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Sri Lanka suspends fuel sales as economic crisis worsens

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Motorists queue along a street to buy fuel at a fuel station in Colombo on June 26, 2022
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Cash-strapped Sri Lanka announced a two-week halt to all fuel sales except for essential services starting Monday and called for a partial shutdown as its unprecedented economic crisis deepened.

The South Asian nation is facing its worst economic meltdown since gaining independence from Britain in 1948, and has been unable to finance even the imports of essentials since late last year.

As fuel reserves hit rock bottom with supplies barely enough for just one more day, government spokesman Bandula Gunawardana said the sales ban was to save petrol and diesel for emergencies.

He urged the private sector to let employees work from home as public transport ground to a halt.

“From midnight today, no fuel will be sold except for essential services like the health sector, because we want to conserve the little reserves we have,” Gunawardana said in a pre-recorded statement.

He apologised to consumers for the shortages: “We regret the inconvenience caused to the people.”

-Electricity shock-

The sudden fuel ban came as the loss-making state-run electricity monopoly asked for a massive price increase for its poorest customers.

The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) lost 65 billion rupees ($185 million) in the first quarter and sought a nearly tenfold price hike for the heavily-subsided smallest power consumers, the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) said.

Currently, anyone using less than 30 kilowatts a month pays a flat 54.27 rupees ($0.15), which the CEB sought to raise to 507.65 rupees ($1.44).

“A majority of the domestic consumers will not be able to afford this type of steep increase,” PUCSL chairman Janaka Ratnayake told reporters in Colombo. 

“Hence we proposed a direct subsidy from the Treasury to keep the increase to less than half of what they have asked.”

As part of measures to ease the forex crisis that led to the energy crunch, the CEB will be allowed to charge users who earn foreign currency, such as exporters, in dollars.

The move is aimed at helping the electricity utility collect dollars to finance imports of oil and spare parts it desperately needs, but is unable to secure because of the country’s forex crisis.

The country is also facing record high inflation and lengthy power blackouts, all of which have contributed to months of protests — sometimes violent — calling on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down. 

Last week, all government schools were shut down and state institutions operated with skeleton staff to reduce commuting and preserve oil.

The state sector shutdown was meant to end this week, but it is now being extended till July 10, when Gunawardana promised to restore fuel supplies.

– Broken promise –

On Sunday, the government promised it will implement a token system to ration distribution of limited fuel stocks, but it failed to take off.

There have been long queues outside the few pumping stations which still had supplies. 

Sri Lanka is seeking cheap oil from Russia and Qatar.

Earlier this month, the United Nations launched an emergency response to the island’s unprecedented economic crisis, feeding thousands of pregnant women who were facing food shortages.

Four out of five people in Sri Lanka have started skipping meals as they cannot afford to eat, the UN has said, warning of a looming “dire humanitarian crisis” with millions in need of aid.

Sri Lanka defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt in April, and is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.

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Flight tracking exposure irks billionaires and baddies

How to upset Russian freight companies, Elon Musk, Chinese authorities and Kylie Jenner in one go? Track their jets. 

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The Flightradar24 app is seen on a smartphone in front of a screen showing the live position of planes tracked by the app in the area of Los Angeles on August 5, 2022
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How to upset Russian freight companies, Elon Musk, Chinese authorities and Kylie Jenner in one go? Track their jets.

Flight following websites and Twitter accounts offer real-time views of air traffic –- and sometimes major news like Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan trip –- but that exposure draws pushback ranging from complaints to gear seizures.

Whether Russian air freight firms, Saudi Arabian plane owners or others, Dan Streufert said his group gets dozens of “requests” each year to stop posting aircrafts’ whereabouts.

“We have not removed anything so far. This is all public information. And I don’t want to be the arbiter of who’s right and who’s wrong,” added Streufert, founder of the US-based flight tracking site ADS-B Exchange.

Limits do apply in some cases, but groups that piece together the flight paths note that the core information source is legally available and open to anyone with the right gear.

US rules require planes in designated areas be equipped with ADS-B technology that broadcasts aircraft positions using signals that relatively simple equipment can pick up.

A service like Sweden-based Flightradar24 has 34,000, mostly volunteer-operated receivers around the world to pick up the signals, a key source of information that’s routed back to a central network and combined with data on flight schedules and aircraft information.

Figuring out or confirming to whom a plane actually belongs can require some sleuthing, said jet tracker Jack Sweeney, who filed a public records request with the US government that yielded a form bearing the signature of a particular plane’s owner: Tesla boss Elon Musk.

Sweeney has gotten quite a bit of attention with his Twitter account that tracks the movements of the billionaire’s plane and even rejected Musk’s offer of $5,000 to shut down @ElonJet, which has over 480,000 followers.

“There’s so much traction, I’m doing something right. The celebrity thing –- people like seeing what celebrities are doing, that and the whole emissions thing,” he told AFP, referring to concerns over the planes’ greenhouse gas impact.

“Putting it on Twitter makes it easier for people to access and understand,” Sweeney added.

– ‘We will track anything’ –

Another of Sweeney’s Twitter accounts, powered by data from ADS-B Exchange, showed in July that US model and celebrity Kylie Jenner’s plane took a flight in California that lasted just 17 minutes.

The internet was not pleased and she faced a torrent of criticism on social media over concerns about the message it sent regarding climate change.

“They tell us working class people to feel bad about our once a year flight to a much needed vacation while these celebs take private jets every other day as if it’s an Uber,” tweeted @juliphoria, in an example of the outrage.

Neither Sweeney nor Streufert evoked a distinct redline they were concerned could be crossed by publishing the flight data.

“We will track anything because honestly, if somebody really was a bad actor, and they wanted to know where this stuff is, you can build the electronics for $100 and just deploy receivers to pick up the same signals yourself,” said Streufert from ADS-B Exchange.

Sweeney said “the data is already out there. I’m just redistributing it.”

There is also money to be made, but it’s not clear how much –- Streufert acknowledged he makes a living but declined to provide specifics and Sweeney said his flight tracking work brought in about $100 a month. Flightradar24 didn’t provide its revenue.

The services’ information -– as recently shown by the hundreds of thousands watching whether Pelosi would defy China’s warnings –- has significant potential for impact far beyond embarrassment of celebrities or the rankling of billionaires.

For example, ADS-B Exchange’s data was cited in a non-profit group’s report alleging Europe’s border agency Frontex worked to prevent migrants from crossing the Mediterranean, while US media used it to show surveillance planes flew over racial justice protests in Washington in 2020.

In fact, dozens of US Congress members responded to the revelations by signing on to a letter urging the FBI and other government entities like the National Guard to “cease surveilling peaceful protests immediately and permanently.”

In some parts of the world, governments have made clear the technology and resulting information is not welcome.

Chinese state media reported in 2021 that the government had recently confiscated hundreds of receivers used in crowd-sourced flight tracking, citing the risk of “espionage.”

“In many cases, it’s authoritarian regimes that don’t like this exposure,” Streufert said.

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WSJ reports Pfizer in talks to acquire Global Blood Therapeutics for $5-billion

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A man walks past the Pfizer logo on the drug maker's headquarters in New York
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American drugmaker Pfizer is close to a deal to purchase Global Blood Therapeutics, which manufactures a recently approved drug against sickle-cell anemia, for $5 billion, the Wall Street Journal has reported.

Pfizer, one of the top makers of Covid-19 vaccines, hopes to conclude talks with GBT within days, the newspaper said Friday, citing people close to the negotiations.

But it said other takeover candidates remain in the running.

GBT’s sickle-cell treatment, marketed as Oxbryta, was authorized for those over 12 years old in 2019 but gained federal approval in December for children aged four to 11. The blood disorder affects millions.

Sales of Oxbryta helped the laboratory generate first-quarter turnover of $55 million (up 41 percent), while the company registered a net loss of $81.4 million.

GBT, which is based in San Francisco, California, is to publish its second-quarter numbers on Monday.

Pfizer, for its part, saw its second-quarter turnover jump by 47 percent — to a record $27.74 billion — boosted by sales of its Covid vaccine and pills.

Its net profit soared by 78 percent, to $9.9 billion.

GBT shares on the New York Stock Exchange were up 33.03 percent at the close on Friday, at $63.84, for a market capitalization of more than $4 billion.

Pfizer shares slipped by 1.18 percent, to $49.27.

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Amazon to buy Roomba-maker iRobot in $1.7-billion deal

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Amazon said it will buy iRobot for $61 per share along with acquiring the company's debt
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Amazon on Friday announced a $1.7 billion deal to buy the maker of robotic vacuum Roomba in a merger that would play into the tech giant’s artificial intelligence and smart home ambitions.

US-based iRobot is a global company that builds robots and “intelligent home” innovations, having introduced Roomba self-operating vacuums a decade ago, Amazon said in a release.

“Over many years, the iRobot team has proven its ability to reinvent how people clean with products that are incredibly practical and inventive,” said Amazon senior vice president of devices Dave Limp.

Amazon’s deal to buy iRobot for $61 per share along with acquiring the company’s debt is subject to approval of shareholders and regulators.

Colin Angle is to remain chief executive of iRobot after the purchase.

The acquisition “reinforces Amazon’s interest and market position in robotics and home automation, and underscores the strategic value of AI,” Baird analyst Colin Sebastian said in a note to investors.

The Massachusetts-based company has a 30-year track record in robotics, and underlying software such as mapping and navigation, Sebastian said.

Amazon has been investing in smart home and automation technologies with acquisitions such as Ring doorbells, Kiva warehouse robots and self-driving startup Zoox.

“With Alexa and Amazon.com at the core, Amazon continues to prioritize opportunities to develop the smart home,” Sebastian said.

“MGM even fits as it powers more Prime Video on home entertainment devices.”

Amazon earlier this year closed an $8.45 billion deal to buy the storied MGM studios, boosting its streaming ambitions with a catalog including the James Bond and Rocky film franchises.

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