A Broken Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen has passed away at age 82. His voice will be missed. His message was always sublime.


Tuesday Reads: Neanderthal Tools, Hillary on Voting Rights, Bulger Verdict, and NDE Research

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Good Morning!!

I’ve been somewhat out of the loop for the past few days because I’ve had some kind of weird virus that has made it difficult for me to think. If it weren’t August, I’d wonder if it’s the flu. Everything ached. For a couple of days it felt like my skin actually hurt. Anyway I’ve been vegetating in front of the TV watching Criminal Minds reruns and Lifetime movies. I’m feeling better now, although I’m still sleepy all the time.

I’ve been surfing around this morning, and there is quite a bit of interesting news out there. I’ll begin with a fascinating archaeological find. According to a new study reported in Nature, Neanderthals invented tools made of bone that are still used today for leather-working.

Excavations of Neanderthal sites more than 40,000 years old have uncovered a kind of tool that leather workers still use to make hides more lustrous and water resistant. The bone tools, known as lissoirs, had previously been associated only with modern humans. The latest finds indicate that Neanderthals and modern humans might have invented the tools independently.

The first of the lissoir fragments surfaced a decade ago at a rock shelter called Pech-de-l’Azé in the Dordogne region of southwest France. Archaeologist Marie Soressi of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, knew the tool at once, says her colleague Shannon McPherron.

The tools are also known as slickers and burnishers, says McPherron. Soressi contacted luxury-goods manufacturer Hermès in Paris, and found that their high-end leather workers use just such a tool. “She showed them a picture, and they recognized it instantly,” says McPherron. The company’s line includes the wildly popular Birkin handbag, which sells for around US$10,000 and upwards.

McPherron says that a single artefact, however, was not enough for the researchers to draw broad conclusions. “You find one, and there’s always some doubt. You’re worried that it’s not a pattern — that it’s anecdotal behaviour.” But subsequent digs at Pech-de-l’Azé and nearby Abri Peyrony turned up further lissoir fragments, leading the researchers to conclude that Neanderthals made the tools routinely.

Neanderthal bone tools

Neanderthal bone tools

The researchers say it’s not clear if these kinds of tools were first invented by Neanderthals or modern humans. It’s even possible that modern humans could have learned how to make and use the bone tools from Neantherthals, although most archaeologists believe that Neanderthals learned the skills from humans. From Live Science:

Neanderthals created artifacts similar to ones made at about the same time by modern humans arriving in Europe, such as body ornaments and small blades. Scientists hotly debated whether such behavior developed before or after contact with modern humans.

“There is a huge debate about how different Neanderthals were from modern humans,” said Shannon McPherron, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Now, McPherron and his colleagues have discovered that Neanderthals created a specialized kind of bone tool previously only seen in modern humans. These tools are about 51,000 years old, making them the oldest known examples of such tools in Europe and predating the known arrival of modern humans.

Yesterday North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed a new voter suppression voter ID law and the ACLU, NAACP, and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice immediately filed suit against it. USA Today:

Republicans who backed the legislation said it was meant to prevent voter fraud, which they claim is both rampant and undetected in North Carolina. Independent voting rights groups joined Democrats and libertarians in suggesting the true goal was to suppress voter turnout, especially among blacks, the young, the elderly and the poor.

“It is a trampling on the blood, sweat and tears of the martyrs — black and white — who fought for voting rights in this country,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP. “It puts McCrory on the wrong side of history.” [….]

Barber called the Republican-backed measure one of the worst attempts in the nation at voting reform and said the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People considered the package an all-out attack on existing laws long seen as a model of voter participation….

The legislation signed by McCrory and approved last month by state lawmakers requires voters to present government-issued photo IDs at the polls and shortens early voting by a week, from 17 days to 10. It also ends same-day registration, requiring voters to register, update their address or make any other needed changes at least 25 days ahead of an election. A high school civics program that registers tens of thousands of students to vote each year in advance of their 18th birthdays has been eliminated.

Yesterday Hillary Clinton spoke out against the North Carolina law and other efforts to deny and suppress voting rights in a speech before the American Bar Association. HuffPo:

On the same day that North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed a restrictive voter ID bill into law, Clinton criticized the Supreme Court decision that she believes “stripped out the pre-clearance formula that made [the Voting Rights Act] so effective.”

She noted that Texas, Florida and North Carolina are states whose recent voter legislation has shifted the burden, slamming the North Carolina bill as one that “reads like the greatest hits of voter suppression.”

“In the weeks since the ruling, we’ve seen an unseemly rush by previously covered jurisdictions to enact or enforce laws that will make it harder for millions of our fellow Americans to vote,” Clinton said.

Clinton also went after several provisions of the North Carolina bill that she believes place a greater burden on citizens facing discrimination, including limited voting hours, stricter ID requirements and restricted early voting.

CNN reports that Hillary also plans to discuss national security and transparency in an upcoming speech.

Clinton said her appearance at the annual meeting of the American Bar Association marked the beginning of a speaking series she’ll embark upon that will also include an address on the United States’ national security policies next month in Philadelphia.

Clinton said the September address would focus of issues of “transparency and balance.” The former top diplomat had not yet publicaly addressed the classified National Security Agency surveillance programs that were revealed through leaks at the beginning of the summer.

The move into the political realm marks a new phase in Clinton’s post-State Department life, which was previously occupied by speeches to global women’s organizations and a schedule of paid appearances. She is also writing a diplomacy-focused memoir for release in 2014.

The speeches will likely fuel speculation that Clinton is planning to jump into the race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, where she is considered an early favorite.

Well there’s some exciting news! It’s becoming more an more clear that Hillary plans to run for president in 2016.

I’m sure you’ve already heard that James “Whitey” Bulger has been found guilty of murder and racketeering, among other charges. It was always a foregone conclusion. The only surprise is that the jury was only able to find him guilty of 11 murders out of the 19 he was charged with. The New York Times:

BOSTON — James (Whitey) Bulger, the mobster who terrorized South Boston in the 1970s and ‘80s, holding the city in his thrall even after he disappeared, was convicted Monday of a sweeping array of gangland crimes, including 11 murders. He faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison.

The verdict delivers long-delayed justice to Mr. Bulger, 83, who disappeared in the mid-1990s after a corrupt agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation told him he was about to be indicted. He left behind a city that wondered if he would ever be caught — and even if the F.B.I., which had been complicit in many of his crimes and had relied on him as an informer, was really looking for him.

“This was the worst case of corruption in the history of the F.B.I.,” said Michael D. Kendall, a former federal prosecutor who investigated Mr. Bulger’s associates. “It was a multigenerational, systematic alliance with organized crime, where the F.B.I. was actively participating in the murders of government witnesses, or at least allowing them to occur.”

Of course there won’t be any punishment for the FBI except for embarrassment, if that troubles them. And there was only minor punishment for the parade of hit men and other criminals who were given generous deals in exchange for their testimony.

Debbie Davis, left, with her mother Olga, right, was the girlfriend of Stephen Flemmi, Whitey Bugler's gangster partner. She vanished in 1981 and her body was found dismembered in 2000 (Daily Mail)

Debbie Davis, left, with her mother Olga, right, was the girlfriend of Stephen Flemmi, Whitey Bugler’s gangster partner. She vanished in 1981 and her body was found dismembered in 2000
(Daily Mail)

The families of the victims of the 7 murders Bulger was not convicted of were disappointed and angry.

As a clerk read the verdicts in the lengthy and complicated list of charges, Mr. Bulger looked away from the jury and showed no reaction. He was found guilty of 31 of 32 counts of his indictment, the one exception involving an extortion charge. While the jury of eight men and four women convicted him of 11 murders, they found the government had not proved its case against him in seven others, and in one murder case it made no finding, leading to gasps inside the courtroom by relatives of those murder victims and explosive scenes outside the court.

“My father just got murdered again 40 years later in that courtroom,” said the son of William O’Brien, who is also named William….

Perhaps one glimmer of gratification for Mr. Bulger was that the jury reached “no finding” in the death of Debra Davis, one of two women he was accused of strangling. He has long maintained that his personal code of honor did not allow for the killing of women, although the jury did determine that he had killed the other woman, Deborah Hussey. Ms. Davis was the longtime girlfriend of Stephen Flemmi, Mr. Bulger’s former partner in crime who testified against him. Ms. Hussey was the daughter of another of Mr. Flemmi’s longtime girlfriends.

Hit man John Martorano

Hit man John Martorano

One of the jurors has already talked to local Boston media about how stressful the experience was.

One of the jurors who voted to convict Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger for a string of gangland crimes described how the more than 32 hours of deliberations were “stressful” and involved “all kinds of dissension.”

“Slamming doors,” Scott Hotyckey told CBS station WBZ-TV. “People leaving. Peolpe wanting to get off the jury.” [….]

Hotyckey, juror number 5, said the evidence was overwhelming.

“If you could believe the testimony, and believe what you heard,” Hotyckey said. “I don’t see how you couldn’t find the person guilty.”

But Hotyckey says not all of the jurors believed the testimony they heard – especially from John Martorano, a former hit man who got a plea deal from prosecutors to testify against Bulger.

“There was one juror that constantly said that his testimony was not believable,” Hotyckey recalled. “(He said) over and over again that you couldn’t believe anything (Martorano) said because of the government.”

I’ll wrap this post up with another interesting science story from BBC News about an experiment on rats that shows what happens at the moment of death.

A study on rats shows that the brain experiences a huge surge of electricity during the moment of death, suggesting that they are experiencing a higher state of consciousness.

It could explain why people claim to see white light or “life flash before their eyes” during near-death experiences.

Dr Jason Braithwaite from the University of Birmingham says that since this surge is happening in rats, it could also happen in humans.

Watch an interview with Braithwaite at the BBC link. More detail on the study: 

A study carried out on dying rats found high levels of brainwaves at the point of the animals’ demise.

US researchers said that in humans this could give rise to a heightened state of consciousness.

The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The lead author of the study, Dr Jimo Borjigin, of the University of Michigan, said: “A lot of people thought that the brain after clinical death was inactive or hypoactive, with less activity than the waking state, and we show that is definitely not the case.

“If anything, it is much more active during the dying process than even the waking state.”

Much more at the link.

Now it’s your turn. What stories have caught your fancy today? Please share your links in the comment thread.


Forty Years Ago Today, Jim Morrison “Broke on Through to the Other Side”

Forty years ago on June 3, 1971, Jim Morrison, lead singer of The Doors, died in Paris at age 27. He was buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery. Two former members of the band were at the grave site earlier today to mark the occasion.

“James Douglas Morrison, 1943-1971,” reads a plaque on the gravestone erected in the 1990s by the singer-poet’s father, who added a Greek phrase often interpreted as “true to his own spirit”.

Band members Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist, and guitarist Robby Krieger, lit candles at the grave of Morrison, who was known by the nickname the “lizard king”.

Fans of Morrison also paid homage at his grave by leaving flowers there. Some wore black T-shirts with a white drawing of Morrison’s face and the words “40th anniversary.”

I discovered The Doors first album when I was in college in 1967. I had never heard their music and simply bought the record on a whim because I liked the spooky cover art. I went home and put it on my turntable and listened. I was completely blown away. It honestly isn’t over the top to say that the music changed the way I experienced the world. It was that powerful for me.

So here’s to Jim and the great music and performances he shared with us during his brief time on this earth. Here are a couple of my favorites.

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