Making Unique Observations in a Very Cluttered World

Thursday, 6 February 2014

In Russia, The Washrooms Watch You -

In Russia, The Washrooms Watch You - 

Journalists may have been tweeting about their hotel nightmares in Sochi, but the Russian government says it has proof the whole thing is overblown—because it's been spying on people in their hotel rooms.

The Internet has been ablaze with what the Washington Post dubbed the "hilarious and gross" experiences journalists covering the 2014 Olympics were having in their hotels:

But, as the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday, Russian officials dismissed the claim, with deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak confidently asserting that hotel surveillance footage showed things were fine (emphasis added):

Kozak, the deputy prime minister responsible for the Olympic preparations, reflected the view held among many Russian officials that some Western visitors are deliberately trying to sabotage Sochi's big debut out of bias against Russia. "We have surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the shower, direct the nozzle at the wall and then leave the room for the whole day," he said. An aide then pulled a reporter away before Mr. Kozak could be questioned further on surveillance in hotel rooms.
So maybe journalists have "creepy government surveillance" to add to their list of hotel issues. Of course, they probably should have been on their guard already, since, as NBC's Richard Engel reported recently, the State Department has warned travelers that they should "have no expectation of privacy, even in their hotel rooms" when they go to Sochi.


Stamps and payday loans? Postal Service considers new offerings -

Stamps and payday loans? Postal Service considers new offerings - 

The perpetually-struggling U.S. Postal Service has bankers in a tizzy after floating a plan to branch into what it called "non-bank financial services" that somehow sound a lot like what lenders do.

In a white paper distributed late last month, the Postal Service's inspector general discussed getting into an array of financial services as a means of keeping the money-losing mail operation afloat. Payday loans, check cashing and digital currency exchanges were among the possibilities outlined in the Jan. 27 report.

“The Office of Inspector General is not suggesting that the Postal Service become a bank or openly compete with banks,” the paper’s executive summary reads. “To the contrary, we are suggesting that the Postal Service could greatly complement banks’ offerings.”

The 27-page document also notes that as the country moves toward a cashless economy, the Postal Service could also provide simple ways for underserved consumers to “convert their cash to digital currency” or other electronic payment methods like prepaid cards, mobile payments and wire transfers.

Two days after the paper came out, the IG held an invitation-only seminar in Virginia to discuss virtual currencies such as Bitcoin, as well as the potential benefits and disruptive effects they may have on traditional payment networks. But officials insisted to FoxNews.com that the Postal Service isn’t entering the world of virtual currency — or peer-to-peer payment systems not subject to regulation — just yet.

“It is purely coincidental that the OIG hosted an invitation-only seminar to discuss virtual currencies into an electronic form of payment shortly after the white paper’s release,” according to clarification provided to FoxNews.com from the U.S. Postal Service Office of the Inspector General. “ … The USPS OIG did not present and does not have a position or recommendation on virtual currency.”

“There’s an old phrase: Do few things and do them well."
- Bill Himpler, American Financial Services Association

Banking industry officials told FoxNews.com that the agency that suffered a net loss of $5 billion in fiscal year 2013 — the 7th consecutive year in the red — should instead stick to delivering envelopes and parcels and stay out of financial services.

“There’s an old phrase: Do few things and do them well,” said Bill Himpler, executive vice president of the American Financial Services Association. “The Postal Service has its hands full trying to stay above water in trying to accomplish its current mission. I would hate to see taxpayers on the hook for a half-baked venture like this.”

Richard Hunt, president/CEO of the Consumers Bankers Association, characterized the white paper as the potential for “another radical government takeover” of an industry that the private sector is better suited to serve. He also questioned whether entering into those new ventures would necessitate a costly hiring surge.

“You’d have to hire people who are knowledgeable about financial products,” Hunt told FoxNews.com. “So there’s tremendous start-up costs involved.”

Rick Geddes, an associate professor at Cornell University and the director of its program on infrastructure policy, questioned whether there’s actually much to gain for the Postal Service in areas typically served by banks and other financial institutions.

“To me, that seems like a substantial departure from what they’re doing now and I’m not sure I see where the core expertise is in the Postal Service to provide these types of financial services,” Geddes told FoxNews.com. “You’re talking about an entity that’s losing money hand over fist. If these services are so profitable, why haven’t other financial institutions companies got into this business?”

Geddes continued: “Put yourself in the shoes of a small regional bank and you’ve got the Postal Service coming in … That’s a serious problem.”


Toronto Zoo Giant Panda Enjoys Epic Snow Fall -

Dog of war: Taliban claims to have captured military canine -

Dog of war: Taliban claims to have captured military canine - 


Taliban fighters in Afghanistan have released video purportedly showing a captured allied soldier -- a dog soldier that is, believed by Pentagon officials to be a British military service pup captured during a raid last December.

The doleful hound, believed to be a Belgian Malinois named "Colonel," appears held by a chain on a video released on the website of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and was publicized by a Tweet  boasted of a Dec. 23 operation that in which "6 US terrorists" were killed and "equip seized." Pentagon officials told Fox News they believe the dog is actually a British military service dog, not an American canine.

"We can confirm that a military working dog went missing following an ISAF mission in December, 2013," the U.S.-led International Assistance Security Force said in a statement. "It is ISAF policy to defer identification to the appropriate national authorities."


The mystery of the North Star: Astronomers baffled to find Polaris is getting BRIGHTER -

The mystery of the North Star: Astronomers baffled to find Polaris is getting BRIGHTER  - 

Astronomers have discovered that Polaris, the north star, is getting brighter.
They say the star has suddenly reversed two decades of dimming.
It is expanding at more than 100 times the rate they expected - and nobody is sure why.

A team led by Scott Engle of Villanova University in Pennsylvania recalibrated historic measurements of Polaris by Ptolemy in 137 C.E., the Persian astronomer Al-Sufi in 964 C.E., and others. 
They investigated the fluctuations of the star over the course of several years, combing through historical records and utilising the Hubble Space Telescope.
The team found that Polaris is 2.5 times brighter today than in Ptolemy's time, which they say is a remarkable rate of change. 

'If they are real, these changes are 100 times larger than predicted by current theories of stellar evolution,' says Villanova astronomer Edward Guinan. 
The team's data also hint that the star's cyclic 4-day variation in brightness, although still weak, is once again growing more robust--but no one knows what's driving these flutterings or how long they will last.
Engle and his team began to research the star around the beginning of 2000, when they found that the dropping brightness was on the rise again.

Read more: - 

Putin’s Girlfriend May Light Sochi Olympic Torch -

Putin’s Girlfriend May Light Sochi Olympic Torch - 

With the Sochi Winter Olympics opening Friday, the person chosen for a key element in the opening ceremony has not been revealed.
But a new report is stating that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rumored girlfriend may be lighting the Olympic flame at the Fisht Stadium near the Black Sea.
“I’m aware of this (the speculation), I was told of this by (Kremlin spokesman) Dmitry Peskov. These are the usual red herrings,” Putin said according to News.com.au.
Alina Kabayeva, a 2004 Olympic rhythmic gymnastics champion, is rumored to be Putin’s lover.
“We have many outstanding sportspeople who are significant and known in the whole world and I am not going to interfere in this process,” he said in comments broadcast on state television.
The Sochi organizing committee is expected to choose a successful Russian sports star.
Putin also added that he would not be lighting the flame.
“I do not represent winter sports, I am just a fan,” Putin said.
The rumors between Putin and Kabayeva have never been confirmed officially but Putin is single since divorcing his wife, Lyudmila, last year.

Read more -