Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for November 2015

How the Chicago Police Department tried to cover up a police execution

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Curtis Black reports in the Chicago Reporter:


It was just about a year ago that a city whistleblower came to journalist Jamie Kalven and attorney Craig Futterman out of concern that Laquan McDonald’s shooting a few weeks earlier “wasn’t being vigorously investigated,” as Kalven recalls. The source told them “that there was a video and that it was horrific,” he said.

Without that whistleblower—and without that video—it’s highly unlikely that Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke would be facing first-degree murder charges today.

“When it was first reported it was a typical police shooting story,” Kalven said, where police claim self-defense and announce an investigation, and “at that point the story disappears.” And, typically, a year or 18 months later, the Independent Police Review Authority confirms the self-defense claim, and “by then no one remembers the initial incident.”

“There are an average of 50 police shootings of civilians every year in Chicago, and no one is ever charged,” said Futterman. “Without the video, this would have been just one more of 50 such incidents, where the police blotter defines the narrative and nothing changes.”

Last December, Kalven and Futterman issued a statement revealing the existence of a dash-cam video and calling for its release.  Kalven tracked down a witness to the shooting, who said he and other witnesses had been “shooed away” from the scene with no statements or contact information taken.

In February, Kalven obtained a copy of McDonald’s autopsy, which contradicted the official story that McDonald had died of a single gunshot to the chest. In fact, he’d been shot 16 times—as Van Dyke unloaded his service weapon, execution style—while McDonald lay on the ground.

The next month, the City Council approved a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family, whose attorneys had obtained the video. They said it showed McDonald walking away from police at the time of the shooting, contradicting the police story that he was threatening or had “lunged at” cops. The settlement included a provision keeping the video confidential.

“The real issue here is, this terrible thing happened, how did our governmental institutions respond?” Kalven said.  “And from everything we’ve learned, compulsively at every level, from the cops on the scene to the highest levels of government, they responded by circling the wagons and by fabricating a narrative that they knew was completely false.”  To him this response is “part of a systemic problem” and preserves “the underlying conditions that allow abuse and shield abuse.”

In April, the Chicago Tribune revealed Van Dyke’s name and his history of civilian complaints—including several brutality complaints, one of which cost the city $500,000 in a civil lawsuit—none of which resulted in any disciplinary action. In May, Carol Marin reported that video from a security camera at a Burger King on the scene had apparently been deleted by police in the hours after the shooting.

“This case shows the operation of the code of silence in the Chicago Police Department,” said Futterman. “From the very start you have officers and detectives conspiring to cover up the story. The question is, why are they not being charged?”

Van Dyke’s history “also shows what happens when the police department consistently chooses not to look at patterns of abuse complaints when investigating misconduct charges,” he adds. This failure “is one of the reasons an officer like Van Dyke has an opportunity to execute a 17-year-old kid.”

Rather than acknowledging the systemic failures, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is now trying to frame the issue as the action of one bad officer, as the Tribune reports.  “One individual needs to be held accountable,” he said Monday.

Kalven calls Emanuel’s “reframing” of the narrative “essentially false.” He points out that “everything we know now, the city knew from Day One. They had the officers on the scene. They knew there were witnesses. They had the autopsy, they had the video…. They maintained a false narrative about those events, and they did it for a year, when it could have been corrected almost immediately….They spent a year stonewalling any calls for transparency, any information about the case.” . . .

Continue reading.

Apparently nothing whatsoever will be done to police who gave false testimony about what happened and the police who destroyed evidence. The problem goes well beyond the individual police officer who has been indicted on a murder charge: the entire department seems to have colluded in covering up the crime. We should see more charges: obstruction of justice, accessory after the fact, and so on.

In the Guardian, Brandon Smith presents the video and the story of how he filed suit to get the video. From the story:

. . . The arm of government that investigates police misconduct here in Chicago, the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), has found only one police shooting in the past five years to be “not justified”. This leaves all the others, nearly 400 shootings, to be considered “justified”. And it leaves the impression that police here sparkle with unicorn magic.

But communities of color know otherwise.

“It’s an all-out extermination campaign,” says William Calloway, my friend and the inspiration behind my initial FOIA request for the video. Before the lawsuit and before the request, Calloway told me that I should try to pry the video loose where a bunch of other news organizations (14, to be exact) had refused. As an activist, Calloway works with the families of victims of police violence.

“People need to know that Chicago has some of the most police shootings in America, and that more than 70% of them are perpetrated against people of color,” Calloway says, citing data uncovered by the Better Government Association and others. “People need to know that communities of color are policed differently, policed much more violently, than in predominantly white communities. And people need to know that police are not being held accountable. And all this needs to change.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel keeps implying that this incident is a one-off situation. But that’s wrong. And Emanuel hasn’t mentioned that others acted improperly that night, too. At least five other officers didn’t approach Laquan as he took his last breaths. Police deleted the parts of the surveillance tape from across the street that showed the murder. Witnesses have said that they were not interviewed about what they saw but rather told to leave at penalty of arrest.

Minutes later, police lied to a spokesperson preparing to brief reporters, saying that Laquan “lunged” at officers. (The video shows he was walking away from all officers.) And last but not least, an investigation into the shooting, led by Cook County state’s attorney Anita Alvarez, should have taken weeks at most – not 13 months. Lest we forget, video showed what happened.

Everyone responsible for these situations deserves charges ranging from obstruction of justice to accessory to murder. Emanuel has yet to say anything except to condemn officer Van Dyke. He spent the vast majority of the press conference he held Tuesday singing the nonspecific praises of our city and our police officers. Even the answers to reporters’ pointed questions somehow pivoted to how great we’re doing as a city – at a press conference called to discuss police violence. . .

Chicago’s response to this incident shows a stubborn unwillingness to confront the problem, a determination to minimize incidents by ignoring how the entire system protects police who shoot black civilians, including by lying about what happened, destroying evidence, refusing to take any action unless forced, and in general by exerting the maximum effort to keep the system intact as it is, even if an occasional officer must be sacrificed by being a scapegoat, the role forced upon Van Dyke.

Rahm Emanuel personifies the unwillingness to confront the problem and recognize its true dimensions. His response to this incident exemplifies bad faith and a craven reluctance to accept the responsibilities of his position.

UPDATE: Black leaders in Chicago are (rightly) pushing for an investigation of the police department. (Link is to a story in the NY Times.) Rahm Emanuel should be leading the push rather than resisting it.

Written by Leisureguy

26 November 2015 at 10:04 am

Sandalwood all the way, almost

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SOTD 26 Nov 2015

I don’t know why I have a tendency to put Trumper lids upside down for the photo, but there it is again.

The Semogue Owners Club brush is very gradually breaking in. If I used it daily, it would of course be long since broken in. This morning it made a good lather with the Geo. F. Trumper sandalwood soap, a pre-reformulation tub that normally performs perfectly well. But once again by the third pass the lather was gone. Could be a loading issue, but the brush really did seem fully loaded. I reloaded with Savannah Sunrise, which was close at hand, and found I liked that lather better.

The RazoRock Black Mamba is quite a good razor for me: it feels quite mild, but the result is efficient removal of all stubble, leaving a BBS result.

A splash of Saint Charles Shave’s Sandalwood, and Thanksgiving day is upon us. This year, rather than a lot of cooking, we are going to a local restaurant for their Thanksgiving dinner.

Hope your holidays are good.

Written by Leisureguy

26 November 2015 at 9:39 am

Posted in Shaving

Not a surprise: Koch brothers want to advance their own corporate interests, not reform the criminal justice system

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Dan Froomkin writes in The Intercept:

The New York Times on Wednesday reported the shocking news that the “rare coalition” on criminal justice reform that included liberal groups and the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers is falling apart.

But as The Intercept‘s Lee Fang wrote earlier this month, the ostensible alliance over liberalization of America’s criminal justice laws was based on a misunderstanding of the Koch brothers’ fundamental political goal.

That goal is, quite consistently, to advance their own corporate interests.

So, while the Kochs and the liberal groups used similar language in their critique of the criminal justice system, when it came down to actual legislation, the Kochs were focused on reducing criminal prosecutions of corporations, not people.

Koch and the House Republicans turned out to be pushing a bill that critics describe as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for white collar criminals.

Members of Washington’s elite media crave stories about bipartisanship, so groups like the pro-Clinton Center for American Progress garnered positive media attention for finding common ground with the Kochs earlier this year.

Now, CAP president Neera Tanden is issuing statements that “the bill is not aimed at addressing the aspects of the criminal justice system that are the drivers of mass incarceration and inequality and should not be part of any genuine discussion of criminal justice reform.” To the contrary, she says: “The bill would make it much more difficult to enforce bedrock regulatory safeguards—such as environmental, health, and consumer safety protections—and leave communities of color disproportionately vulnerable to unscrupulous, fraudulent, and predatory business practices that exacerbate existing inequality in our communities.”

There are some conservatives truly devoted to criminal justice reform – and there’s even a truly united left-right coalition on some specific criminal justice issues, like prison rape.

But, as Fang wrote, even while the Kochs were talking criminal justice reform, their money was notably continuing to finance election-year efforts that promote tough-on-crime politics.

Of the 38 federal lobbyists employed by Koch, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 November 2015 at 2:09 pm

Military presents results of its investigation of the attack on the MSF hospital

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Kevin Drum summarizes the report here.

I have to say the military’s story of what happened strains my credulity to the breaking point. I can see why the military and President Obama were so strongly opposed to an independent investigation, given that this is the best they could come up with. It is not believable. Too many routine procedures in a row violated by trained and experienced staff. Simply not believable, though if it had been an independentinvestigation, it might be credible. But the determination to keep independent investigators away has already released a bad odor. This silly story makes it worse.

If you think the story is true, then you still are left with the question of why was an independent investigation so strongly (and successfully) resisted? Normally that would be taken to mean that they were trying to hide something.

And it’s weird when the target cannot be found that they simply decide to pick some nearby building and blow it to hell. Really? They just pick something that’s in the neighborhood—in this case a large building with the lights on and a big Red Cross flag on the roof.

The military also does not address the phone call MSF made (and logged) to military headquarters at the very beginning of the attack to call the attack off. The attack continued. This is well described in this excellent column by Amy Davidson, based on the timely report by MSF>

The MSF response in the LA Times story is right on target:

. . . The summary did not answer all the questions about what went wrong, including whether the errors identified in the report constitute war crimes or why the crew opened fire when it appears they had reason to be uncertain about the target. [It also does not address the fact that the MSF immediately contacted military headquarters directly as soon as the attack began, but the attack continued for half an hour or more. – LG] Campbell did not take questions from reporters after his statement.

Doctors Without Borders, which had previously said the attack likely was a war crime, released a statement saying the report left “more questions than answers.”

“It is shocking that an attack can be carried out when U.S. forces have neither eyes on a target nor access to a no-strike list and have malfunctioning communications systems,” said the statement from the group, also known as MSF, its French acronym.

“It appears that 30 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of people are denied life-saving care in Kunduz simply because the MSF hospital was the closest large building to an open field and ‘roughly matched’ a description of an intended target,” the statement said.

“The frightening catalogue of errors outlined today illustrates gross negligence on the part of U.S. forces and violations of the rules of war,” the group said, repeating its call for an “independent and impartial investigation.” . . .

Written by Leisureguy

25 November 2015 at 1:06 pm

Posted in Daily life

Why Democrats lost the white South

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Kevin Drum has a very clear explanation, with some wrinkles new to me:

Modern conservatives are oddly fond of pointing out that it was Democrats who were the party of racism and racists until half a century ago. There’s always an implied “Aha!” whenever a conservative mentions this, as though they think it’s some little-known quirk of history that Democrats try to keep hidden because it’s so embarrassing.

It’s not, of course. Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president, and Republicans were the face of Reconstruction after the Civil War. Because of this, the South became solidly Democratic and stayed that way until World War II. But in the 1940s, southerners gradually began defecting to the Republican Party, and then began defecting en masse during the fight over the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

But wait: the 1940s? If Southern whites began defecting to the GOP that early, racism couldn’t have been their motivation. Aha!

But it was. The Civil Rights movement didn’t spring out of nothing in 1964, after all. Eleanor Roosevelt was a tireless champion of civil rights, and famously resigned from the DAR when they refused to allow singer Marian Anderson to perform at Constitution Hall in 1939. FDR was far more constrained by his need for Southern votes in Congress, but the WPA gave blacks a fair shake and Harold Ickes poured a lot of money into black schools and hospitals in the South. In 1941 FDR signed a nondiscrimination order for the defense industry—the first of its kind—and he generally provided African-Americans with more visibility in his administration than they had ever enjoyed before. After decades of getting little from Republicans despite their loyal support, this was enough to make blacks a key part of the New Deal Coalition and turn them into an increasingly solid voting bloc for the Democratic Party.

From a Southern white perspective, this made the Democratic Party a less welcoming home, and it continued to get less welcoming in the two decades that followed. Harry Truman integrated the military in 1948, and Hubert Humphrey famously delivered a stemwinding civil rights speech at the Democratic convention that year. During the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower was widely viewed—rightly or wrongly—as unsympathetic to civil rights. Conversely, LBJ was instrumental in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

In other words, Southern whites who wanted to keep Jim Crow intact had plenty of reasons to steadily desert the Democratic Party starting around World War II. By the early 60s . . .

Continue reading.

And do read the whole thing. Later:

. . . This history is what makes the conservative habit of pointing out that Democrats were the original racists so peculiar. It’s true, but it makes the transformation of the party even more admirable. Losing the South was a huge electoral risk, but Democrats took that risk anyway. That made it far more meaningful and courageous than if there had been no price to pay. . .

Written by Leisureguy

25 November 2015 at 11:58 am

The looting of Tyco—and it was indeed looted, pure and simple

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It’s on the same template as the way the Mafia reportedly takes over your restaurant, as a “partner” who steals everything not nailed down, takes out loans secured by the business, and leave it a broken, destroyed shell. Pam Martens and Russ Martens report in Wall Street on Parade in an article on how golden parachutes have gotten pathological:

On September 11, 2002, the Securities and Exchange Commission brought charges against the three top executives of Tyco International. The complaint began with this: “This is a looting case.”

The SEC charged that Tyco’s CEO, Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Schwartz, its CFO, “took hundreds of millions of dollars in secret, unauthorized and improper low interest or interest-free loans and compensation from Tyco.” The transactions were concealed from shareholders and, according to the SEC, “Kozlowski and Swartz later pocketed tens of millions of dollars by causing Tyco to forgive repayment of many of their improper loans” and “engaged in numerous highly profitable related party transactions with Tyco and awarded themselves lavish perquisites — without disclosing either the transactions or perquisites to Tyco shareholders.”

USA Today reported that the Manhattan apartment that Tyco had been providing to Kozlowski “includes a $6,000 shower curtain, coat hangers valued at $2,900, two sets of sheets for $5,960 and a $445 pincushion.”

The SEC also charged that the General Counsel of Tyco, Mark Belnick, a former partner of the corporate law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, “defrauded Tyco shareholders of millions of dollars through egregious self-dealing transactions.” According to the SEC, “from 1998 into early 2002, Belnick received approximately $14,000,000 in interest-free loans from Tyco to buy and renovate a $4,000,000 apartment on Central Park West and to buy and renovate a $10,000,000 ski chalet in Park City, Utah.” The SEC noted that “by failing to disclose his self-dealing to investors, Belnick violated the antifraud provisions of the federal securities laws.”

Kozlowski and Schwartz were eventually tried by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and sent to prison. (Both are out now.) Belnick was acquitted by a jury on fraud and larceny charges brought by the D.A. The jury believed that Belnick had internal company approvals for the loans. The SEC eventually settled its civil case against Belnick with a civil penalty in the amount of $100,000 and the prohibition that he not serve as an officer or director of a public company for a period of five years. He was allowed to retain his law license.

One of the most striking revelations in the Belnick case was the retention agreement Belnick had with Tyco. It guaranteed Belnick a payment of at least $10.6 million should he commit a felony and be fired before October 2003.

Another obscene Golden Parachute that came to light involved a Dow Jones Industrial Average blue chip company: General Electric.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 November 2015 at 11:51 am

This year’s winner of the Dance Your Ph.D. contest

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More information on the contest, with some of the runners up.

Written by Leisureguy

25 November 2015 at 8:46 am

Posted in Education, Science, Video

Two synthetic badger brushes, Mühle and RazoRock, and the DOC

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SOTD 25 Nov 2015

I was asked how the RazoRock Synthetic badger compared to the Mühle version known as Silverfiber, so I did a side by side comparison, using Strop Shoppe’s Péche shaving soap, one of her limited editions.

Both brushes perform extremely well and lathering was a breeze. (The soap itself helps a lot, of course.) The brushes are extremely close in feel on the face: both are soft with good resilience, both have ample capacity. The RazoRock felt a smidge softer, probably because the knot was not quite so densely packed as that of the Mühle, but if you used them on separate days, I doubt you could tell the difference. Since I like the feel of a soft brush on my face, I perhaps might favor the RazoRock, and certainly the price difference is noticeable: the RazoRock is $17, the Mühle substantially more (particularly in the US, where Mühle prices are so high it pays off to order from the UK or EU).

Well-lathered—twice—I picked up the Double Open Comb razor from Phoenix Artisan and set to work. A very nice shave, with a totally smooth result with no nicks at all.

A splash of Alt-Innsbruck—and I’m pretty sure this is the penultimate splash from this bottle—and I’m read for the day.


Written by Leisureguy

25 November 2015 at 8:26 am

Posted in Shaving

The big problem with electric cars: They’re too reliable.

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Perverse incentives abound when a company makes decision using profit as a metric. Kevin Drum blogs at Mother Jones:

Matt Richtel has an intriguing article today in the New York Times about electric cars. The question is: why aren’t they selling better? Is it because they have weak performance? Because they can only go a hundred miles on a charge? Because they’re expensive?

Those are all issues.1 But it turns out that people who want to buy an electric car anyway have a hard time getting dealerships to sell them one:

Kyle Gray, a BMW salesman, said he was personally enthusiastic about the technology, but…the sales process takes more time because the technology is new, cutting into commissions…. Marc Detsch, Nissan’s business development manager for electric vehicles said some salespeople just can’t rationalize the time it takes to sell the cars. A salesperson “can sell two gas burners in less than it takes to sell a Leaf,” he said. “It’s a lot of work for a little pay.”

He also pointed to the potential loss of service revenue. “There’s nothing much to go wrong,” Mr. Deutsch said of electric cars. “There’s no transmission to go bad.”….Jared Allen, a spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association, said there wasn’t sufficient data to prove that electric cars would require less maintenance. But he acknowledged that service was crucial to dealer profits and that dealers didn’t want to push consumers into electric cars that might make them less inclined to return for service.

I suppose this makes sense. And to all this, you can add the fact that none of these cars can fly. There are so many hurdles to overcome before we make it into the Jetson’s future we were all promised.

1We are, of course, talking about the non-Tesla market here.

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2015 at 2:32 pm

Posted in Business, Technology

‘Outsiders’ Crack 50-Year-Old Math Problem

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Fascinating article, even though I don’t know some of the things they’re talking about—but it’s interesting to see how the same problem occurs in many fields and in many guises. Erica Klarreich writes in Quanta:

In 2008, Daniel Spielman told his Yale University colleague Gil Kalai about a computer science problem he was working on, concerning how to “sparsify” a network so that it has fewer connections between nodes but still preserves the essential features of the original network.

Network sparsification has applications in data compression and efficient computation, but Spielman’s particular problem suggested something different to Kalai. It seemed connected to the famous Kadison-Singer problem, a question about the foundations of quantum physics that had remained unsolved for almost 50 years.

Over the decades, the Kadison-Singer problem had wormed its way into a dozen distant areas of mathematics and engineering, but no one seemed to be able to crack it. The question “defied the best efforts of some of the most talented mathematicians of the last 50 years,” wrote Peter Casazza and Janet Tremain of the University of Missouri in Columbia, in a 2014 survey article.

As a computer scientist, Spielman knew little of quantum mechanics or the Kadison-Singer problem’s allied mathematical field, called C*-algebras. But when Kalai, whose main institution is the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, described one of the problem’s many equivalent formulations, Spielman realized that he himself might be in the perfect position to solve it. “It seemed so natural, so central to the kinds of things I think about,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to be able to prove that.’” He guessed that the problem might take him a few weeks.

Instead, it took him five years. In 2013, working with his postdoc Adam Marcus, now at Princeton University, and his graduate student Nikhil Srivastava, now at the University of California, Berkeley, Spielman finally succeeded. Word spread quickly through the mathematics community that one of the paramount problems in C*-algebras and a host of other fields had been solved by three outsiders — computer scientists who had barely a nodding acquaintance with the disciplines at the heart of the problem.

Mathematicians in these disciplines greeted the news with a combination of delight and hand-wringing. The solution, which Casazza and Tremain called “a major achievement of our time,” defied expectations about how the problem would be solved and seemed bafflingly foreign. Over the past two years, the experts in the Kadison-Singer problem have had to work hard to assimilate the ideas of the proof. Spielman, Marcus and Srivastava “brought a bunch of tools into this problem that none of us had ever heard of,” Casazza said. “A lot of us loved this problem and were dying to see it solved, and we had a lot of trouble understanding how they solved it.”

“The people who have the deep intuition about why these methods work are not the people who have been working on these problems for a long time,” said Terence Tao, of the University of California, Los Angeles, who has been following these developments. Mathematicians have held several workshops to unite these disparate camps, but the proof may take several more years to digest, Tao said. “We don’t have the manual for this magic tool yet.”

Computer scientists, however, have been quick to exploit the new techniques. Last year, for instance, two researchers parlayed these tools into a major leap forward in understanding the famously difficult traveling salesman problem. There are certain to be more such advances, said Assaf Naor, a mathematician at Princeton who works in areas related to the Kadison-Singer problem. “This is too profound to not have many more applications.”

A Common Problem

The question Richard Kadison and Isadore Singer posed in 1959 asks how much it is possible to learn about a “state” of a quantum system if you have complete information about that state in a special subsystem. Inspired by an informally worded comment by the legendary physicist Paul Dirac, their question builds on Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which says that certain pairs of attributes, like the position and the momentum of a particle, cannot simultaneously be measured to arbitrary precision.

Kadison and Singer wondered about subsystems that contain as many different attributes (or “observables”) as can compatibly be measured at the same time. If you have complete knowledge of the state of such a subsystem, they asked, can you deduce the state of the entire system?

In the case where the system you’re measuring is a particle that can move along a continuous line, Kadison and Singer showed that the answer is no: There can be many different quantum states that all look the same from the point of view of the observables you can simultaneously measure. “It is as if many different particles have exactly the same location simultaneously — in a sense, they are in parallel universes,” Kadison wrote by email, although he cautioned that it’s not yet clear whether such states can be realized physically.

Kadison and Singer’s result didn’t say what would happen if the space in which the particle lives is not a continuous line, but is instead some choppier version of the line — if space is “granular,” as Kadison put it. This is the question that came to be known as the Kadison-Singer problem.

Based on their work in the continuous setting, Kadison and Singer guessed that in this new setting the answer would again be that there are parallel universes. But they didn’t go so far as to state their guess as a conjecture — a wise move, in hindsight, since their gut instinct turned out to be wrong. “I’m happy I’ve been careful,” Kadison said.

Kadison and Singer — now at the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (emeritus), respectively — posed their question at a moment when interest in the philosophical foundations of quantum mechanics was entering a renaissance. Although some physicists were promoting a “shut up and calculate” approach to the discipline, other, more mathematically inclined physicists pounced on the Kadison-Singer problem, which they understood as a question about C*-algebras, abstract structures that capture the algebraic properties not just of quantum systems but also of the random variables used in probability theory, the blocks of numbers called matrices, and regular numbers.

C*-algebras are an esoteric subject — “the most abstract nonsense that exists in mathematics,” in Casazza’s words. “Nobody outside the area knows much about it.” For the first two decades of the Kadison-Singer problem’s existence, it remained ensconced in this impenetrable realm.

Then in 1979, Joel Anderson, now an emeritus professor at Pennsylvania State University, popularized the problem by proving that it is equivalent to an easily stated question about when matrices can be broken down into simpler chunks. Matrices are the core objects in linear algebra, which is used to study mathematical phenomena whose behavior can be captured by lines, planes and higher-dimensional spaces. So suddenly, the Kadison-Singer problem was everywhere. Over the decades that followed, it emerged as the key problem in one field after another.

Because there tended to be scant interaction between these disparate fields, no one realized just how ubiquitous the Kadison-Singer problem had become until Casazza found that it was equivalent to the most important problem in his own area of signal processing. The problem concerned whether the processing of a signal can be broken down into smaller, simpler parts. Casazza dived into the Kadison-Singer problem, and in 2005, he, Tremain and two co-authors wrote a paper demonstrating that it was equivalent to the biggest unsolved problems in a dozen areas of math and engineering. A solution to any one of these problems, the authors showed, would solve them all.

One of the many equivalent formulations they wrote about had been devised just a few years earlier by Nik Weaver, of Washington University in St. Louis. Weaver’s version distilled the problem down to a natural-sounding question about when it is possible to divide a collection of vectors into two groups that each point in roughly the same set of directions as the original collection. “It’s a beautiful problem that brought out the core combinatorial problem” at the heart of the Kadison-Singer question, Weaver said.

So Weaver was surprised when — apart from the mention in Casazza’s survey and one other paper that expressed skepticism about his approach — his formulation seemed to meet with radio silence. He thought no one had noticed his paper, but in fact it had attracted the attention of just the right people to solve it.

Electrical Properties

When Spielman learned about Weaver’s conjecture in 2008, he knew it was his kind of problem. There’s a natural way to switch between networks and collections of vectors, and Spielman had spent the preceding several years building up a powerful new approach to networks by viewing them as physical objects. If a network is thought of as an electrical circuit, for example, then the amount of current that runs through a given edge (instead of finding alternate routes) provides a natural way to measure that edge’s importance in the network.

Spielman discovered Weaver’s conjecture after Kalai introduced him to another form of the Kadison-Singer problem, and he realized that it was nearly identical to a simple question about networks: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2015 at 12:48 pm

Posted in Math, Science

When police immunity goes too far: Those who framed Donald Gates will get no punishment

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From Josie Duffy at DailyKos:

In 1981, DC police framed Donald Gates for rape and murder. He spent 27 years in prison. On Wednesday, a federal jury ruled that the city will have to pay up. From the Washington Post:

Jurors found that two D.C. homicide detectives fabricated all or part of a confession purportedly made by the wrongly accused Donald E. Gates to a police informant. The detectives also withheld other evidence from Gates before he was convicted in the fatal attack on a 21-year-old Georgetown University student in Rock Creek Park, jurors found. […]

Jurors deliberated less than seven hours before finding that Taylor, the lead detective, had violated Gates’s right to a fair trial by feeding Gates’s name and other details to the informant, and that both detectives had conspired and withheld information.

Gates is now 64. He was exonerated in 2009 after DNA evidence proved his innocence. Federal prosecutors refused to comment on whether the detectives will be held criminally liable.

This is a disturbing example of how sovereign immunity can go horribly wrong. The two cops who framed a guy for murder are retired, faithfully spending their monthly pension. They still work in security, one for the Fed and one in entertainment. They purposefully put an innocent man in jail. As of now, they face no charges and are subject to no punishment.

Jurors will now decide how much Gates should receive in damages. No matter the sum, it can’t make up for the fact that he lost 27 years of his life. Still, he certainly deserves a significant amount of monetary compensation. But the two cops won’t have to pay a dime. Instead, the well-deserved money will come out of taxpayer’s pockets.

Taxpayers paid the cops salaries. All the planning, lying, and coercion necessary to frame Gates? All on the taxpayers tab. They paid for twenty-seven years of an innocent man’s incarceration. They will pay compensation for law enforcement’s criminal acts. And they will continue to pay the two cops’ pension every month.

Exoneration was critical, but not enough. Compensation was necessary, but not enough. There can only be true justice when the cops are held criminally and civilly liable for their crimes.

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2015 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Law, Law Enforcement

Is the US government becoming a subsidiary of major corporations?

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Rebecca Gordon reports at

A top government official with energy industry holdings huddles in secret with oil company executives to work out the details of a potentially lucrative “national energy policy.” Later, that same official steers billions of government dollars to his former oil-field services company. Well-paid elected representatives act with impunity, routinely trading government contracts and other favors for millions of dollars. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens live in fear of venal police forces that suck them dry by charging feesfor services, throwing them in jail when they can’t pay arbitrary fines orselling their court “debts” to private companies. Sometimes the police just take people’s life savings leaving them with no recourse whatsoever. Sometimes they steal and deal drugs on the side. Meanwhile, the country’s infrastructure crumbles. Bridges collapse, or take a quarter-century to fix after a natural disaster, or (despite millions spent) turn out not to be fixed at all. Many citizens regard their government at all levels with a weary combination of cynicism and contempt. Fundamentalist groups respond by calling for a return to religious values and the imposition of religious law.

What country is this? Could it be Nigeria or some other kleptocraticdeveloping state? Or post-invasion Afghanistan where Ahmed Wali Karzai, CIA asset and brother of the U.S.-installed president Hamid Karzai, made many millions on the opium trade (which the U.S. was ostensibly trying to suppress), while his brother Mahmoud raked in millions more from the fraud-ridden Bank of Kabul? Or could it be Mexico, where the actions of both the government and drug cartels have created perhaps the world’s first narco-terrorist state?

In fact, everything in this list happened (and much of it is still happening) in the United States, the world leader — or so we like to think — in clean government. These days, however, according to the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International (TI), our country comes in only 17th in the least-corrupt sweepstakes, trailing European and Scandinavian countries as well as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In fact, TI considers us on a par with Caribbean island nations like Barbados and the Bahamas. In the U.S., TI says, “from fraud and embezzlement charges to the failure to uphold ethical standards, there are multiple cases of corruption at the federal, state and local level.”

And here’s a reasonable bet: it’s not going to get better any time soon and it could get a lot worse. When it comes to the growth of American corruption, one of TI’s key concerns is the how the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision opened the pay-to-play floodgates of the political system, allowing Super PACs to pour billions of private and corporate money into it, sometimes in complete secrecy. Citizens United undammed the wealth of the super-rich and their enablers, allowing big donors like casino capitalist — a description that couldn’t be more literal — Sheldon Adelson to use their millions to influence government policy.

Kleptocracy USA?

Every now and then, a book changes the way you see the world. It’s like shaking a kaleidoscope and suddenly all the bits and pieces fall into a new pattern. Sarah Chayes’s Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security shook my kaleidoscope. Chayes traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 as a reporter for NPR. Moved by the land and people, she soon gave up reporting to devote herself to working with non-governmental organizations helping “Afghans rebuild their shattered but extraordinary country.”

In the process, she came to understand the central role government corruption plays in the collapse of nations and the rise of fundamentalist organizations like the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State. She also discovered just how unable (and often unwilling) American military and civilian officials were to put a stop to the thievery that characterized Afghanistan’s government at every level — from the skimming of billions in reconstruction funds at the top to the daily drumbeat of demands for bribes and “fees” from ordinary citizens seeking any kind of government service further down the chain of organized corruption. In general, writes Chayes, kleptocratic countries operate very much as pyramid schemes, with people at one level paying those at the next for the privilege of extracting money from those below.

Chayes suggests that “acute government corruption” may be a major factor “at the root” of the violent extremism now spreading across the Greater Middle East and Africa. When government robs ordinary people blind, in what she calls a “vertically integrated criminal enterprise,” the victims tend to look for justice elsewhere. When officials treat the law with criminal contempt, or when the law explicitly permits government extortion, they turn to what seem like uncorrupted systems of reprisal and redemption outside those laws. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2015 at 11:14 am

Posted in Business, Government, Law

The Pfizer-Allergan merger is a tax-avoidance scheme

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John Cassidy reports in the New Yorker:

In  an announcement on Monday morning, Pfizer, the big drug company, whose headquarters are on East 42nd Street, in Manhattan, said that it is merging with one of its competitors, Allergan PLC. Ian Read, a Scottish-born accountant who is Pfizer’s chairman and chief executive, said that the proposed deal, which is valued at a hundred and sixty billion dollars, would “create a leading global pharmaceutical company with the strength to research, discover and deliver more medicines and therapies to more people around the world.”

On Wall Street and in the world of big pharma, that statement will raise chuckles. It is widely acknowledged that the primary impetus for the deal is a financial one. In merging with Allergan, which is based in Dublin, Pfizer intends to move its corporate residency to Ireland, where the corporate tax rate is just 12.5 per cent, compared to thirty-five per cent for a company of its size in the United States. Over the next few years, the merger could save Pfizer billions of dollars in taxes and deprive the U.S. Treasury of the same amount.
Tax-driven deals of this nature are known as “inversions,” and they are becoming increasingly common. Burger King, Liberty Global, and Medtronic are among the U.S. corporations to have carried out mergers that moved their headquarters abroad. Last year, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said that inversions were “wrong,” and that he would try and restrict them. Only last week, the Treasury Department issued some new administrative guidelines in this area. Without actual legislation, though, there isn’t very much the Obama Administration can do to prevent these exercises in corporate tax-dodging, and Republicans on Capitol Hill have displayed little eagerness to coöperate in a crackdown.
The Pfizer–Allergan deal will be the biggest inversion yet, and it is nothing short of a disgrace. Drug companies like Pfizer have long benefitted from taxpayer-funded research carried out under the auspices of organizations like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Now, Pfizer is seeking to avoid paying the taxes that are due on its profits, particularly profits generated by its overseas subsidiaries. Even though the Obama Administration doesn’t have the legal powers to block the Allergan transaction, it should seek to shame Pfizer and its board of directors into calling it off. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2015 at 10:53 am

Posted in Business

Trudeau’s Government Believes In Climate Change, Wants to Do Something About It

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A very encouraging story in Motherboard by Jordan Pearson:

Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with the country’s premiers and territorial leaders on Monday to talk about climate change, and the result was pleasantly surprising. After years of the Harper administration muzzling its climate scientists, cutting environmental research funding, and rarely discussing the issue publicly, everyone apparently agrees that climate change is real (whoa) and we’re not doing enough about it (double whoa).

The meeting was called to plan for the upcoming climate talks in Paris, to be held at the end of November. In a public briefing held Monday afternoon to discuss the government’s plans, new minister of science Kirstie Duncan kicked of the public event with a statement of purpose, saying that “climate change is one of the most serious threats we face. It is real, it is happening, and it is an issue of today and not of tomorrow.”

What followed was a schooling for any climate change doubters in the room—I mean, really basic Enviro 101-type stuff, from two of the country’s top climate change scientists (greenhouse gases like carbon monoxide trap heat inside the Earth’s atmosphere, in case you didn’t know). But mixed in with the “scientifically unequivocal” facts, as former Environment Canada climatologist Alain Bourque put it, were some hard messages.

For example, Canada’s rate of warming is about twice the global average, and in some parts of the Arctic, that number jumps to three times the average. The effects of climate change will persist “for centuries,” Bourque said, because greenhouse gases last for a long time, even if we do something right now. The effects of climate change are already being felt, Bourque added. For example, polar bears are becoming leanerand hungrier as the melting sea ice diminishes their access to food.

Moreover, Canada’s current climate commitments aren’t enough to change the tide. The Conservative government’s plan to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030 is “most consistent with warming of about three or three and a half degrees,” said Gregory Flato, a research scientist at Environment Canada, while we need a more aggressive plan that keeps us under two. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2015 at 10:50 am

Overreaching in an effort to control customers: The Apple pentalobe

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In Motherboard Jordan Pearson notes the restrictions corporations regularly attempt to enforce on their customers:

It happened suddenly, like most of these stories do. My alarm went off. I kicked my leg out as I jolted awake, making solid contact with my new laptop, which was innocently lying at the foot of my hotel bed for some reason. It landed on a chair leg; the crash was loud. The aluminum next to the Apple logo was visibly, obviously dented. I flipped it open and was greeted with a large blob of dead pixels radiating outward from the dent.

My options were few. $600 for an LCD replacement at the Apple store. $500 to get an independent repairman to do it. On a whim, I searched eBay and was shocked to see that I could get a new LCD for $50, if I was willing to find out whatever the inside of a MacBook Pro looked like. I pressed buy.

And then I saw the screw.


If you’ve tried to open any iDevice—iPad, iPhone, iMac, any of them—within the last four years, you’ve come face-to-face with Apple’s very small, five-pointed Do Not Enter sign. It’s an overt declaration that your phone, or your computer, or your tablet is not really yours to tamper with, a public statement that you are not qualified to fix your own things.

If you’re reading this on your iPhone or have one nearby, look at either side of the charging port and you’ll seem them: two tiny, star-shaped screw heads that, outside of an obscure wheelchair manufacturer, do not otherwise exist in the wild.

There is a solution to this “pentalobe” screw, however. A screwdriver engineered by iFixit, a California startup that has been simultaneously antagonizing Apple and making sure that, as electronics get more and more complicated, the layperson will still be able to learn how to fix them. (Other companies have since begun offering pentalobe screwdrivers.)

I spent a few days with iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens and professional repair experts at the Electronics Reuse Conference in New Orleans earlier this month to learn more about how your right to open, tinker with, and repair devices that you own is under attack from the very companies that make them. . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

. . . The iPhone 4 shipped with standard, Phillips head screws. Sometime in late 2010, however, the company began ordering its Apple Store Geniuses to replace standard screws with pentalobe ones on any iPhone 4 devices that were brought in for repair.Reuters reported on January 20, 2011 that employees were instructed to not tell customers that they had made the switch. The switch should have, in theory, made it impossible for anyone except for Apple to open the device. . .

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2015 at 10:44 am

Posted in Business, Technology

The problem with trade agreements, exemplified by dolphin-safe tuna

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Public opinion cannot seem to halt the passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, strongly supported by many international corporations and President Obama, but trade agreements supersede national sovereignty and should be approached cautiously. David Dayen provides a good example in The Intercept:

International trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) need to be carefully examined piece by piece because they can take precedence over a country’s own laws.

Case in point: the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Friday ruled that dolphin-safe tuna labeling rules — required by U.S. law, in an effort to protect intelligent mammals from slaughter — violate the rights of Mexican fishers.

As a result, the U.S. will have to either alter the law or face sanctions from Mexico.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how the “investor-state dispute settlement system” baked into trade agreements can force countries to compensate corporations when regulations cut into their profits.

The long-running quarrel over tuna reveals another way that domestic laws can be overturned by trade agreements: when countries can file trade challenges on behalf of domestic industries.

“This should serve as a warning against expansive trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would replicate rules that undermine safeguards for wildlife, clean air, and clean water,” said the Sierra Club’s Ilana Solomon in a statement.

In the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972, the United States banned importation of yellowfin tuna harvested with netting that also scooped up dolphins, which often swim in the eastern Pacific Ocean above yellowfin schools. Since the 1950s, millions of dolphins have been killed in the tuna fishing trade, but the MMPA resulted in significant reductions in dolphin deaths.

Mexico, which has more lax fishing standards than the U.S., launched trade challenges in 1990 to overturn the import ban. Other nations piled on to the trade challenges, seeking to force the U.S. to change its dolphin conservation practices.

Congress did weaken the law in a series of amendments in 1997, replacing the import ban with a voluntary labeling policy. This allowed countries to use the same harmful netting that caught dolphins, as long as they ensured no dolphins were killed. Tuna caught without conforming to these standards can still be sold in the U.S., just without the dolphin-safe label.

But in 2008, Mexico launched a case against the revamped tuna labeling law, arguing that it still violated international trade agreements.

The WTO has ruled in Mexico’s favor on four separate occasions since 2011, most recently last Friday, in a final ruling that cannot be appealed. Though the U.S. changed its label standards several times, most recently in 2013, the WTO said that the law discriminates against tuna caught in Mexico, relative to other countries. Informing consumers of the fishing practices used to catch their tuna, the WTO concluded, represented a “technical barrier to trade.” . .

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Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2015 at 10:40 am

Egypt’s brutal prisons create ISIS volunteers

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An article worth reading in The Intercept. Given the practices of some US allies (Egypt in the article at hand, but also Saudi Arabia, the successful version of ISIS), putting an end to ISIS will be difficult. The article, by Murtaza Hussain, begins:

For nearly two years, Mohamed Soltan, a 26-year-old citizen of both Egypt and America, endured torture, deprivation, and cruelty while locked in the prisons of Egyptian military dictator Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. In 2013, he was among thousands arrested in a country-wide crackdown of civil society activists, journalists, and members of the deposed government following Sisi’s coup and massacre of protestors in Cairo’s Raba’a Adawiya Square.

Soltan was released this year after a 400-day hunger strike in which he lost over 130 pounds and nearly died, saved only by the intervention of the American government on his behalf. Despite bending to pressure in his case, the Egyptian regime continues to imprison as many as 41,000 other political prisoners, recent Human Rights Watch estimates suggest. And Soltan worries that extremism is incubating in those facilities, where he witnessed and experienced torture. Today, he says that, through its oppressive practicesm, the Sisi government is effectively acting as a “recruiting agent” for extremist groups like Islamic State.

“The regime is fostering an environment in their prisons that makes them a fertile ground for that kind of ideology to flourish,” Soltan says. “The brutality and the overwhelming loss of hope is creating a situation which fits [Islamic State’s] narrative, and they’re using it to try and recruit people and spread their message.”

Despite Soltan’s ordeal, some of his own relatives support Sisi. Like many families in Egypt today, they are starkly divided between support for Sisi’s military regime and for the deposed government of Mohamed Morsi. Soltan’s father, Salah, who was also taken into custody, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and served in Morsi’s government, although Soltan himself remained aloof from the party. “I was against the policies of Morsi, but I would’ve liked to have seen a referendum or early elections instead of a coup,” Soltan says.

The Obama administration has taken a similarly mixed stand, occasionally criticizing Sisi’s human rights abuses even as it continues to send him roughly $1.5 billion in mostly military aid each year. . .

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Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2015 at 10:29 am

The most popular arguments against climate change, and the effect of funding

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Funding to support climate change denial comes overwhelmingly from the Koch brothers and from Exxon/Mobil (whose own research shows that climate change is indeed happening). And that funding drives certain arguments.

Kevin Drum summarizes an article that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that analyzed which are the most popular arguments against climate change, how they are affected by funding, and how they change over time.

Take, for example, the argument that CO2 buildup in the atmosphere is not a problem “because CO2 is good.” The frequency of the appearance of the argument is heavily influenced by funding:

CO2 is good

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2015 at 10:23 am

Two open-comb razors compared: Parker 24C and Maggard’s

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SOTD 24 Nov 2015

The Stirling angel-hair synthetic in a 22mm format is quite a nice brush—as, indeed, is the Stirling 26mm. Both perform quite well, though of course the size difference is felt on the face. Both have ample capacity for a full shave, and the lather this morning from Razor Emporium’s Connecticut Yankee was, as usual, superb—plus I am now accustomed to the citronella fragrance. (Citronella oil is derived from a species of lemongrass, something I learned thanks to the Internet.)

I tried two razors, and I have finally learned that if you want to compare two razors, you should put a fresh blade in each, since otherwise you are also comparing blades. Both the Parker 24C (in front) and the Maggard open comb head ($16 at the link) on a Wolfman handle (in back) have a new Gillette Silver Blue blade.

Both razors gave absolutely first-rate shaves. Indeed, I could not detect any difference in feel or performance between the Maggard open-comb head and the Parker 24C head. If you have a spare handle, the Maggard open-comb head is a very good buy.

On the quality of the result: there’s a notion about that a shave with a straight razor can be better than any shave you can get with a DE safety razor. This idea is false. First, of course, the quality of the end result can vary a lot, depending on the razor, the prep, the skill of the shaver, and so on. But the best straight razor result is no different from the best DE safety razor result: skin that’s so smooth you cannot feel any roughness in any direction.

The difference between the two is in the experience of the process of the shave, not the final result. And indeed some much prefer the experience of a (good) straight-razor shave: the ritual of stropping the razor, the degree of focused attention required, the two-handed technique, with one hand stretching the skin, the other wielding the blade. The experience during the shave is different; the final result is much the same.

Three passes to a flawless BBS result, followed by a tiny dab of Esbjerg aftershave gel, and we approach the holiday.

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2015 at 9:03 am

Posted in Shaving

Agriculture Linked to DNA Changes in Ancient Europe

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Carl Zimmer reports in the NY Times:

The agricultural revolution was one of the most profound events in human history, leading to the rise of modern civilization. Now, in the first study of its kind, an international team of scientists has found that after agriculture arrived in Europe 8,500 years ago, people’s DNA underwent widespread changes, altering their height, digestion, immune system and skin color.

Researchers had found indirect clues of some of these alterations by studying the genomes of living Europeans. But the new study, they said, makes it possible to see the changes as they occurred over thousands of years.

“For decades we’ve been trying to figure out what happened in the past,” said Rasmus Nielsen, a geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the new study. “And now we have a time machine.”

Before the advent of studies of ancient DNA, scientists had relied mainly on bones and other physical remains to understand European history. The earliest bones of modern humans in Europe date to about 45,000 years ago, researchers have found.

Early Europeans lived as hunter-gatherers for over 35,000 years. About 8,500 years ago, farmers left their first mark in the archaeological record of the continent.

By studying living Europeans, scientists had already found evidence suggesting that their ancestors adapted to agriculture through natural selection. As tools to sequence DNA became more readily available, researchers even discovered some of the molecular underpinnings of these traits.

But these studies couldn’t help determine exactly when the changes occurred, or whether they resulted from natural selection or the migrations of people into Europe from other regions.

Scientists are now tackling these questions in a much more direct way, thanks to a rapidly growing supply of DNA from ancient skeletons. These studies have revealed that the DNA of Europeans today comes from three main sources. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

23 November 2015 at 9:24 pm

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