Monday, December 22, 2008

LASKHAR-E-TAIBA: Officials Confirm Arrest - World's oldest profession, too, feels crisis - Solar Panels at the White House - Eye Spy: Filmmaker Plans to Install Camera in His Eye Socket


Officials Confirm Arrest of Suspected Mumbai Terror Mastermind

Pakistan appears to be responding to growing international pressure. Forces in Kashmir have arrested several members of an Islamist terror group, including the man suspected of planning the attacks on Mumbai.

Pakistan appears to be moving more forcefully against extremists based in the country. Pakistani authorities have arrested several members of an aid organization with ties to the radical Islamist rebel group Laskhar-e-Taiba in connection with the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. Reports suggest that between three and 15 men have been detained.

Indian right-wing Hindu Shiv Sena activists shout anti-Pakistan slogans as they burn an effigy symbolising Pakistani-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba during a protest in Amritsar.

Indian right-wing Hindu Shiv Sena activists shout anti-Pakistan slogans as they burn an effigy symbolising Pakistani-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba during a protest in Amritsar.

The men were arrested on Sunday in a suburb of Muzaffarabad, the capital of the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir, a high-ranking secret service official said on Monday. Pakistani officials confirmed on Monday afternoon that the suspected mastermind behind the terror operation was among those arrested. The man had been one of the suspects sought by India. Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi was arrested and taken from a camp of militant Islamists on Sunday by Pakistani forces. Earlier, the arrest had been reported by the Pakistani daily Dawn.

The news of the arrest came just hours after United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice demanded the government in Islamabad take action. Rice said on Sunday there was evidence that the attacks had been planned on Pakistani soil.

Initially there were only vague allegations from Indian intelligence circles, but more than a week after the devastating attacks, Western security officials believe Laskhar-e-Taiba (which means "Army of the Pure") is clearly behind the bloodbath in Mumbai. "There is hardly any doubt remaining that the attacks were planned from Pakistan," one secret service man working on the case said. According to official figures, 163 civilians and security forces, as well as nine terrorists, were killed during the attacks on two luxury hotels, a Jewish center, a train station and other targets at the end of November.

The analysis of electronic intelligence as well as the statements made by the only surviving terrorist to be arrested, a senior German foreign intelligence official said last week, offer a "conclusive picture that can only lead one to conclude that Laskhar-e-Taiba was responsible." The official added, however, that the attacks would not have been possible without the assistance of "local forces." The intelligence experts believe "more than 40" were involved in the attacks.

At the end of the 1980s, Laskhar-e-Taiba was more or less created by the Pakistani intelligence agency in order to heat up the guerrilla conflict with India in the contested Kashmir region. The Pakistani government banned the group in 2002. But the charity organization Jammat-ud-Dawa, which is still legal, is considered by Western intelligence agencies to be nothing more than a cover for Laskhar-e-Taiba. Its leader, 63-year-old Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, has become a legendary figure in the battle against India and lives totally undisturbed in the Pakistani city of Lahore. In several interviews with Western newspapers, he has denied any involvement and has repeatedly and self-assuredly stated that there is no proof against him.

Terror Coordinated by Smart Phone

In addition to the testimony of the arrested suspect, wiretapped telephone conversations have also indicated the attack was planned in Pakistan. In recordings of calls made available to Western intelligence agencies, the perpetrators can be heard telephoning from Mumbai to high-ranking Lashkar man Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, now believed to have been arrested. Officials believe that Lakhvi gave the perpetrators concrete instructions.

The attackers also had contact with another fighter in the group, named by different intelligence agencies as either "Yussouf" or "Muzammil." He is believed to be a Lashkar man entrusted with responsibility for operations. Following an analysis of connection data, it is believed that some of the perpetrators communicated with the leaders of the attack by smart phone.

Meanwhile, Western intelligence services, including Germany's BND, have created a detailed reconstruction of the attacks. Initially, analysts were surprised by the number of locations involved in the attacks, but now they are almost shocked by the degree of coordination. One German analyst spoke almost respectfully of a "crime that we have never seen before." The planning efforts and arming of the terrorists, the source said, was "highly professional."

No 'Internationalization' of Lashkar-e-Taiba

The details of the attack, especially, have created new worries for intelligence services. The arms used by the perpetrators alone -- all 10 had AK-47 machine guns made in Russia, Chinese pistols, and all had the same amounts of munitions and hand grenades -- suggest to intelligence officials that the men had advanced military training. "The marksmen knew how to use their weapons and how deadly they were," one intelligence source said. "These weren't dumb guys -- this is a totally new quality of terrorists."

Despite the meticulous planning, officials at European intelligence services do not believe the attacks were the work of al-Qaida. Several analysts agreed that Laskhar-e-Taiba still remains a local group without real connections to international terrorism. Nor have there been any observations of foreign fighters infiltrating the group. Laskhar-e-Taiba is known to have training camps in the border areas shared with Afghanistan, but there is no evidence of an "internationalization" of the group.

Meanwhile, heavy violence has erupted again along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. For the second night in a row, terrorists have attacked a truck depot in Pakistan that is used as a base to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan. Eyewitnesses reported seeing an explosion as well as several fighters storming the facility in Peshawar. Around 50 military vehicles were burned out.

On Sunday, a police officer was killed in an attack on a truck depot in northwestern Pakistan. The attackers set 62 trucks on fire at the facility, which is also used to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan. It is suspected that Taliban militia extremists are trying to effect supplies for the international troops in Afghanistan. The majority of those supplies are shipped from Pakistan over the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan.

-- Matthias Gebauer, with wire reports

Two women accompanied a potential customer to a club in Prague. Tourists account for 60 percent of the country's sex trade revenue. (Kurt Vinion for the International Herald Tribune)

World's oldest profession, too, feels crisis

Published: December 8, 2008

PRAGUE: On a recent night at Big Sister, which calls itself the world's biggest Internet brothel, a middle-aged man selected a prostitute from an electronic menu on a flat-screen television, pressing his index finger against it to review the age, hair color, weight and languages spoken by the women on offer.

Once he had chosen an 18-year-old brunette, he put on a mandatory burgundy terry cloth robe and proceeded to one of the brothel's luridly-lit theme rooms, an Alpine suite decorated with foam rubber mountains covered with fake snow.

Nearby, in the brothel's cramped control room, two young technicians used joysticks to control the dozens of hidden cameras that would film his performance and stream it, live, on Big Sister's Internet site.

Sex is free at Big Sister, but that is not cheap enough for some men. Customers get the cut rate in return for signing a release form that allows the brothel to film their sexual exploits.

Even with this financial incentive, Big Sister's marketing manager, Carl Borowitz, 26, a Moravian computer engineer, lamented that the global financial crisis had diminished the number of sex tourists in Prague.

"Sex is a steady demand, because everyone needs it, and it used to be taboo, which made a service like ours all the more attractive," said Borowitz, who looks more like Harry Potter than a Czech Larry Flynt. "But the problem today is that there is too much competition, too many free pornography sites and people are thinking twice before making impulse purchases, including paying for sex."

Big Sister is not the only brothel suffering the effects of a battered global economy. While the world's oldest profession may also be one of its most recession-proof businesses, brothel owners in Europe and the United States say belt-tightening caused by the global financial crisis is undermining a once-lucrative industry.

Egbert Krumeich, manager of Artemis, the largest brothel in Berlin, said that the recession had helped dent revenue by 20 percent in November, which is usually peak season for the sex trade. Meanwhile, in Reno, Nevada, the multimillion-dollar Mustang Ranch recently laid off 30 percent of its staff, citing a decline in high-spending clients.

Big Sister is not struggling as much as some of its more traditional rivals; its revenue is largely derived from the €30, or $40 monthly fee each of the company's 10,000 clients pay to gain access to its Web site.

But Borowitz said Big Sister hoped to offset a 15 percent drop in revenue over the past quarter by expanding into the United States. Big Sister also produces cable TV shows that air on Sky Italia and Television X in Britain, as well as DVDs like "World Cup Love Truck" and "Extremely Perverted."

Ester, an 18-year-old prostitute at Big Sister who declined to give her last name, said that big-spending clients had diminished, but noted that she was still earning nearly €3,000 a month, enough to pay rent and to pay for her favorite Louis Vuitton purses.

"The reason I do this is for the money," she said, after gyrating half-naked around a pole. Being filmed, she added, made her feel more like an actress than a sex object.

In the Czech Republic, where prostitution operates in a gray zone but is largely tolerated, the sex industry is big business, generating nearly €400 million in annual revenues, 60 percent of which is derived from foreign visitors, according to Mag Consulting, a tourism research company in Prague that also studies the sex industry.

Since the fall of Communism in 1989, the Czech Republic has become a major transit and destination country for women and girls trafficked from countries farther east, including Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Moldova, the police say. Czechs and those transiting the country are most often sent to Western Europe or the United States.

Since 1989, tens of thousands of sex tourists have streamed into Prague, the pristinely beautiful Czech capital, drawn by inexpensive erotic services, an atmosphere of anonymity for customers and a liberal population tolerant of adultery.

Mag Consulting said 14 percent of Czech men admit to having had sex with prostitutes, compared with an EU-wide average of 10 percent.

Dozens of cheap flights to Prague have also ensured a steady flow of bachelor parties from across Europe. In 2005, an average of 30 flights arrived in Prague every day from Britain alone, a figure that analysts said has dropped by a third.

Jaromir Beranek, the director of Mag, said that when Germany and Britain - the two countries that send the most tourists to Prague - began to stagnate, sexual tourism suffered too.

The strength of the Czech crown against the euro, lower spending power and competition from even lower-cost sex capitals like Riga, Latvia, and Krakow, Poland, were threatening one of the country's most thriving sectors, he said. "If you ski and there is no snow, you stay home. The same applies to sex."

Many Czechs are more than happy to see Prague shrug off its reputation as one of the world's top-20 sex destinations, but some in the hotel industry are so alarmed by the drop in tourists that they are lobbying the government to legalize the trade, in hope that it will help lure more clients.

Jiri Gajdosik, the manager of Le Palais, one of Prague's top hotels, argues that regulating prostitution would help attract business by making prostitution safer. "We must ensure that the city loses its bad reputation of a city where foreigners are afraid that they will be robbed," he said in an interview with Hospodarske noviny, a Czech financial daily.

While some critics have warned that legalization would effectively transform the Czech state into the country's biggest pimp, the government is considering whether to emulate the Netherlands and Germany by regulating prostitution, just as it would any other industry. It is considering passing legislation by the end of this year that would require the Czech Republic's estimated 10,000 prostitutes to register with the local authorities.

Dzamila Stehlikova, the Green Party minister for minorities and human rights who is shepherding the bill through Parliament, said that forcing the business out into the open would make it harder for human traffickers to thrive, while also helping to assure mandatory health check-ups for prostitutes. Other advocates argue that legalization would generate millions of euros in tax revenue from an industry that now largely operates underground.

Not everyone is enthusiastic, including the prostitutes themselves, who warn that being issued prostitution identification cards would further stigmatize them.

Hana Malinova, director of Bliss Without Risk, a prostitution outreach group, said she feared the current credit crunch was pushing more poor women into prostitution, since they could make more money selling their bodies - about €120 for a half-hour session at some upmarket sex clubs in Prague - than flipping burgers at McDonalds.

Even with the economic downturn, she added, prostitution was far more resilient than other industries, though the downturn was discouraging adultery.

"An Austrian farmer from a remote area who is not married will still cross the border to the Czech Republic looking for sex," Malinova said. "On the other hand, the recession is helping to keep husbands at home who might otherwise be cheating on their wives."

Near the border with Germany, in towns in northern Bohemia that were long blighted by a daily influx of sex tourists seeking cheap thrills, many are rejoicing in the decline.

Only a few years ago, the town of Dubi was so overrun by prostitution that a nearby orphanage was opened to provide refuge for dozens of unwanted babies of prostitutes and their German clients. Sex could be purchased for as little as €5 - the price of a hamburger in nearby Dresden - drawing a daily influx of more than 1,000 sex tourists.

The more than three dozen brothels that once operated in Dubi have been winnowed down to four, with several of the former brothels having transformed into goulash restaurants or golf clubs.

Petr Pipal, the conservative mayor of Dubi whose zero-tolerance policy is largely responsible for the change, said that installing surveillance cameras and police officers at the entrance of brothels had deterred sex tourists by depriving them of their anonymity. Rising prices for sexual services and the global financial crisis, he added, were also helping to tame demand.

"Two or three years ago, we would get 1,000 men coming here for sex on a Friday night, which is a lot for a town of 8,000 people," Pipal said from police headquarters, where members of the anti-prostitution squad sat in a surveillance room, controlling outdoor cameras filming 13 now mostly deserted streets.

"The one good thing about the economic crisis is that it is helping to keep sex tourists away."

Even brothels in areas of the Czech capital most popular with tourists complain that they are suffering from economic hardship. On a recent night near Wenceslas Square in Prague, dozens of young men outside a row of neon-lit sex clubs beckoned tourists with offers of complimentary alcohol and racy strip shows.

Inside Darling, a giant multifloor cabaret famous for cancan shows modeled on the Moulin Rouge in Paris, scantily clad young women stripped on a stage surrounded by leopard skin couches, flashing disco balls and French impressionist paintings of naked women.

Suzana Brezinova, the club's marketing director, said sex tourism to Prague had been hit because prices had risen nearly to the levels of Rome. But she added that some high-spending businessmen still came to Darling to shrug off the economic doldrums, thinking nothing of splurging €1200 for a night of sexual pleasure and escapism.

"People have less money," she said. "But hard times also mean that people want to be cheered up."

Jan Krcmar contributed reporting from Prague and Victor Homola from  Berlin.

Solar Panels at the White House

In 2003, solar photovoltaic panels were installed at the White House.   Two smaller solar thermal systems were also installed to heat water:  one for landscape maintenance personnel, the other for the presidential pool and spa.

The Reagan Administration had ordered a previous set of solar thermal panels removed in the 1980s (the Carter Administration had installed the first set).   

The Park Service, who oversees White House maintenance, decided to install a new set of solar panels on a maintenance building adjacent to the main house because as James Doherty, an architect with the National Park Service told Environmental Building News in 2003, "we are always looking for opportunities to promote renewable energy and sustainable design and we decided to take advantage of this next opportunity to pursue that mission at the White House."

Although the White House has never revealed (for security reasons) how much energy each system generates, it acknowledges the system is modest and more a symbol of the Park Service's commitment to renewable energy than an all-out power system.  The Bush Administration itself never really announced the project.  Instead the installation was completed "under the radar;" industry trade journals were the media that picked up the story. 

We, at Cooler Planet, decided to remind people of these national panels because we hope that the next Administration furthers these solar efforts – replete with lots of fanfare. 


Rob Spence looks you straight in the eye when he talks. So it's a little unnerving to imagine that soon one of his hazel-green eyes will have a tiny wireless video camera in it that records your every move.

The eye he's considering replacing is not a working one -- it's a prosthetic eye he's worn for several years. Spence, a 36-year-old Canadian filmmaker, is not content with having one blind eye. He wants a wireless video camera inside his prosthetic, giving him the ability to make movies wherever he is, all the time, just by looking around.

"If you lose your eye and have a hole in your head, then why not stick a camera in there?" he asks.

Spence, who calls himself the "eyeborg guy," will not be restoring his vision. The camera won't connect to his brain. What it will do is allow him to be a bionic man where technology fuses with the human body to become inseparable. In effect, he will become a "little brother," someone who's watching and recording every move of those in his field of vision.

If successful, Spence will become one of a growing number of lifecasters. From early webcam pioneer Jennifer Kaye Ringley, who created JenniCam, to Microsoft researcher Gordon Bell, to commercial lifecasting ventures and, many people use video and internet technology to record and broadcast every moment of their waking lives. But Spence is taking lifecasting a step further, with a bionic eye camera that is actually embedded in his body.

"The eyes are like no other part of the body," says Spence. "It's what you look into when you fall in love with somebody and [influences] whether you trust someone or not. Now with a video camera in there, it will change how people see and perceive me."

It's an interesting and innovative idea, says Yonggang Huang, a professor in the departments of civil and mechanical engineering at Northwestern University. Huang, along with University of Illinois professor John Rogers has developed a web of micro-sensors to enable eye-shaped cameras. Huang is not involved in Spence's project.

"It's very clever," says Huang of Spence's quest. "It is not a true eye but it provides the way for people to record images in life as they see [them] and store [them]."

Spence lost his right eye at 13 while playing with his grandfather's gun on a visit to Ireland. "I wanted to shoot a pile of cowshit," he says. "I wasn't holding the gun properly and it backfired, causing a lot of trauma to the eye."

This short video by Rob Spence shows the operation in which surgeons removed his sightless eye. Warning: Graphic imagery may be unsettling to many viewers.

After the accident, he returned to Belleville, a small town two hours east of Toronto, where he grew up. Spence became technically blind in the eye, and over the years, his vision deteriorated completely. Three years ago he had his eye removed and a prosthetic one inserted. Ever the filmmaker, he even made a movie out of his surgery. But it wasn't an easy decision.

"When you completely lose an eye it is a difficult thing to let go of," he says. "The eye has an emotional attachment. It is a window to your soul."

Spence wore an eye patch for a while, which he says looked cool. But once he started thinking about having a camera in his eye, Spence got in touch with Steve Mann, a professor at the University of Toronto. Mann is one of the experts in the world of wearable computing and cyborgs -- organisms that blend natural and artificial systems.

"There are a lot of challenges in this," says Mann, "from actually building a camera system that works, to sending and receiving images, to getting the correct shape of the camera."

Even in the age of miniaturization, getting a wireless video camera into a prosthetic eye isn't easy. The shape of the prosthetic is the biggest limitation: In Spence's case, it's 9-mm thick, 30-mm long and 28-mm high.

While that might seem like plenty of room in an age when digital cameras are squeezed into unimaginably slim and compact phones, it actually isn't. The average area available inside a prosthetic eye for an imaging sensor is only about 8 square mm, explains Phil Bowen, an ocularist who is working with Spence.  Also, a digital camera has many more components than the visible lens and the sensor behind it, including the power supply and image-processing circuitry. Getting a completely self-contained camera module to fit into the tiny hollow of a prosthetic eye is a significant engineering challenge.

That's where Professors Huang and Rogers' research could come in handy. Three months ago, the duo published a paper that showed how a new sensor built out of a flexible mesh of wire-connected pixels could replace the traditional flat imaging chip as the light sensor for a camera. The mesh is made from many of the same materials as a standard digital-camera sensor, but it has the ability to conform to convoluted, irregular surfaces -- like the back of a synthetic eyeball.

"Our cameras might more naturally integrate with a prosthetic eye, due to their hemispherical shapes," says Rogers. "One might also argue that they can provide a more human-like perception of the world."

Then there's the question of how the prosthetic eyeball (the outer shell for the camera) will be made. The eyeball chassis has to close shut and be watertight.

Traditional prosthetic eyes are single pieces made with polymethyl-methacrylate (PMMA), a flexible polymer that is also used in dentures. To fit a camera in, Bowen redesigned the prosthetic eye into two pieces that could snap shut.

But with a camera inside there's something new to worry about. The modified prosthetic eye will be heavier than traditional ones and that could affect the eye socket, says Bowen. "The weight might stretch out the lower lid," he says, potentially disfiguring the face.

Assuming the size, weight and water-tightness issues can be solved, Spence has a vague idea of how he thinks it can work. A camera module will have to be connected to a transmitter inside the prosthetic eye that can broadcast the captured video footage. To boost the signal, he says he can wear another transmitter on his belt. A receiver attached to a hard drive in a backpack could capture that information and then send it to another device that uploads everything to a web site in real time.


If it sounds rather cumbersome and complicated, it is. Spence and his team are still working to find the right answers.

He hasn't been able to get the bigger camera companies to work with him. "Part of problem is if you cold call somebody it sounds like there is a maniac on the other end of the phone," he says. "This whole idea confuses and overwhelms most people."

"Right now I am begging, borrowing and stealing camera modules from different cameras to make a stage one prototype," says Spence.

Spence is not the only one attempting to implant a video camera in his eye socket -- artist Tanya Vlach is working on a similar project -- but if he's successful he will be more than just another cyborg. The documentary film he's making about his efforts, plus the experience of living with a video camera in his eye, could help build greater awareness about the culture of surveillance in our society today, he says.

"No one is going to ban surveillance cameras," says Spence. "It's more about being aware of it. It's about giving a shit in the first place."

Having a bionic eye doesn't mean Spence will be recording all the time, he says. Unlike lifecaster Justin Kan, Spence is not promising to broadcast all of his life's moments. (Even Kan reneged on his promise within a few short months, as soon as a romantic opportunity presented itself.)

Spence is willing to turn off his camera in spaces such as gyms, theaters or private events. But he will be making many of those decisions on the spur, every day. "I wouldn't behave that differently than someone with a cellphone today," he says.

Even though his project is still in its early stages, Spence says many people have already told him they wouldn't be comfortable being filmed.

"People are more scared of a center-left documentary maker with an eye than the 400 ways they are filmed every day at the school, the subway, the mall," he says.

He hopes he will help  get people thinking about privacy, how surveillance cameras and the footage they record are being used and accessed.

"Sometimes I run a little experiment," he says. "I tell people around me, 'Did you know there are 11,000 new video cameras being installed in our country every day?' Then I will exaggerate and say there are 50,000 new video cameras going in everyday," says Spence. "Most of the times I get the same answer: 'That's interesting. Now what's for lunch?' or 'The weather is nice today.'

"I wonder what those people will say when they are staring back into the video camera in my eye?"

Photos: Steve Mann

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