Everybody here is working together, loaning each other batteries, tools, helping each other fix programming issues to lift each other up,” she said.

Still, the technology gap between poor and rich nations was evident. For team Honduras though, that gap is due to the lack of opportunity, not just the lack of resources.

Competitors from Team Hope, center in black, test the performance of their robot in a designated practice area. The unique team was comprised of Syrian refugees who had fled to Lebanon.

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Liam James Doyle/NPR

“Honduras is a country where there aren’t many opportunities,” explained the team’s leader, 17-year-old Daniel Marquez.

Marquez and his teammates all came from a tiny village, a seven-hour drive — and world away — from Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. Not a single member of the team had ever handled a remote control, let alone built a robot.

“But the world today demands that we understand technology,” said Melissa Lemus, one of two girls on the Honduran team.

As the competition entered its third and final day, I checked in on Afghanistan’s all-girl team. It seemed they had grown weary of the media frenzy around them.

Speaking through a translator, 15-year-old Lida Azizi said she was disappointed that her teammates’ skills, and the robot they built, had gotten a lot less attention than the team’s visa problems, which nearly kept them out of the competition.

The Afghan team’s consolation prize: a medal for “courageous achievement,” and knowing that they placed much higher than countries like Canada, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

Top honors went to Team Europe, Poland and Armenia.

The all-girls team of competitors from Afghanistan worked together to build their robot. The team faced adversity when the U.S. State Department initially denied them visas.

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Liam James Doyle/NPR

The awards ceremony and closing ceremony felt like one big party, not so much a goodbye. It was a celebration with a hopeful message delivered by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim:

“You are the first generation in human history that can end extreme poverty in the world,” Kim said. “And from what I saw of these robots, I know you can do it.”

His message was not lost: Intelligence and talent with a moral vision have no race, nationality, religion or gender.

Competitors Ryan Lee, right, and Youngmo Koo of South Korea passed the time by playing a video game.

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Liam James Doyle/NPR

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Sing Different: Steve Jobs' Life Becomes An Opera

Edward Parks, who plays Steve Jobs, and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.

Ken Howard/Courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera

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Ken Howard/Courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera

Mark Campbell is one of the most prolific and celebrated librettists in contemporary American opera. But, as he recently told an audience at the Guggenheim Museum, not everyone thought his latest project was a good idea.

“I’ve had a number of socialist friends of mine saying, ‘Why would you write an opera about Steve Jobs? He was the worst capitalist!’ ” he said.

Campbell’s response to those naysayers? ” ‘Reach in your pocket — you probably have an iPhone there.’ “

Jobs has been the subject of movies and books, and now the Apple co-founder’s life has also become the stuff of opera. A decade after Apple released its first smartphone, The (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs premieres Saturday on the stage of the Santa Fe Opera.

Even Campbell was initially skeptical of the idea, which came from 40-year-old composer Mason Bates. Bates was convinced that in Jobs’ “complicated and messy” life, he’d found the right subject for his very first opera.

“He had a daughter he didn’t acknowledge for many years; he had cancer — you can’t control that,” Bates says. “He was, while a very charismatic figure, quite a hard-driving boss. And his collisions with the fact that he wanted to make everything sleek and controllable — yet life is not controllable — is a fascinating topic for an opera.”

The (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs shifts back and forth in time over the course of 18 scenes. Its fragmented, non-linear narrative was a deliberate choice by Campbell and Bates, who wanted to reflect Jobs’ personality and psyche. “Steve Jobs did have a mind that just jumped from idea to idea to idea — it was very quick,” Campbell says.

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Bates also created a different “sound world” to match each character. Jobs, for instance, played guitar and spent much of his life dealing with electronics, and so he “has this kind of busy, frenetic, quicksilver world of acoustic guitar and electronica,” Bates explains. On the other hand, he says, Jobs’ wife, Laurene Powell, inhabits a “completely different space, of these kind of oceanic, soulful strings.”

Other characters include Steve Wozniak, Jobs’ business partner, and the Japanese-born Zen priest Kobun Chino Otogawa, who led Jobs to convert to Buddhism and served as a mentor for much of his life. Otogawa’s “almost purely electronic” sound world makes use of prayer bowls and processed Thai gongs.

As often happens when his compositions premiere, Bates will be seated among the orchestra musicians, triggering sounds and playing rhythms from two laptops. And before you ask: Yes, they are Mac computers. (Bates is quick to note he’s not sponsored.)

Even the set echoes Jobs’ creations. After a prologue in the iconic garage where Jobs’ ideas first took shape, the garage walls explode into six moving cubes with screens that look a lot like iPhones. “We’re doing something called projection mapping, where all of the scenic units have little sensors, so the video actually moves with them,” opera director Kevin Newbury explains. “We wanted to integrate it seamlessly into the design because that’s what Steve Jobs and Apple did with the products themselves.”

Jobs’s design sensibilities were enormously influenced by Japanese calligraphy — including the ensō, a circle that depicts the mind being free to let the body create. Bates says that also figures in the opera’s title: The (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs, with the capital “R” in parentheses.

“Of course, there’s the revolution of Steve Jobs in his creations and his devices. There’s also the evolution from a countercultural hippie to a mogul of the world’s most valuable company,” Bates points out. “And there’s the revolution in a circle of Steve Jobs as he looks at the ensō, this piece of Japanese calligraphy, and finds that when he can kind of come full circle, he reaches the kind of completion that he sought so long in his life.”

That’s the side of Jobs this new opera explores: the way his life was marked by the struggle to find the balance between life’s imperfections and his drive to create the perfect thing.

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Former Child Bride Is Pedaling Her Way To A Brighter Future

Jenipher Sanni with the bike she used to get to and from school.

Courtesy of Jenipher Sanni

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Courtesy of Jenipher Sanni

At 14, Jenipher Sanni married a man who already had a wife and kids. He yelled at her a lot. She dropped out of school.

Now 20, she’s left her husband and is a newly minted high school graduate. And she’s helping girls in her community stay in school.

This week, she was in Washington, D.C., to share her story with 300 girl advocates from around the world at the Girl Up Leadership Summit, an annual event organized by the U.N. Foundation. It was her first trip to the U.S. and the first time traveling outside of Malawi.

At the summit, she spoke about the importance of ending child marriage and participated in a lobbying day that introduced the girls to U.S. senators and representatives.

“She’s an example of what community participation can do for girls,” says Dorothy Nyasulu, an assistant representative with the United Nations Population Fund Malawi who traveled to Washington with Sanni.

According to the U.N., about half of girls in Malawi — including Sanni — marry before they turn 18.

“Getting [married] at 14 years in our community, it is not so strange. Because some people see [it] as normal,” as part of the culture,” says Sanni. “It’s not good.”

Sanni knows from experience. When she was 14, she married a man with two children from another wife.

“He was shouting always at me,” she says.

She stopped going to school because she got married, she says. But she didn’t stay in the marriage long.

A local mothers’ group encouraged her to leave her husband and go back to school. She left him when she was 15.

After missing one school year, she went back with support from the U.N. Joint Programme on Adolescent Girls, funded by the UNFPA.

“[They] rescued me from marriage and put me back to school,” she says, adding that they paid for her books, bags and school fees. It’s a big help. Although the fees are just $10 for a three-month term, her mom, who is single and doesn’t work, struggles to find them enough food to eat.

And then there’s her commute. Sanni had to walk about 2 miles to get to school, and then walk home at the end of the day. Some of her friends had even longer walks — more than 3 miles each way, she says.

A bike she received from the SchoolCycle program in 2015 made it much faster for her to get to and from school.

“Before I got the bicycle, my performance in school was poor,” she says. “After receiving the bicycle, my performance in school, it has improved.”

She just finished Form 4 — the equivalent of her senior year of high school. She’s waiting to see how she did on exams. If all goes well, she hopes to attend university. She dreams of becoming a nurse or a teacher.

Sanni mentors other young girls as part of the Malawi Girl Guides Association. She meets with them to discuss topics like leadership — and how to manage their periods when there’s no running water at school.

And she tells them to stay in school and not get married, because she doesn’t want them to suffer as she did.

Jenipher Sanni at the Girl Up Summit in Washington, D.C.

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Shuyao Chen/NPR

Sanni says she’s noticed that people in her community are becoming more aware of the importance of education for girls. When she started secondary school, there were only two girls in Form 4. The next year, there were six. In her class there were 25 girls.

Changes in Malawi’s laws are also “a step in the right direction,” Nyasulu says. The president of Malawi signed a constitutional amendment in April that changed the legal age of marriage to 18. Previously, girls could legally marry at 15 with parental consent.

But Nyasulu doesn’t expect to see changes immediately.

“Passing legislation is one thing. Having it implemented is yet another,” she says. She’s meeting with local leaders to make that happen.

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Life Lessons (With Zombies) In 'Minecraft: The Island'

Minecraft the Island

Okay, let’s get this out of the way right from the start. The Island, the new book by Max Brooks (yeah, the guy who wrote World War Z, the very good zombie book that got turned into that not-very-good Brad Pitt movie) is about Minecraft. The video game Minecraft.

And not a non-fiction book about the creation of Minecraft and its impact on society. Not a guide to playing Minecraft (although, in a weird way, it kind of is). It’s a novel, set in the Minecraft universe.

I think it’s important to say that, because right up until I opened it, I kinda didn’t believe that’s what it was going to be. I don’t know why. Brooks has done all kinds of things in his career (novels, non-fiction, G.I. Joe comics, a straight-faced guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse). But for some reason, I just didn’t believe he’d go all in and make The Island what it is — an officially-sanctioned story about a person (nameless) who somehow (never explained) ends up inside a world that works by the rules of Minecraft. Ends up in the game, for lack of a more artful way to put it — an exhausted trope that has existed since Tron. Since the dawn of video games.

But beyond that, The Island is one of four things, depending on who’s reading it. If you’re a grumpy adult, devoid of imagination, who picked this book up just because you recognized Max Brooks’s name on the cover, it’s a massive piece of fan fiction written by one of the most famous authors on the scene. It’s fun, in its way, but you’re gonna get bored (or annoyed, or both) very quickly.

If you’re a weird book critic who (maybe, sometimes) reads WAY too much into things, The Island is a fascinating experiment in worldbuilding and storytelling. To see an author like Brooks forced to work within the strictures of a universe that literally makes no physical sense — where even something as basic as eating comes with its own set of rules that are fundamentally nonsensical and different than ours here on Earth Prime — is to see all the spokes and gears of craft exposed. I liked the thing purely as a master’s thesis on internal consistency in genre literature.

If you’re a kid — a Minecraft freak, or maybe just someone who’s curious and likes a good story — it’s a rollicking adventure yarn; Robinson Crusoe for the digital age. You actually don’t even have to know anything about the game to like it. Everything’s laid out for you on the page, from the odd physics to the creepers. Plus, there are exploding cows and poop jokes so, you know, good fun.

And finally, if you’re a parent considering whether or not this is appropriate summer reading material for the pint-sized nerds in your life, you should know that the entire thing is structured as a clever series of life lessons, couched in language and an environment that will make it more palatable to children who maybe don’t like being lectured at for 200-some easy-reading pages.

This last is what I think Brooks wanted it to be. Most chapters start with a bit of sage (if broad) wisdom like “Panic Drowns Thought” or “Take Care Of Your Environment So It Can Take Care Of You.” The text then goes on to show this aphorism in action. “Take Life In Steps” is about planning before doing. “Everything Has A Price” becomes a discussion of the moral cost of killing animals for food. And at the end of the book, Brooks includes a list of life lessons he learned while playing Minecraft, just in case you missed what he was doing.

But the kids reading it? They’re not gonna notice, or not right away, anyhow. Brooks hides the medicine pretty well, and the pages zip along from action to complication to solution all in a fog of video game weirdness. It begins with the unnamed protagonist waking in the ocean, and swimming to a deserted island that operates by the clunky, cubist physics of the Minecraft world. The protagonist doesn’t understand how this happened. He understands none of the rules of this place, and must discover its laws and limitations through trial and error.

The twist here? The protagonist is very much human. Comes from our world, and reacts in a believable (if simple) way to being dropped into a universe where different physical laws apply. He experiences fear and anxiety and triumph. He befriends a cow and some sheep. He fights for his life and, by the end of things, emerges wiser and better prepared for moving on. It is the Hero’s Journey, Pocket Edition. A one-man Illiad.

And it even has some zombies in it. Because it just wouldn’t be a Max Brooks book without them.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic atPhiladelphiamagazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

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