The invisible man who rescued stolen art

There are about 100 of us packed into a restaurant in Upper Holmesburg, Philadelphia – art experts and curators, museum security chiefs, and a phalanx of FBI agents with 9mm Glocks concealed under their G-man suits.

We have gathered to say farewell to a man few people have heard of and even fewer could recognise or describe.

That is the way Special Agent Robert “Bob” Wittman prefers it.

For nearly two decades, usually masquerading as a crooked art dealer with links to the Mafia or the Colombian drug cartels, he has run undercover sting operations, luring criminals into selling him stolen works of art.

Art crime is big business. Estimated to be worth between $1.5 – $6 billion annually, it is now the fourth largest international crime, after drug dealing, gun running and money laundering.

Bob Wittman has been on the frontlines of the war against art crime since 1989.

In a distinguished career he has recovered stolen art worth millions, in more than a dozen countries.

Now, at the age of 53, the king of heists is hanging up his silver badge and gun to write a book and spend more time with his wife and three children.

Always a delight to hear about a copper who honors the profession. For too many – including a small percentage of those I’ve known personally – it’s a sinecure, a civil service gig like working for the state highway department, even an easy source of drugs.

I’ll be waiting in line to buy and read Bob Wittman’s book.

Estonia to vote by mobile phone in 2011


Victoria Paloe of Estonia in Mobile Phone Throwing World Championship
Daylife/Reuters Pictures

Parliament has approved a law making Estonia the first country to allow voting by mobile phone.

Lawmakers have approved a measure allowing citizens to vote by mobile phone in the next parliamentary elections in 2011.

The mobile-voting system, which has already been tested, requires that voters obtain free, authorized chips for their phones, said Raul Kaidro, spokesman of the SK Certification Center, which issues personal ID cards in Estonia.

The chip will verify the voter’s identity and authorize participation in the electronic voting system, he said.

They expect the 2011 vote to be the first of its kind, though neighboring Finland and Sweden possess the software and technical capabilities to conduct a similar “cellular election.”

Estonians have been voting online since 2007 with no validation problems at all.

Governor tries to seize 141 domain names from gambling sites


Gambling is OK if the state gets their cut
Daylife/AP Photo by Ed Reinke

Lawyers representing online gambling interests have told the Kentucky Court of Appeals that Gov. Steve Beshear’s effort to seize domain names is blatantly unconstitutional.

A three-judge panel is weighing Beshear’s unprecedented move to seize the domain names of 141 gambling Web sites.

Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate allowed the Cabinet for Justice and Public Safety to seize the domain names last month. The seizure, at this point, is meaningless because the state cannot control the content of the Web sites until a judge orders the domain names forfeited to the state.

In oral arguments Friday, lawyers representing six domain names, two online gambling trade groups and The Poker Players Alliance said the cabinet ís move is littered with legal and constitutional flaws. They focused on four arguments:

■ Wingate does not have jurisdiction to allow the state to seize domains registered in other countries where gambling is legal.

■ Domain names are not gambling devices.

■ Domain names can only be seized after a criminal conviction. The state has not attempted to criminally prosecute the Web site operators.

■ Kentucky is prohibited by the commerce clause of the U.S Constitution from regulating interstate and international commerce, which the trade groups argue Wingate’s order affectively allows.

Perhaps they should take into account the fact that the Governor is a greedy, power-hungry nutball. Did the U.S. Constitution, Magna Carta or any other document describing personal or commercial liberties mean anything to the Sheriff of Nottingham?

Apple to sell 45 million iPhones in 2009 – Walmart to sell 10% of them!

Which hardly seems believable, but you never know. Yes, Walmart, that bastion of crass commercialism, is going to be carrying the iPhone, that symbol of elegant commercialism, and what we’re going to get is a whole lot of commercialism.

Analyst Gene Munster (our favorite prognosticator other than the Groundhog himself) says that not only will Apple sell a whopping 45 million iPhones next year, but a tenth of them will be sold right here in America at good ol’ Walmart.

Apparently he didn’t change his numbers from before the announcement of the Walmart deal, since he had already planned on Apple finding other ways to sell the iPhone. But man, that’s a lot of iPhones.

No one’s ever been proven wrong overestimating Apple sales we guess. Think iPhones are commonplace now? Wait until you see ’em at Walmart.

I’d be hard-pressed to forecast anyone’s sales in this economy. That’s what people like Munster get paid to do.

Toughest manmade ceramic mimics mother-of-pearl


The magnified surface of mother-of-pearl

Biomimicry – technological innovation inspired by nature – is one of the hottest ideas in science but has yet to yield many practical advances. Time for a change. Scientists with the DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have mimicked the structure of mother of pearl to create what may well be the toughest ceramic ever produced.

Through the controlled freezing of suspensions in water of an aluminum oxide (alumina) and the addition of a well known polymer, PMMA, a team of researchers has produced ceramics that are 300 times tougher than their constituent components.

“We have emulated nature’s toughening mechanisms to make ice-templated alumina hybrids that are comparable in specific strength and toughness to aluminum alloys,” says Robert Ritchie. “We believe these model materials can be used to identify key microstructural features that should guide the future synthesis of bio-inspired, yet non-biological, light-weight structural materials with unique strength and toughness.”

For ceramic materials that are even tougher in the future, Ritchie says he and his colleagues need to improve the proportion of ceramic to polymer in their composites. The alumina/PMMA hybrid was only 85-percent alumina. They want to boost ceramic content and thin the layers even further. They also want to replace the PMMA with a better polymer and eventually replace the polymer content altogether with metal.

Says Ritchie, “The polymer is only capable of allowing things to slide past one another, not bear any load. Infiltrating the ceramic layers with metals would give us a lubricant that can also bear some of the load. This would improve strength as well as toughness of the composite.”

Such future composite materials would be lightweight and strong as well as tough, he says, and could find important applications in energy and transportation.

Fascinating stuff – at least to a geek who started out in industrial engineering and metallurgy – before wandering off with a guitar to change the world. Read through the details. The engineering is a gas.

Portugal volunteers to take Guantánamo prisoners


Daylife/Reuters Pictures

In a diplomatic breakthrough that is likely to help the Obama administration close the Guantánamo detention camp, Portugal said this week that it was willing to resettle some detainees and urged other European countries to accept prisoners remaining at the camp, which has been a source of international criticism for nearly seven years.

“The time has come for the European Union to step forward,” Portugal’s foreign minister, Luís Amado, said in a letter to other European ministers released Thursday.

“We should send a clear signal of our willingness to help the U.S. government in that regard, namely through the resettlement of detainees,” the letter said.

Although there is no specific agreement yet on the transfer of detainees, Bush administration officials described the announcement as a critical step toward solving the problem that has been referred to as “Guantánamo’s hard cases.” That refers to some 60 of the remaining 250 detainees whom the Pentagon has cleared for release but who cannot be sent to their home countries, often out of concern that they would be tortured or persecuted. They are from countries including Algeria, China, Libya and Tunisia.

Separate from – the detainees the Bush government has deliberately shipped off to other nations to be tortured.

Ice Beetles impacted by climate change and more


Nebria beetle

In the summer of 1968, Dave Kavanaugh set off on a hike that would change the course of his life. As a second-year medical student at the University of Colorado, he had joined a climbing club with a few members of the biophysics department, and the group had set their sights on Gray’s Peak—the ninth highest mountain in Colorado. Kavanaugh, who has never been able to do anything slowly, scampered up to the top of the peak in record time and sat down to wait for the rest of the group.

As he peeled an orange and gazed out at the surrounding terrain, a sudden movement caught his eye. A small black beetle had crawled up onto his boot. While most climbers would have ignored (or possibly squashed) the small intruder, Kavanaugh whipped a collecting vial out of his pack—beetle collecting had been a hobby ever since he took an elective entomology course in college—and scooped up the rare specimen. He had never seen it before in Colorado, and as he learned when he got back to campus, neither had many others. There were only two previous records of the species in the state. “That was it,” says Kavanaugh with a grin. “I was hooked.”

More than 30 years after his first major cross-country quest for Nebria beetles, Kavanaugh set off on another epic adventure, retracing his steps in search of DNA samples for each of the species in his collection. Between June 22 and August 20 of 2008, he revisited 67 collecting sites in the mountains of eight different states. He had dutifully written down the exact location of every specimen he ever collected, so he knew exactly where to look. The problem was that the beetles were no longer there.

I have a whole new perspective on change now,” says Kavanaugh as he sits in his office a few months later. “I was completely unprepared for the amount these habitats had changed in the past few decades. In some places, I found that the picturesque mountain stream I remembered was now a ski resort. Perhaps more startling, I realized that in many areas the tree-line was moving up the mountain and the glaciers were retreating.” Because of their snowfield hunting practices, most Nebria beetles live above the tree-line, favoring barren rocky patches where they can run without wading through tall grasses or shrubs. However, the altitudes that once provided them with ideal rocky habitats now often host lush forests or meadows—and the open snowfields that were once extensive are now often gone.

And where I used to find hundreds of them, I’m often now finding just a handful—or none at all.”

Cautionary tale for more than climate change – so, please, read the whole article. Not that humans are exempted from responsibility. I think we just screw over natural habitat in more ways than one.

Bush Opines That Maybe Earth Isn’t Flat After All; Christians Go Berzerk


“Oh hell, what are they mad about THIS time?”

George W. Bush’s recent statement that he believes the Bible is “probably not” literally true has apparently left many Christian conservatives reeling in shock.

David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network told CNN”s John Roberts on Thursday, “I think a lot of social conservative evangelicals were surprised — probably grabbing the smelling salts as we speak….”

Bush made the controversial statement during a Monday interview on ABC’s Nightline. When asked whether he thinks the Bible is literally true, he replied, “Probably not. No, I’m not a literalist, but I think you can learn a lot from it.”

Read the whole article, to see how little it takes to offend some on the Christian right.

Vatican condemns sex, genes and rock’n roll


“I wear the same shoes as Cristiano Ronaldo”
Daylife/AP Photo by Alessandra Tarantino

Most of this isn’t worthy of any more attention than the usual superstition-babble. I thought I’d post the article for you to judge in your own mind whether the Pope and his church are becoming more – or less – relevant to the 21st Century.

A Vatican bioethics document has condemned artificial fertilization and other techniques used by many couples and also said human cloning, “designer babies” and embryonic stem-cell research were immoral.

The long awaited document from the Vatican’s doctrinal body marked a big step by the Vatican into the brave new world of biotechnology, an area in which governments around the world are struggling to formulate legislation.

The document also condemned new drugs that block pregnancy from taking hold, such as the so-called “morning-after pill” and the drug RU-486, which blocks the action of hormones needed to keep a fertilized egg implanted in the uterus.

These drugs, as well as the IUD (intrauterine device), which has been in use for decades, were deemed to fall “within the sin of abortion” and are gravely immoral.

It goes on and on from there. “Big step”? Not even a baby step. Pun intended.