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News Quirks 03.07.07 

Curses, Foiled Again Thieves who took $2.5 million in art, antiques and rugs from a San Francisco mansion apparently spent months planning the heist, according to police investigators. Posing as a moving crew, the gang pulled up in a U-Haul truck and spent two days cleaning out the house while homeowner Robert Kendrick was out of town. Two days later, police said, a member of the gang went to the home and tried to sell Kendrick some of the stolen property, claiming he spotted it at a flea market. A second man accompanied him, who Kendrick said lectured him on his poor home security. (Kendrick is the grandson of the co-founder of Schlage lock and security company.) The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Kendrick called police, then went to the flea market and spotted the U-Haul, containing more of his stolen items. Police arrested several gang members, including ringleader James Reem, 42. "He almost bragged that he organized it," Inspector Denise Fabbri said, "but he basically lost control."

* Two dozen Hispanic men approached a vehicle at a 7-Eleven in Baltimore, Md., soliciting "underground" employment. The vehicle's occupants were U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, taking a break from an investigation. They determined that all 24 of the men were illegal aliens and arrested them.

Big Brother Does More Than Watch Dutch authorities adapted surveillance cameras in Groningen and Rotterdam, as well as on trains and in stations, to listen for voices raised in anger. Microphones attached to the cameras filter sounds to software that can detect voices considered aggressive in tone. "Aggressive people tend to tense their larynx, and the sound made by their vocal cords is distorted," said Peter van Hengel of Sound Intelligence, a division of the University of Groningen that developed the system.

* Britain's first talking closed-circuit television cameras have been installed to combat anti-social behavior by publicly berating and shaming offenders. According to the Daily Mail, the system, which was introduced in Middlesbrough by Mayor Ray Mallon, allows control-room operators to monitor activity in the city center through seven surveillance cameras fitted with loudspeakers and warn people who behave inappropriately, from littering to brawling. "Most people are so ashamed and embarrassed at being caught, they quickly slink off without further trouble," Jack Bonner, who manages the system, said. "We always make the requests polite, and if the offender obeys, the operator adds, 'Thank you.' We think that's a nice finishing touch."

* The FBI has developed a new form of electronic surveillance, which remotely activates a mobile telephone's microphone and uses it to eavesdrop on nearby conversations. The technique, called a "roving bug," was approved by the Justice Department for use in criminal investigations. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan upheld its legality, noting that the eavesdropping technique "functioned whether the phone was powered on or off." Nextel and Samsung handsets and the Motorola Razr are especially vulnerable to the technique, according to counter-surveillance consultant James Atkinson, who told CNET News that the only practical defense against roving bugs is to remove the batteries from cellphones when they aren't in use.

Perchance to Dream France's health minister is considering whether workers should be allowed to sleep on the job. Xavier Bertrand hinted at the possibility of paid siestas at a news conference announcing plans to spend $9 million to educate the public about sleeping problems. He pointed out that 56 percent of French workers complain a poor night's sleep has affected their job performance. "Why not a nap at work?" Bertrand said, calling for further studies. "It can't be a taboo subject."

* Two weeks later, researchers reported that their six-year study of 23,681 Greek adults found those who regularly took midday naps lowered their risk of dying from heart disease by more than a third. Researchers at the University of Athens medical school concluded naps relieve some stress that affects the heart. "If you can take a midday nap," the study's author, Dimitrios Trichopoulos, said, "do so."

* A week after that, the Associated Press reported that students at Indiana University South Bend had started a nap club. Consisting of a quiet room with the shades drawn, a few desks and chairs and six air mattresses, the club operates between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. and can accommodate up to 15 persons at once. A moderator wakes them up at the appropriate time and "makes sure no one messes with you or your stuff," club president Michael Duttlinger said.

Scam-a-Rama Federal authorities in Tacoma, Wash., accused Rosie Marie Costello, 46, of fraudulently collecting disability benefits totaling $110,000 on behalf of her son for nearly 20 years by claiming Pete Costello, 28, is mentally retarded and unable to read, write, shower, care for himself or drive a car. Assistant U.S. Attorney Norman Barbosa said evidence to the contrary, resulting in fraud and conspiracy charges against the mother and son, is a videotape of Pete Costello contesting a traffic ticket in a courtroom. "He's like any other person trying to get out of a traffic ticket," Barbosa said, explaining that the son faked or at least exaggerated his retardation. "Obviously his mother did get him involved in this," Barbosa said, "but he's been an adult for many years." Prosecutors believe the mother collected another $110,000 by falsely claiming disability for a daughter, whom officials have been unable to locate.

* Paul Appleby, 47, received 10 months in prison for fraudulently claiming disability benefits. He declared that he needed a wheelchair or walker after a back accident forced him to retire, but prosecutors in Nottinghamshire, England, told the court that Appleby subsequently ran several road races and marathons while receiving disability payments totaling $43,800. Appleby explained that he started running to lose weight after his retirement and it "caused a massive change in his circumstances," which he admitted failing to report.

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Roland Sweet

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Roland Sweet is the author of the syndicated column "News Quirks," which appears weekly in Seven Days.

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