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82 advocacy groups call on Biden to end federal executions

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82 advocacy groups call on Biden to end federal executions

WASHINGTON — Dozens of civil rights and advocacy organizations are calling on the Biden administration to immediately halt federal executions after an unprecedented run of capital punishment under President Donald Trump and to commute the sentences of inmates on federal death row.

The organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 80 others, sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Tuesday morning, urging that he act immediately “on your promise of ensuring equality, equity, and justice in our criminal legal system.”

Biden has been systematically undoing many Trump administration policies on climate, immigration and ethics rules. Although he is against the death penalty and has said he will work to end its use, Biden has not commented on what he will do with Trump’s unprecedented push for the federal death penalty. The Bureau of Prisons carried out more executions under Trump, 13, than any previous president.

The reinstated executions began in July as the coronavirus raged through the prisons. An Associated Press analysis found the executions were likely a virus superspreader. About 70% of the inmates on federal death row in addition to prison staff members, employees on the agency’s execution team and witnesses contracted the virus.

The Trump administration carried out the 13 executions in six months, beginning July 14 and ending four days before Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. They were the first federal executions in 17 years, and more were conducted under Trump than in the previous 56 years combined.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week that while Biden has spoken about his opposition to the death penalty, she didn’t “have anything to predict for you or preview for you in terms of additional steps.”

The groups say Biden should step in immediately and take action, as his administration works to establish priorities, address systemic racism and overhaul parts of the criminal justice system.

In the letter, the civil rights groups said the use of the death penalty “continues to perpetuate patterns of racial and economic oppression endemic to the American criminal legal system.” A report by the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center said that Black people remain overrepresented on death rows and that Black people who kill white people are far more likely to be sentenced to death than white people who kill Black people.

“Any criminal legal system truly dedicated to the pursuit of justice should recognize the humanity of all those who come into contact with it, not sanction the use of a discriminatory practice that denies individuals their rights, fails to respect their dignity, and stands in stark contrast to the fundamental values of our democratic system of governance,” the letter said.

The executions went ahead for inmates whose lawyers claimed were too mentally ill or intellectually disabled to fully grasp why they were being put to death. Lawyers for Lisa Montgomery, convicted of killing a pregnant Missouri woman and cutting out her baby, said her mental illness was partly triggered by years of horrific sexual abuse as a child. Days before Biden took office, she became the first woman executed by the federal government in nearly seven decades.

The groups told Biden he has the power to dismantle the death chamber building at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana — the small building where the 13 executions were carried out in six months — in addition to rescinding the Justice Department’s execution protocols and a regulation that no longer required federal death sentences to be carried out by lethal injection and cleared the way to use other methods like firing squads and poison gas.

They also said Biden could prohibit prosecutors from seeking death sentences and commute the sentences of the several dozen inmates on federal death row.

Far-reaching steps by Biden, the letter said, would also preclude any future president from restarting federal executions. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, halted federal executions but never cleared death row or sought to strike the death penalty from U.S. statutes. That left the door open for Trump to resume them.

“We … recognize that if there is one thing that the waning months of the Trump presidency also made clear, it is the horrendous implications of simply having an informal federal death penalty moratorium in place,” it said.

Cynthia Roseberry, the ACLU’s deputy director of policy for the justice division, said she knows that Biden has a lot on his plate and that he should be given some time to act on the death penalty. But she said the groups wanted to assure Biden “that there is broad based support to be bold” on the issue and that some don’t require complicated policy initiatives or new legislation.

“These things,” Roseberry said, “can be accomplished with the stroke of the pen.”

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New poll shows 50% drop in fear of dying from COVID-19

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New poll shows 50% drop in fear of dying from COVID-19

Americans are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new survey.

The national Harris Poll conducted over the weekend found a significant uptick in positive sentiment about the pandemic — and a drop in fears of the virus.

“The last year has certainly been difficult for many Americans and their families, but in the face of all the hardships and social distancing efforts, many have remained optimistic and resilient when it comes to their mental health,” John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll, said in a statement.

More than half, or 52 percent, of the 2,000 adults surveyed said they are not afraid of dying as a result of catching COVID-19, the highest mark since July 2020.

For most of the year, the number of people who said they were frightened of being killed by the virus outnumbered the alternative.

More than 516,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, but both deaths and cases have recently been on the decline.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 20 percent of the adult population is now vaccinated against the coronavirus.

The poll found a 15 percent increase in how many Americans approve of how the COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed.

About 66 percent gave the nation’s inoculation efforts the thumbs up, compared to 51 percent just one month ago.

The findings came as President Biden on Tuesday said the US will have enough vaccines for every US adult by the end of May, two months earlier than previously anticipated.

Despite the stepped-up pace of vaccine production, the massive effort to get every American jabbed could extend well into the summer, officials said.

Biden said he hoped that the nation would be back to normal sometime before “this time next year.”

Still, when asked if they currently think there is light at the end of the tunnel of the pandemic, nearly 6 in 10 respondents said yes, according to the poll.

They were also more optimistic about the effects of the pandemic, with 66 percent overall saying their mental health has been affected in a positive way.

About 30 percent of those respondents said they’ve found more things to be grateful for during the crisis; 28 percent said they’ve taken more “me time” to do things for themselves; and 25 percent said they’ve been praying more.

“While Americans remain vigilant over the pandemic,” Gerzema said, “it is an encouraging sign to see greater acceptance of the vaccine, a belief that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and a declining sentiment in fear of dying from the virus.”

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Deep Nostalgia tool animates photos with creepy results

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Deep Nostalgia tool animates photos with creepy results

This technology was built in the name of nostalgia but is being used in the name of nonsense.

Late last month, genealogy website MyHeritage announced a new tool for animating photos called “Deep Nostalgia.” But while the tech was intended to let users “bring beloved ancestors back to life” and “experience your family history like never before,” many internet denizens have been finding other far less wholesome applications for it. 

“So I wanted to know how the recent #DeepLearning facial animations services do with busts and decided to give that botched Christiano Ronaldo statue a spin,” one Twitter user captioned a “#DeeplyDisturbed” video created with the MyHeritage software to show the bronze bust uncannily moving about. 

An animated version of the Mona Lisa is less disturbing, but still unsettling. 

“Since that #DeepNostalgia thing is gaining popularity, I found something that #InternetNeverForgets,” tweeted another user who experimented with the software to animate Beyoncé’s face mid-performance. 

“Frederick Douglass, the mighty abolitionist, was the single most photographed person in the United States during the nineteenth century. Here’s how he might’ve looked in motion. Brace yourself and press play,” tweeted a user who decided to use the tool for something closer to its intended purpose. 

MyHeritage is aware that the tool — created using tech developed by deep-learning company D-ID — could thrust photos deep into weird territory.

“Some people love the Deep Nostalgia™ feature and consider it magical, while others find it creepy and dislike it,” the company wrote in Deep Nostalgia’s FAQ section. “Indeed, the results can be controversial and it’s hard to stay indifferent to this technology.” 

With that in mind, MyHeritage invites users to “please use this feature on your own historical photos and not on photos featuring living people without their permission.” As well, the ability to include speech in the videos has purposefully not been included in order to “prevent abuse.” 

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Benefits of microdosing LSD are purely placebo: study

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Benefits of microdosing LSD are purely placebo: study

The positive impacts of microdosing hallucinogens may be no more than a hallucination, researchers have found.

Microdosing — or the practice of regularly using low doses of psychedelic drugs including LSD and psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms — has become a relatively mainstream practice thanks to its trendiness in Silicon Valley, where CEOs, including Steve Jobs, have endorsed it as a productivity hack. A new study, however, has found that the purported benefits of taking a very small amount of hallucinogenics daily may in fact be more placebo than reality. 

In findings published Tuesday in the scientific journal eLife, researchers with the Imperial College London reported that their study of 191 participants — the largest placebo-controlled trial on psychedelics to date — found that “anecdotal benefits of microdosing can be explained by the placebo effect.” 

Researchers virtually guided study participants — all of whom were already regularly microdosing — through the process of preparing themselves four week’s worth of envelopes containing either a placebo gel capsule or one with a low LSD dose, each envelope bearing a QR code they logged following consumption. 

At the end of the trial period, researchers found that participants reported an improvement in psychological well being across the board, whether they were taking actual acid or placebos. 

“All psychological outcomes improved significantly from baseline to after the four weeks long dose period for the microdose group; however, the placebo group also improved and no significant between-groups differences were observed,” the scientists wrote. 

The report is full of numerous concessions regarding the the study’s weaknesses, including that it had a small participant pool and was performed by citizens, who were not in a clinical setting. 

Still, the citizen-science approach was vital as “restrictive drug policies make placebo-controlled studies on psychedelics difficult and expensive, in particular for microdosing, which involves taking psychedelics over a longer time period.” Unaffiliated scientists agree that the findings should be respected.

“This suggests that the perceived beneficial effects of microdosing psychedelics in this group are more likely to be a result of positive expectation than the capacity of the drug to induce a beneficial effect,” scientist James Rucker told the Guardian of the findings.  

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