Making Unique Observations in a Very Cluttered World

Friday, 23 August 2013

Banned in 83 countries - the U.S. is selling Saudi Arabia $640 million worth of American-made cluster bombs -

Banned in 83 countries - the U.S. is selling Saudi Arabia $640 million worth of American-made cluster bombs - 

Even as they condemn the Syrian regime’s use of cluster munitions, the U.S. is selling Saudi Arabia $640 million worth of American-made cluster bombs. Cluster munitions have been banned in 83 countries on account of their indiscriminate nature and their record of killing children.

John Reed at Foreign Policy:

These weapons are loathed because in addition to killing enemy combatants, their fairly indiscriminate nature means they can kill plenty of civilians. And not just in the heat of battle. The little ball-shaped bomblets dispersed by cluster munitions don’t always detonate on first impact. Often, they will just sit there on the ground until someone, often a child, picks them up and causes them to explode.

So far, 112 countries have signed an international treaty banning cluster bombs, with 83 ratifying it.

The international ban began to take effect in June 2010, just after a U.S. cluster bomb killed 35 women and children in Yemen, with the Pentagon stubbornly refusing to admit to the wrongdoing despite damning evidence compiled by Amnesty International, which was later corroborated by classified diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.

Cluster bombs were used in the initial phases of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and the Obama administration has firmly opposed their prohibition, as have countries like Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia. What’s that old saying about how you’re known by the company you keep?

It’s also worth pointing out how eager the U.S. is to keep giving Saudi Arabia, one of the most horrific, repressive, mysogynist theocracies in the world, all the weapons and money it asks for. Reed again:

The cluster bomb sale is just the latest in a string ongoing arms deals between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that include dozens of F-15SA Strike Eagle fighter jets, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, H-60 Blackhawk helicopters and AH-6 Little Bird choppers as well as radars, anti-ship missiles, guided bombs, anti-radar missiles, surface to air missiles and even cyber defenses for those brand new Strike Eagles. It’s a relationship that’s worth tens of billions to American defense contractors. And even though the Saudi and the American governments have recently been at odds over a range of issues — Riyadh recently offered to replace any financial aid to Egypt’s military rulers that the U.S. withdrew —  those arms sales are all-but-certain to continue. If the Saudis want cluster bombs, the U.S. will provide — no matter what the world thinks.

On the one hand, the U.S. is desperate to maintain the geo-political dominance it has held over the Middle East at a time when it seems to be slipping through their fingers. And on the other, one of the strongest lobbies in Washington – the defense corporations – really want to proceeds of these nefarious weapons sales. And you gotta please them.


Saudi Princess Meshael Alayban posts $5,000,000 bail, then skips California arraignment on human trafficking charges -

Saudi Princess Meshael Alayban posts $5,000,000 bail, then skips California arraignment on human trafficking charges - 

A Saudi princess charged with human trafficking had her arraignment delayed Monday after she failed to show up for the Southern California hearing, leaving the judge perturbed and leading her attorneys to promise that she would appear at a later date.

Meshael Alayban's scheduled arraignment was pushed back to Sept. 20.

"I am concerned the defendant is not here," Orange County Superior Court Judge Gerald G. Johnston said, but he noted there was no court order for her to appear.

Defense attorneys Paul S. Meyer and Jennifer L. Keller said the princess is complying with all court orders.

Alayban is charged with one count of human trafficking and faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted. She is free on $5 million bail but is barred from leaving Orange County without prior authorization.


Belgian Police Report $1.75-BILLION Drug Bust -

Belgian Police Report $1.75-BILLION Drug Bust - 

A three-nation investigation led to one of the biggest seizures of synthetic drugs in Europe, a haul of products to create Ecstasy pills with a street value of 1.3 billion euros ($1.75 billion), the Belgian prosecutor's office said Friday.

After 30 raids in Belgium, the Netherlands and Poland, 11 people were under arrest charged with possession, production and trading in drugs as part of a criminal gang, it said.

"It is the biggest such bust ever in Belgium and one of the largest in Europe," Wenke Roggen, spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor's office, said. "It is quite incredible."

Products seized included about 1,000 kilograms of MDMA and 18.5 tons of Ecstasy precursor safrole, Roggen said. The criminal organization was made up of people with Belgian, Polish and Turkish nationality, Roggen said.

Most of the products were discovered in a suburban Brussels garage and in southern farmland around the city of Chimay, where men in biohazard suits were still working on the cleanup operation on Friday. Products were also found at an undisclosed location in the Netherlands.

"It is a shock that our region was at the center of such an important production of illegal products," Chimay mayor Francoise Fassieux said.

Authorities had to evacuate some people around the area of the plant where the drugs were produced, Fassieux said.


Russian officials this week carried out a secret inspection of the U.S. strategic missile defense base in California -

Russian officials this week carried out a secret inspection of the U.S. strategic missile defense base in California - 

Russian officials this week carried out a secret inspection of the U.S. strategic missile defense base in California as part of the New START arms treaty, according to Obama administration officials.

The inspection of five missile defense interceptors is allowed under the 2010 arms accord. The treaty requires cuts of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic warheads to 1,550.

A defense official said the visit was a treaty verification visit hosted by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

A State Department official declined to comment on the inspection but confirmed it was related to New START. “Implementation activities under New START are confidential,” the official said.

However, Thomas Moore, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee professional staff member, said the inspection of the base was a controversial part of U.S. and Russian arms talks leading up to New START that was ratified by the Senate in December 2010.

The United States had opposed including the five Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) silos in the treaty inspection terms, said Moore, a specialist on arms control issues.

The Russians refused, and because the five silos had been converted from offensive intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos, negotiators settled on a single inspection, Moore said, adding that he believed this week’s Russian review was that inspection.

Russia had demanded including the five silos in New START inspection provisions to monitor the conversion of long-range launch tubes into missile defense shooters.

“Russia gets one exhibition visit in the first three years of New START and one more if it ever wants to look at them again, for a total of two inspections,” Moore said. ”But this first one has to be the only one where they get to confirm the distinguishing features that set these five silos apart from a launcher of an ICBM.”

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Addicted to Facebook? Shocking device ELECTROCUTES social network users to help break the habit -

Addicted to Facebook? Shocking device ELECTROCUTES social network users to help break the habit - 

A pair of procrastinators have come up with a shocking way to tackle their Facebook habits -  a keyboard device that electrocutes them when they spend too long on the site. 
The Pavlov Poke gadget sits under the wrist of a computer user and monitors which sites and applications are used. 
If the user is meant to be working, but keeps getting distracted by Facebook, for example, or spends too long chatting on forums, the device sends an electric shock.

It was developed by Ph.D students Robert R. Morris and Dan McDuff at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 
A video explaining the concept of the device claimed the pair 'wasted 50 hours a week procrastinating online' and they needed a way of tackling this.
Pavlov Poke uses what McDuff calls 'counter-conditioning' techniques.
It was named after Ivan Pavlov, famous for developing the theory of conditioning in dogs to make them behave a certain way.

According to the video, the shock is unpleasant but it’s not dangerous.
Pavlov Poke is an Arduino board - a board that can be used to develop applications and services - that sits under the wrist of a user. 
The board is then connected to a computer by USB. 
Users must install application logging software designed to monitor and track which programs and sites are used. 
The Poke device can then connect to this software and tracks usage.
If the users spend too long on a site, a warning message will appear on the screen. If they continue to use it, the board will electrocute them.
A Swedish study found that 70 per cent of people access Facebook as soon as the log onto their PCs, while 85 per cent admitted to using the site daily. 
A quarter of people asked said they felt 'ill' if they didn't log on every day. 

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Could we soon be reading people's MINDS? Software uses brain scans to identify exactly what people are looking at -

Could we soon be reading people's MINDS? Software uses brain scans to identify exactly what people are looking at - 

Dutch researchers have created software that when used with brain scans can identify the shape and outline of what a person is looking at.

Researchers are a step closer to being able to read people's thoughts after creating a computer program that can identify what someone is looking at using brain scans. 
A team from Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands used image and shape recognition software and a specially designed algorithm to assess changes in a person's brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology.
During tests the scientists showed participants a series of letters and were able to identify exactly when, during the scan, they were looking at which letters.
Functional MRI scans are traditionally used to measure changes in overall brain activity, yet the Dutch researchers used the technology to zoom in on smaller, more specific regions, known as voxels, in the occipital lobe. 
These voxels are around 2x2x2 millimetres big and the occipital lobe is the part of the brain which reacts to visual stimuli and processes what the eyes see through the retina. 

Each participant was wired up to an fMRI scanner and shown the letters B, R, A, I, N and S on a screen in front of them. 
The scientists were able to create a database of the specific changes that occurred in each person's brain after each letter was shown, which highlighted how the brain visualised the different shapes. 
These changes were run through a bespoke algorithm that had been designed to work in a similar way to how brains build images of objects from the sensory information it receives.
This algorithm was able to convert the voxels, and their relevant changes, into image pixels, making it possible to reconstruct a picture of what the person was looking at, at the time of the scan. 
The model has been designed to compare letters, yet could be expanded for other imagery.
Marcel Van Gerven, co-author of the study 'Linear reconstruction of perceived images from human brain activity' said that the algorithm is also capable of becoming more accurate the more times it is used and more data it processes. 
This experiment used information obtained from a selection of 1,200 voxels, yet van Gerven claims the algorithm could also be used to reconstruct any image and his team is working on building more advanced machines that can build images from 15,000 voxels. 
This could include complex imagery such as a person's face. 
During an interview with Wired, van Gerven did warn that this isn't exactly the same as reading a person's thoughts and more work and understanding about how the brain processes internal images would need to be carried out before being able to decode thoughts. 
Yet he added that if its discovered the brain reacts to imagination in the same way it reacts to physical visual stimuli then mind-reading would be possible, potentially leading to so-called telepathic computer programs.


Facebook Is New Bouncer At Finnegan’s Irish Pub in Stockton -

Facebook Is New Bouncer At Finnegan’s Irish Pub in Stockton - 

A Stockton Bar owner came up with a way to keep questionable customers out and good customers coming back—people need to become his friend on Facebook before they’re allowed in.

The only way you’ll get into Finnegan’s Irish Pub after 9 p.m. is if they Like you.

“We’re friends.”

And that friendship has to come from Facebook.

“I use Facebook a lot.”

And so does the pub.

Tony Mannor, the pub’s owner, says they use Facebook to screen visitors and keep the establishment safe.

They had no other choice.

“As we became more popular we also attracted some trouble. People don’t know how to have a good time.”

They had problems with undesirables.

“We really didn’t want to attract that crowd.”

So they came up with the idea of requiring people who show up after 9 p.m. to become facebook friends.

But you still couldn’t get on the special guest list until Tony checked out your profile page to see what kind of person you really are.

Tony says Facebook is the best bouncer he’s ever had.

“It eliminated nearly all of our troubles.”

Your Facebook ID is now checked at the door.

“The bouncer actually stands at the front door with a computer to make sure you’re guest,” pub Facebook friend Debbie Walters said.

Guests love the idea. They feel safer.

“For the most part there’s not a lot of trouble here because people know that they can be identified if the do cause trouble.”

Tony says they have about 10,000 friends on Facebook right now.


A word of warning to those who write personal notes to Pope Francis: He might just call you back -

A word of warning to those who write personal notes to Pope Francis: He might just call you back - 

A word of warning to those who write personal notes to Pope Francis: He might just call you back.

Francis has charmed the masses with his informal style, simplicity and sense of humor - and a handful of strangers have gotten the treatment up close, receiving papal phone calls out of the blue after writing him or suffering some personal tragedy.

After another random phone call from the pope this week, Italy's leading Corriere della Sera daily offered etiquette tips for the lucky recipients, proposing conversation starters and no-go areas on its front page Friday.

Topping the list: Be ready, especially if the land line rings.

The 76-year-old Francis has a fondness for making calls the old-fashioned way, using land lines and placing the calls himself, often surprising recipients by simply announcing "It's the pope."

After his election in March, Francis reportedly called his newspaper stand in Buenos Aires to cancel his daily delivery and his shoemaker to tell him not to bother with papal red leather loafers but to keep making his regular black orthotics. The receptionist at the Jesuit headquarters in Rome thought he got a crank call when Francis phoned two days after being chosen pope looking for the Jesuit superior.

Francis has since called an Italian man whose brother was killed and a Colombian woman who works in Rome to thank her for a book.

Beppe Severgnini, a noted humorist and Corriere columnist, offered other tips in his article:

- Listen first, then talk, and if the conversation permits, ask the soccer-mad Francis about the recent friendly between Italy and Argentina.

- Always ask how Benedict XVI is doing. "It'll make him happy," Severgnini noted. Francis frequently refers fondly to his 86-year-old retired predecessor who is living on the other side of the Vatican gardens.

- Avoid touchy subjects like Vatican policy or scandal.

- Don't ask for any favors.

Severgnini also said even though Francis is fond of using the informal "tu" in conversation, stick with the formal "lei" but don't overdo it with exaggerated titles like "magnificent."

The recipient of this week's call, a 19-year-old student Stefano Cabizza, was quoted by Corriere as saying that Francis had told him to refer to him with the informal "tu," noting that "Even Jesus and the apostles used the `tu.'"

Cabizza said he received the call after leaving a letter for Francis following his Mass at Castel Gandolfo on Aug. 15. He declined to say what he had written.

Finally, Severgnini advised people not to be worried about what to say.

"Just be natural," Severgnini wrote. "If he wanted to get bored, he would have called a government minister."


'Boyfriend Tracker' app raises stir... - a "private detective in your partner's pocket." -

'Boyfriend Tracker' app raises stir... - a "private detective in your partner's pocket." - 

Brazilians were outraged when they learned their country was a top target of the U.S. National Security Agency's overseas spying operation, with data from billions of calls and emails swept up in Washington's top secret surveillance program.
Yet when it comes to the cloak and dagger effort of catching philandering lovers, all high-tech weapons appear to be fair game - at least to the tens of thousands of Brazilians who downloaded "Boyfriend Tracker" to their smartphones before the stealthy software was removed from the Google Play app store last week, apparently in response to complaints about privacy abuses and its potential to be used for extortion or even stalking.
"Brazilians are a jealous people, what can I say? Of course it's going to be popular," said Marcia Almeida, a 47-year-old woman in Rio whose marriage ended seven years ago in large part because of what she said was her husband's infidelity.
"It's a different type of spying," she said of comparisons to the NSA surveillance program. "You're checking up on somebody you know intimately, not some stranger."
The app, called "Rastreador de Namorados" (Portuguese for Boyfriend Tracker), promises to act like a "private detective in your partner's pocket."
Functions include sending the person doing the tracking updates on their partner's location and forwarding duplicates of text message traffic from the targeted phone. There is even a command that allows a user to force the target phone to silently call their own, like a pocket dial, so they can listen in on what the person is saying.
Similar apps are marketed for smartphone users in other countries, including Europe and the U.S., but Boyfriend Tracker is the first that has made any impact in Brazil, a country still irate as it learns more about Washington's snooping. Brazil has sent a government delegation to meet with U.S. leaders about the spy program that was revealed by Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who has been on the run since May and was recently granted asylum in Russia.
Google spokeswoman Gina Johnson said by email that as a policy the company doesn't comment on why apps are removed.
Critics say even as advertised, apps like Boyfriend Tracker can violate privacy rights, and they warn that in the wrong hands they could be used for more sinister purposes, like stalking. Some in Brazil argue it breaks an anti-online harassment and hacking law in place since April. The law is named after Brazilian actress Carolina Dieckmann, who had nude photos of herself leaked by hackers in 2012 after she refused to pay about $5,000.
However, similar apps popular on Google Play market themselves to parents as a means of monitoring how teenage children use the phone and where they are at any given moment.
Matheus Grijo, a 24-year-old Sao Paulo-based developer behind Boyfriend Tracker, says it has attracted around 50,000 users since its launch about two months ago, most since the site began attracting media attention two weeks ago.
Grijo insists his lawyer vetted the app and determined it does not violate any Brazilian laws. Despite being removed by Google, it is still available via direct download from his company's website.
A disclaimer on that website stipulates the app is for "social and recreational use" and absolves the developer of responsibility for any misuse. The first line of the download instructions says a woman installing the tracker on her boyfriend's phone should do so "with his consent."
"We are waiting for Google's position on the removal of 'Boyfriend Tracker' from Google Play, which we consider an error," read a posting on a Facebook page Grijo set up for the app.
To install Boyfriend Tracker, suspicious partners have to get their hands on their loved one's smartphones and upload the app. A free version leaves the app's icon visible on the target's phone, while a version that costs $2 a month masks the icon.
Grijo said the app began as a joke between him and his girlfriend but the idea quickly caught on among their friends.

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