Tag Archives: dna

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived – Adam Rutherford


A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived

The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes

Adam Rutherford

Genre: Life Sciences

Price: $12.99

Publish Date: September 25, 2017

Publisher: The Experiment

Seller: Workman Publishing Co., Inc.

“ An effervescent work, brimming with tales and confounding ideas carried in the ‘epic poem in our cells.’”— Guardian In our unique genomes, every one of us carries the story of our species—births, deaths, disease, war, famine, migration, and a lot of sex. But those stories have always been locked away—until now. Who are our ancestors? Where did they come from? Geneticists have suddenly become historians, and the hard evidence in our DNA has blown the lid off what we thought we knew. Acclaimed science writer Adam Rutherford explains exactly how genomics is completely rewriting the human story—from 100,000 years ago to the present. A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived will upend your thinking on Neanderthals, evolution, royalty, race, and even redheads. (For example, we now know that at least four human species once roamed the earth.) Plus, here is the remarkable, controversial story of how our genes made their way to the Americas—one that’s still being writ-ten, as ever more of us have our DNA sequenced. Rutherford closes with “A Short Introduction to the Future of Humankind,” filled with provocative questions that we’re on the cusp of answering: Are we still in the grasp of natural selection? Are we evolving for better or worse? And . . . where do we go from here?

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A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived – Adam Rutherford

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The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA – Jeff Wheelwright


The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA
Jeff Wheelwright

Genre: Life Sciences

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: January 16, 2012

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

Seller: W. W. Norton

A brilliant and emotionally resonant exploration of science and family history. A vibrant young Hispano woman, Shonnie Medina, inherits a breast-cancer mutation known as BRCA1.185delAG. It is a genetic variant characteristic of Jews. The Medinas knew they were descended from Native Americans and Spanish Catholics, but they did not know that they had Jewish ancestry as well. The mutation most likely sprang from Sephardic Jews hounded by the Spanish Inquisition. The discovery of the gene leads to a fascinating investigation of cultural history and modern genetics by Dr. Harry Ostrer and other experts on the DNA of Jewish populations. Set in the isolated San Luis Valley of Colorado, this beautiful and harrowing book tells of the Medina family’s five-hundred-year passage from medieval Spain to the American Southwest and of their surprising conversion from Catholicism to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1980s. Rejecting conventional therapies in her struggle against cancer, Shonnie Medina died in 1999. Her life embodies a story that could change the way we think about race and faith.

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The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA – Jeff Wheelwright

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The Journey of Man – Spencer Wells


The Journey of Man
A Genetic Odyssey
Spencer Wells

Genre: Life Sciences

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: October 31, 2012

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC

Around 60,000 years ago, a man—genetically identical to us—lived in Africa. Every person alive today is descended from him. How did this real-life Adam wind up as the father of us all? What happened to the descendants of other men who lived at the same time? And why, if modern humans share a single prehistoric ancestor, do we come in so many sizes, shapes, and races? Examining the hidden secrets of human evolution in our genetic code, Spencer Wells reveals how developments in the revolutionary science of population genetics have made it possible to create a family tree for the whole of humanity. Replete with marvelous anecdotes and remarkable information, from the truth about the real Adam and Eve to the way differing racial types emerged, The Journey of Man is an enthralling, epic tour through the history and development of early humankind.

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The Journey of Man – Spencer Wells

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I Talked to a Man on Alabama’s Death Row. The State Plans to Kill Him Tonight.

Mother Jones

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Alabama has been trying to put Thomas Arthur to death for more than 30 years. The 75-year-old inmate, who has consistently maintained his innocence for a 1982 murder, has had three trials and survived seven execution dates since 2001. On Thursday, Alabama will attempt to execute him again.

“I didn’t have anything to do with this,” he tells Mother Jones from the Holman Correctional Facility, where Alabama houses most of those on death row. “I gave ’em hair and spit and everything…and they found nothing.”

I spoke with Arthur the week he is scheduled to die. His lawyers arranged for a 30-minute phone conversation to give him a chance to tell his story, maybe for the last time. He spoke rapidly, stumbling over some sentences in a rich Southern accent that sometimes blurred the clarity of his words. But there was no lack of clarity in his reflections of what it has been like to be one of the first inmates sent to death row in Alabama—after the practice was reinstated after a 1976 landmark Supreme Court ruling—and to live there for 34 years.

During that time, his health has deteriorated, and he has stood by while 58 other inmates were executed. Holman, like many of Alabama’s prisons, became overcrowded and crumbling and was the scene of a riot in 2016. He has watched the methods of execution change, from the electric chair to midazolam, a controversial drug that will be used on him, despite efforts his lawyers have made to convince the courts that given his heart condition, the drug might not be effective and would likely cause undue suffering. He has also had a lengthy education in the criminal justice system from three different trials and the seven times he believed he would die, only to have his execution postponed. At this point, Arthur still hopes for DNA evidence to prove his innocence. “If they just let my lawyers in a courtroom,” he says, “we wouldn’t be at this juncture.”

Arthur’s journey to death row began on February 1, 1982, when Troy Wicker was shot and killed in his bed in the northwest Alabama city of Muscle Shoals. On the day of the murder, his wife, Judy Wicker, told police that she came home after taking her children to school to find a black man in her home. She claimed that the intruder raped her, knocked her unconscious, and shot her husband. Police found bullets but no murder weapon. Wicker went to the hospital and her rape kit was subsequently lost.

Judy was a suburban mom and Arthur was a convicted criminal—he was serving time for having shot and killed his common-law wife’s sister in 1977. “When I took her life, alcohol was a factor,” he says. “I shouldn’t have shot that girl.” Arthur had been given a life sentence, but after just four years he was participating in a prison work-release program, where an inmate is let out of the prison facility during the day for employment and trusted to return to prison in the evening. That’s when Judy Wicker and Thomas Arthur began having an affair.

Police didn’t find Wicker’s description of the circumstances of her husband’s death credible and charged her with murder-for-hire. They also arrested Arthur and charged him with aggravated murder. At her 1982 trial, where Wicker testified that Arthur was not involved in the murder, she was given a life sentence. At a separate 1983 trial, prosecutors argued Arthur shot and killed Wicker for $10,000—part of the life insurance Wicker received upon her husband’s death. Despite his incriminating record, Arthur insisted he had nothing to do with this crime. Nonetheless, he was convicted, sentenced to death, and taken to Holman Correctional facility.

The Holman Correctional Facility is nearly 50 years old and located in rural Escambia County. On death row, the cells are tiny. “We’re, like, sandwiched in here,” Arthur says. “I live in a cell you can’t put a baboon in.” A heart condition prevents him from exercising or spending time in the yard like other death row inmates do. “I’m in here 24 hours a day. Been like that for 10 years.” He spends most of his days watching the news and daytime soap operas—Days of our Lives, for instance, and the Young and the Restless—on the TV that his lawyers bought for him in 2003. In its last session, the Alabama Legislature took up a bill to build up to four new state prisons by borrowing up to $800 million. “We got toilet water running down the walls all over death row,” Arthur claims. “They want to spend $800 million for new prisons when they could spend $200 million to fix the ones they already have!” he says incredulously.

Arthur was granted a retrial after his first conviction was overturned because details of his previous murder conviction were introduced in the trial. In 1986, while awaiting retrial, Arthur was held in a county jail. He escaped after shooting a jail official in the neck, but the guard survived. Arthur got as far as Knoxville, Tennessee, where FBI agents found him a month later after he robbed a bank. The following year, he was convicted and sentenced to death again.

His second conviction was overturned on appeal because in 1982 Arthur was interviewed by an investigator without an attorney present. He was granted yet another trial. According to Amnesty International, an international human rights organization that is against the death penalty, it was then that the prosecutor asked the state’s parole board if Judy Wicker could get an early release if she testified against Arthur. At the 1991 retrial, Wicker changed her story, implicating Arthur in the murder. She was paroled a year later, after serving just 10 years in prison.

In Furman v. Georgia, in 1972, the US Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that capital punishment was unconstitutional, halting executions nationwide. Four years later, the high court reversed course in Gregg v. Georgia and ruled that the death penalty was not cruel and unusual punishment.

The first time Alabama tried to put Arthur to death was in 2001, but he received a stay two days before the scheduled execution date so federal courts could hear challenges concerning the fact that he had no representation when his first execution date was set. This began a period of execution dates and stays of execution. After several legal challenges were dismissed, Alabama set another execution date for Arthur in September 2007. Once more he prepared himself to be executed, but he was spared when the state itself requested a 45-day reprieve in order to change its drug protocol for lethal injections. Around this time, various inmates had challenged lethal injection protocols in their states. A few months later, in December 2007, Arthur received another stay from the US Supreme Court because it was considering a challenge in Kentucky over a very similar lethal injection protocol. His fourth execution date was planned for 2008.

Then an inmate, Bobby Ray Gilbert, at another Alabama prison, confessed to the crime. Arthur filed a petition claiming innocence, and the execution was stayed so the court could hold a limited hearing. No physical evidence linked Gilbert to the crime, and the court concluded Gilbert was lying to protect Arthur. Prosecutors have long held that Troy Wicker’s killer wore a wig, but none of Arthur’s DNA was on that wig or on the clothes Judy Wicker wore on the day of the murder. “I am totally innocent,” Arthur insists. “And DNA could prove it.”

Until 2002, Alabama used the electric chair to execute inmates. “You could smell them,” Arthur says about the inmates being executed. “You could actually smell the flesh burning.” His next two scheduled executions in 2012 and 2015 were stayed because of Arthur’s challenges to the state’s drug protocol, which included the sedative, pentobarbital. But then came the introduction of the controversial sedative midazolam for executions. After multiple states faced a shortage of lethal injection drugs, Alabama began using midazolam early last year with the execution of Christopher Brooks in January. Nearly a year later, in December 2016, the state executed Ronald Bert Smith Jr. After administering the drug, Smith reportedly struggled for breath, coughed, heaved and clenched his left fist for 13 minutes.

Arthur’s seventh execution date was scheduled for November 3, 2016. His case claiming the lethal injection protocol used by the state could cause excruciating pain was dismissed by the federal court. Despite the widespread acceptance that lethal injection is humane, there is no scientific research to prove it.

Under the 2015 Supreme Court case Glossip v. Gross, the usage of midazolam does not violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment and rules that states must have a ready and available alternative if one form of execution falls into that category. In his appeal, Arthur proposed the use of firing squad. The court dismissed his case, saying that since Alabama law does not expressly allow firing squads, it was not a viable alternative.

That night, the Supreme Court granted a stay pending a review of his claims. But in February, it declined to hear his appeal. In an 18-page dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the use of midazolam could lead to “prolonged torture” of inmates. “Condemned prisoners, like Arthur, might find more dignity in an instantaneous death,” she wrote, “rather than prolonged torture on a medical gurney.”

In April, Arthur’s lawyers wrote to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey in hopes of getting further DNA testing. His counsel noted that more advanced technology was available and they would assume the costs of the test. Ivey turned down their request. A few weeks later, Arthur sent a handwritten note asking Ivey to spare his life. “Please do not let me die for a crime I did not commit,” he wrote.

The decades of confinement have taken a toll on him. “One time I was a halfway decent looking fellow,” he says with a laugh. “Now, I look like I’ve been hit by a truck.”

And now, as he faces his next and likely final execution date, Arthur says ruefully, “I laugh to keep from crying.” But he is troubled about the life he lost, how his four children never truly had a father, and how much he regrets not being there for them. “I want to publicly apologize in case they do kill me,” he says. “I want the public to know that I failed them as a father.” He also has no interest in the usual formalities accompanying executions in America. “I’m not going to the eat the last meal, which would come at taxpayer expense,” he says.

What is it like to face death so many times? “It’s the same thing every time,” he says with a sigh. “Everyone has a fear of dying…but the state of Alabama is going to—and I don’t use this word lightly—murder me for something I didn’t do.”

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I Talked to a Man on Alabama’s Death Row. The State Plans to Kill Him Tonight.

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Trump Can Pull Money From His Businesses Whenever He Wants—Without Ever Telling Us

Mother Jones

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This story originally appeared on ProPublica.

When President Donald Trump placed his businesses in a trust upon entering the White House, he put his sons in charge and claimed to distance himself from his sprawling empire. “I hope at the end of eight years I’ll come back and say, ‘Oh you did a good job,'” Trump said at a January 11 press conference. Trump’s lawyer explained that the president “was completely isolating himself from his business interests.”

The setup has long been slammed as insufficient, far short of the full divestment that many ethics experts say is needed to avoid conflicts of interest. A small phrase buried deep in a set of recently released letters between the Trump Organization and the government shows just how little separation there actually is.

Trump can draw money from his more than 400 businesses, at any time, without disclosing it.

The previously unreported changes to a trust document, signed on February 10, stipulate that it “shall distribute net income or principal to Donald J. Trump at his request” or whenever his son and longtime attorney “deem appropriate.” That can include everything from profits to the underlying assets, such as the businesses themselves.

Here is the new clause, from page 161:

“It’s incredibly broad language,” said Frederick J. Tansill, a family estate and trust attorney outside Washington, DC, who reviewed the documents for ProPublica.

There is nothing requiring Trump to disclose when he takes profits from the trust, which could go directly into his bank or brokerage account. That’s because both the trust and Trump Organization are privately held. The only people who know the details of the Trump trust’s finances are its trustees, Trump’s son Donald Jr., and Allen Weisselberg, the company’s chief financial officer. Trump’s other son, Eric, has been listed as an adviser to the trust, according to this revised document.

The Trump Organization did not answer detailed questions about the trust. In a statement to ProPublica about the companies’ corporate structures, a Trump Organization spokeswoman, Amanda Miller, said, “President Trump believed it was important to create multiple layers of approval for major actions and key business decision” (Sic. Read the full statement.)

There is a chance Trump will list his profits in his next federal financial disclosure, in May 2018, but the form doesn’t require it. The surest way to see what profits Trump is taking would be the release of his tax returns—which hasn’t happened. Income has to be reported to the IRS, whether it comes from a trust or someplace else.

“For tax purposes, it’s as if the trust doesn’t exist at all,” said Steven Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “It’s just an entity on paper, nothing more.”

It’s not clear why Trump added the language to the trust document. His original trust document, which ProPublica obtained in January, designated Trump as the “exclusive beneficiary.” It did not include any restrictions on when Trump could get the money.

Taking profits regularly could benefit Trump in a variety of ways. It would give the president yet more details on the ongoing finances of his businesses. Trump’s son Eric recently told Forbes he plans to update his father on the company regularly, though the revised trust document states that the trustees “shall not provide any report to Donald J. Trump on the holdings and sources of income of the Trust.”

Trump could also simply find the income helpful, even as president. The trust document shows that Trump has “broad rights to the trust principal and income to support him as necessary,” Tansill said.

The General Services Administration released the document last week when it approved the Trump Organization’s plan to address conflicts involving the Trump International Hotel in DC. (The GSA, which handles procurement for the government, owns the land and Trump has a 60-year lease for the building.) In response to criticism about Trump being, in effect, both tenant and landlord, he agreed to not take any profits from the hotel while in office.

Profits will go into a separate company account, which can only be used for hotel upkeep, improvements or debt payments. Watchdog groups have derided that deal as insufficient, noting that pouring profits back into the hotel will make it more valuable in the long term.

With Trump’s hundreds of other businesses, including golf courses, hotels and branding deals, profits from each go to a holding company and eventually into Trump’s trust. Other corporate documents we obtained, reflecting changes made after Trump’s January 20 inauguration, show how money flows from a golf club outside Philadelphia to the president’s trust.

There soon could be many more Trump family businesses.

The Trump Organization has recently touted plans to open hotels across the country, including a second one in Washington, DC. “It’s full steam ahead,” Trump Hotel CEO Eric Danziger said recently. “It’s in the Trump boys’ DNA.”


Trump Can Pull Money From His Businesses Whenever He Wants—Without Ever Telling Us

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Wild-Eyed Folk by Jeff Buckley’s Father

Mother Jones

Tim Buckley
Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974

Lady, Give Me Your Key
Light in the Attic

Courtesy of Omnivore

Probably best known today as the father of Jeff Buckley, Tim Buckley was, like his son, an electrifying figure, a hyper-romantic, wild-eyed folkie who seemed to inhabit each moment with burning intensity. He was revered for albums like Goodbye and Hello and Happy Sad, and decidedly not a singles artist. Still, Wings: The Complete Singles 1966-1974 is an intriguing look at Buckley from an unexpected perspective, portraying him as a more versatile auteur than conventional wisdom suggests. These 21 tracks, most previously released, range from baroque chamber pop (the title song) and jazzy meditations (“Happy Time”), to bluesy rockers (“Wanda Lu”) and R&B (“Stone in Love”). None of them seem like strong contenders for Top 40 radio, however.

The one newly unearthed song on Wings, “Lady, Give Me Your Key,” also furnishes the title for a fascinating collection of previously unissued 1967 solo acoustic demos. Six of the 13 were redone for Goodbye and Hello, but most of the others are essentially the only recordings of those songs, making this an essential listen for Buckleyphiles. The sound quality isn’t perfect, drawing on sometimes-scratchy acetates, but in a way that only enhances the aura of magical discovery. Anybody in love with Jeff Buckley’s Grace and his definitive version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” but unaware of his parentage, is advised to find out who supplied the DNA that made him so special. Either of these compelling sets is a good starting point.

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Wild-Eyed Folk by Jeff Buckley’s Father

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Exclusive: Central Park Five Members Blast Trump for Insisting They’re Guilty

Mother Jones

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After Donald Trump reaffirmed his long-held belief this week that the men known as the Central Park Five were guilty in an infamous, decades-old rape case, two members of the since-exonerated group blasted Trump in interviews with Mother Jones, calling him a “stunt artist” and saying “he’s gotten worse” since his involvement in their 1990 conviction.

“You have a person who’s supposed to be a very intelligent business man, and what I’m sure he would do if he was trying to purchase a property is do his due diligence,” Yusef Salaam told me Friday, noting that Trump continued to ignore the facts of the Central Park Five case. “For somebody to still stand on the side of injustice like Donald Trump is, that becomes a very scary place to be.”

In a statement to CNN this week, Trump said he still believed the Central Park Five were guilty. “They admitted they were guilty,” he told CNN’s Miguel Marquez. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that the case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”

In 1989, five black and Latino teenagers were convicted of brutally attacking a young white jogger in New York City’s Central Park. The crime, which came at the height of the crack epidemic and skyrocketing crime rates, enflamed racial tension in the city. About two weeks after the incident, Trump published a full-page ad in four major New York newspapers calling for the teens to be brought to justice—and suggesting that they should face the death penalty. But in 2002, all five men—who spent between 6 and 13 years in prison—were exonerated based on DNA evidence and a confession from the actual perpetrator, whose DNA was shown to match evidence at the scene.

Mother Jones talked to two members of the Central Park Five—Salaam and Korey Wise—about Trump’s role in their case, their thoughts on his presidential candidacy, and his latest comments about their case. Not surprisingly, neither is happy to see one of their main antagonists on the national stage day in and day out. Nor is a third member of the group, Raymond Santana, who skewered Trump on Twitter:

Salaam, who was 15 when he was jailed for the assault, said he believes Trump played a crucial role in the media campaign against him.

“Trump was one of the fire starters—really the main fire starter—because his name held a lot more weight,” he said. His ad facilitated “the conviction that was going to happen in the public arena prior to us even getting into the courthouse.”

Wise told me he only learned about Trump’s ad after watching a documentary on his case several years ago. After seeing it, he understood why the case had become so incredibly charged. “I said, ‘Wow! Wow! Wow!'” Wise said. “This is where a great deal of the energy that was directed at me in terms of physical threats” came from.

“The ad was talking about and goes specifically into fears that the public was having at that particular time,” Salaam told me. “He’s talking about how ‘we’ve had to give up our leisurely stroll in the playground, and we can’t ride our bikes, or we can’t walk around in the streets because now we’re hostages, ruled by the laws of the streets.'” Trump has revisited those themes in his presidential campaign, often citing gun violence in cities like Chicago as indicative of a breakdown in “law and order,” which he insists he can restore.

Salaam also suggested that Trump was a hypocrite for attacking Hillary Clinton over her “superpredator” remarks in the first presidential debate. “She well within her right could have said, ‘Well you took out a full-page ad calling for the execution—the lynching, the death—of young black and Latino men—and you have never apologized.'”

More than 25 years later, Trump hasn’t changed, Salaam said. “As a matter of fact, he’s gotten worse,” he said. “He believes in everything he’s put out there—the racial vision he’s created.”

For his part, Wise said he doesn’t think about what a Trump presidency would mean because he doesn’t take him seriously: “He’s a stunt artist…He follows publicity.”

But Salaam had a bleaker assessment of what the country would look like with Trump as commander in chief: “If he becomes president, what is that going to mean for the people who are losing their lives in the street? This ‘law and order’ is going to be a very, very scary thing for us as a people.”

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Exclusive: Central Park Five Members Blast Trump for Insisting They’re Guilty

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Obama Just Signed a Bill of Rights for Sexual-Assault Survivors

Mother Jones

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President Barack Obama on Friday signed into law the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act, a sweeping piece of legislation that guarantees specific rights for people who have been victimized by a sexual assault.

The measure focuses on collecting and preserving rape kits, the forensic evidence collected in a medical examination after a suspected sexual assault. Police enter the DNA collected from rape kits into state and national databases, sometimes identifying and solving other crimes in addition to the initial rape case. Rape kits—more than 100,000 of them, as of 2014—have often languished for years in police warehouses and crime labs, going untested due to a lack of funds and, some argue, contempt for victims. The new law is the first at the federal level to address these problems, protecting survivors’ access to the initial forensic medical examination and instituting measures to ensure evidence of rape is appropriately preserved and tested.

Survivors can no longer be charged fees or prevented from getting a rape kit examination, even if they have not yet decided to file a police report. Once the medical examination is completed, the kits must be preserved, at no cost to the survivor, until the applicable statute of limitations runs out. Survivors will now be able to request that authorities notify them before destroying their rape kits, and they have the right to request that the evidence be preserved. Once the kit is tested, they’ll also have the right to be notified of important results —including a DNA profile match and toxicology report.

Survivors must also be informed of these rights, regardless of whether they decide to pursue legal action against an assailant. The law also creates a task force to examine how well the new regulations work.

The act was spearheaded by Rise, a nonprofit led by Amanda Nguyen, who became an advocate after her rape almost three years ago when she learned that her rape kit would be destroyed by the state of Massachusetts within six months unless she filed repeated “extension requests.”

“The system essentially makes me live my life by date of rape,” Nguyen told the Guardian in February.

Nguyen then contacted Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), who began working with her to craft the bill, eventually introducing it in February. “Beginning today, our nation’s laws stand firmly on the side of survivors of sexual assault,” Shaheen said in a statement Friday. “I hope that these basic rights will encourage more survivors to come forward and pursue justice.”

The act passed unanimously in the House last month and by voice vote in the Senate last week. Obama signed the bill on Friday, two weeks after the White House launched a new effort to combat sexual assault for the youngest survivors—those in K-12 schools.

This story has been updated.

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Obama Just Signed a Bill of Rights for Sexual-Assault Survivors

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Sci-fi writers dream up what future Olympic Games will look like

for the win

Sci-fi writers dream up what future Olympic Games will look like

By on Aug 3, 2016Share

Future Olympics games might want to take a cue from science fiction writers.

To find out what the future of the Games might hold, Huffington Post pulled together predictions by some of the most forward-thinking minds of our time. Their ideas range from the wacky (will athletes with entirely synthetic DNA compete?) to thought-provoking (eliminating categories by gender).

Malka Older, author of Infomocracy, idealizes Games that would move away from larger-than-life stadiums and corporate sponsorships and toward something called the Sustainable Olympics:

These Games would be held without any new construction, without packed sunbaked parking lots or rushed and unsafe facilities or dead workers. They would be broadcast to anyone who wanted to watch them, and without any sob story backgrounds beyond what the athletes themselves chose to tell. They would be low-key, low-maintenance, low-carbon, and yet the stakes would still be high: to be named the best in the world.

The writers don’t forget our old frenemy, climate change, either. Author Madeline Ashby expects some sports to go defunct. “After all, how can you have winter sports when winter is only a memory?”

Fair enough, Ashby. That future isn’t far off, as the Olympics have already started using fake snow.

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Sci-fi writers dream up what future Olympic Games will look like

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Proton Gradients and the Origin of Life

Mother Jones

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Where did complex life originate? The New York Times reports on new research from a team led by William Martin of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf:

Their starting point was the known protein-coding genes of bacteria and archaea. Some six million such genes have accumulated over the last 20 years in DNA databanks….Of these, only 355 met their criteria for having probably originated in Luca, the joint ancestor of bacteria and archaea.

Genes are adapted to an organism’s environment. So Dr. Martin hoped that by pinpointing the genes likely to have been present in Luca, he would also get a glimpse of where and how Luca lived. “I was flabbergasted at the result, I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

The 355 genes pointed quite precisely to an organism that lived in the conditions found in deep sea vents, the gassy, metal-laden, intensely hot plumes caused by seawater interacting with magma erupting through the ocean floor….The 355 genes ascribable to Luca include some that metabolize hydrogen as a source of energy as well as a gene for an enzyme called reverse gyrase, found only in microbes that live at extremely high temperatures.

About a year ago I read The Vital Question, by British biochemist Nick Lane, which was all about this theory. Roughly speaking, his entire book was about the energy needs of these ancient organisms, which is based on something called a proton gradient. This, it turns out, is a complex and highly unusual way of providing energy, but it’s also nearly universal in modern life, suggesting that it goes back to the very beginnings of life. But if it’s so unusual, how did it get its start?

In the beginning, it could only work in a high-energy environment like a deep-sea vent. In these places, there was a natural gradient between proton-poor water and proton-rich water, and that was the beginning of the proton gradient. It’s not the most efficient way of producing energy, but it was the only thing around 4 billion years ago. So willy nilly, life evolved to take advantage of this, and eventually evolved its own proton gradient inside cells.

Martin has been a longtime proponent of this idea as well, and now he’s produced yet more evidence that it’s likely to be true. The energy producing mitochondria in all of your cells are the result of this. Even 4 billion years later, they still depend on a proton gradient. Protons, it turns out, are the key to life.

POSTSCRIPT: And how is the book? It’s good, though fairly dense at times if you’re not already familiar with some basic chemistry and biology. And toward the end it gets rather speculative, so take it for what it’s worth. But overall? If you’re interested in the origins of complex life, it’s worth a read.

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Proton Gradients and the Origin of Life

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