The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 59.0°F | Partly Cloudy

News Briefs

Death Sentence Upheld Despite Lack of Defense


The California Supreme Court upheld a death sentence for a Los Angeles man Monday even though his defense lawyer failed to call a single witness in the sentencing portion of his trial.

The state high court decided 5-2 that evidence of the defendant’s tragic childhood and abuse in racist Alabama prisons would not have been enough to persuade a jury to fix punishment at life instead of death for triple murder.

Records of the trial contain “no indication the jury was inclined to sentence [Jesse James Andrews] to life imprisonment,” Justice Janice Rogers Brown wrote for the court.

Justices Joyce L. Kennard and Carlos Moreno dissented, arguing that a jury might have voted for life had it been told of Andrews’ time in brutal and racist penal institutions in the South, including prisons later found to impose cruel and unusual punishment and juvenile facilities likened to slave camps.

Scientists Develop Adhesive Based on Gecko Hairlets


For centuries geckos have been revered as one of nature’s coolest climbers. Whether they’re skedaddling up smooth glass at three feet a second or dangling from a hotel ceiling by a single toe, there’s almost nothing the little lizards can’t scale. Greek philosopher Aristotle marveled at the gecko’s ability to “run up and down a tree in any way, even with the head downwards.” And for more than a century the gecko has tormented scientists trying to divine the secret to its grip.

Now a group of biologists and engineers, who call themselves the Gecko Team, has solved the longstanding mystery and created the first artificial adhesive based on the gecko’s sticky secret. Their research, published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could lead to everything from exotic new Post-It notes to sure-footed space robots capable of climbing Martian cliffs.

The secret to the gecko’s grip, it turns out, hinges on one of the animal world’s worst cases of split ends, and a quirky property of quantum physics known as the van der Waals force.

Geckos have millions of microscopic hairs sprouting from the bottom of their feet. The hairs, called setae (“see-tee”), split into as many as 1,000 tinier hairlets, each capped with a triangular pad whose shape has been likened to a hamburger flipper. These tips, called spatulae, are about the size of a small bacterium.

Russian Pleads Guilty In Caviar Smuggling Case


Gourmets beware: That exotic smoky gray delicacy that you recently spread on a “blini” pancake -- perhaps with a dab of sour cream -- might have been contraband.

Viktor Tsimbal, a Russian who was the president and owner of the Miami-based Beluga Caviar Inc., pleaded guilty Monday to orchestrating a ring that smuggled large quantities of caviar -- more than Russia’s entire annual worldwide export quota -- to the United States.

Smugglers were paid $500 to carry luggage filled with 50 to 75 1-pound tins of black-market caviar from Poland to U.S. airports, according to papers filed in U.S. District Court.

Epicureans pay top dollar -- about $100 an ounce -- to nibble beluga roe from Caspian Sea sturgeon, praised for its sublimely smooth, buttery taste. But the fish species is paying a high price for those taste treats, biologists say.

Caspian sturgeon are protected under an international treaty that strictly limits imports and exports of caviar. But Beluga caviar from Caspian Sea sturgeon is in such peril that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed adding it to the endangered species list. That would cease all imports.

“Caspian Sea sturgeon may have been around since the age of dinosaurs, but the appetite of smugglers for profit has the potential to extinguish them from the Earth,” said Tom Sansonetti, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s environment and natural resources division.

Starbucks Seeks to Enter Macao’s Coffee Culture


For six years, the Starbucks coffeehouse chain has expanded in Asia by selling its coffee to nations of tea drinkers.

Now there’s a new challenge.

This month, the Seattle-based company opened its first outlet in one of Asia’s few genuine coffee cultures -- the former Portuguese colony of Macao.

“We don’t want to compete directly with the local coffeehouses,” said Pedro Man, president of Starbucks Coffee Asia Pacific Ltd. “We just want to be part of the scene.” That it already is.

Ensconced in an elegant, brightly colored colonial home along the old cobblestone Senado Square that forms the heart of central Macao, the Chinese enclave’s newest coffee hangout -- corporate flag, green logo and all -- has generated considerable curiosity.

One day last week, a steady flow of local residents and tourists from mainland China warily approached the entrance and carefully eyed the invitation offering them to “discover the Starbucks experience.”

Many of the curious appeared either too unsure or too shy to enter, but some of the 10 customers sitting at tables inside said they were already converts.

“It’s close to the office, and the quality of what you get is good,” attorney Luis Resadas said as he swilled the last of a midmorning espresso. “I’m glad they’re here. I’ll be back.”