As crisis worsens, Venezuela becoming more isolated

simon bolivar airport

Venezuela’s implosion continues.

Amid hyperinflation, massive unemployment, social unrest, political oppression and shortages of food and medicine, the South American nation is on the verge of general anarchy, a legacy of Hugo Chávez’s years of mismanagement, along with that of successor Nicolás Maduro.

So it’s hardly surprising that airlines such as Lufthansa and LATAM Airlines are crossing the country off their schedules.

The pair joins Air Canada, American Airlines and Alitalia which in recent years have scaled back or suspended Venezuelan operations, according to The Economist.

But it isn’t just unrest or political chaos that’s driving airlines to divert flights elsewhere.

Venezuela, seeking to avoid yet another devaluation of its currency or outright repudiation of debt, which would cut off credit to the ailing oil industry, has tightened currency controls introduced by Chávez in 2003.

The restrictions make it almost impossible for companies such as international airlines to convert the Venezuelan currency, bolívares, into dollars.

This has made it difficult for international airlines, who typically charge customers in local currencies, to repatriate their profits.

That isn’t surprising given that Chávez initially implemented currency controls after capital flight led to a devaluation of the currency.

“Lufthansa has written off the more than $100 million it says it is owed; LATAM says it is due $3 million,” according to The Economist. “The International Air Transport Association, the airlines’ trade body, estimates that Venezuela’s government is withholding $3.8 billion of airline revenues.”

A Lufthansa spokesman told Agence France-Presse that the country’s difficult economic situation and “the fact that is it is not possible to transfer foreign currency out of the country,” is behind the company’s decision.

Lufthansa is scheduled to quit service to the country this week; LATAM, Latin America’s largest airline group, has said it will stop flights to Venezuela by Aug. 1.

Contrast the current situation with that of 40 years ago, when Venezuela’s oil wealth attracted business travelers – and airlines – from all over the world.

At present, just a handful of foreign airlines continue to serve the troubled nation, including Air France and United Airlines.

But both are public companies and it seems unlikely either can or will stand for having their revenues tied up by a banana republic.

(Top: Air France plane show in foreground at Simon Bolivar Airport, near Caracas, Venezuela.)

Turning the tables on the Internet’s blackguards

snow

Over the past couple of weeks no fewer than half a dozen spam faxes have come into my office pushing everything from Caribbean vacations to timeshare rentals. My first reaction: Do spammers use fax machines anymore?; followed by, how can spamming people by fax possibly be worth the effort?

Not all spammers are retrograde. Anyone who writes or reads a blog is familiar with insidious spammers attempting to post all sorts of unrelated links in comments sections for such items as Chinese manufactured goods, search-engine optimization services, the ubiquitous “male-enhancement” products and scams that purport to enable individuals to earn $87 an hour working part-time from home.

Of course, a good spam filter keeps many of these from seeing the light of day, but some spammers are particularly persistent, especially on blogs that see heavy traffic.

Google uses a complex algorithm to rank the relevancy of websites and blogs, and has worked to make sure that the actions of third-party sites – read spammers – don’t negatively affect websites.

Google has even gone so far as to devise a “disavow” tool which allows websites and blogs to basically ask Google not to take certain links into account when assessing their sites.

It would appear that these spammers are also being penalized by Google for their past actions.

The Coyote Blog noted recently that it has been receiving link-removal requests from companies that spammed its comment section in the past.

“Most of them threaten that somehow their past spamming might threaten my Google rating, when in fact they are actually worried about their own Google search ranking,” The Coyote Blog writes.

Coyote, unsurprisingly, is less than sympathetic to these online vermin. He responds to such requests thusly:

I might or might not get to it, depending on how I feel and how hard it turns out to be. I only have limited sympathy as your company placed those spam links on my site against my wishes and against the usage guidelines for the site and on posts that largely were irrelevant to your product. I had to go to considerable expense to move my server and add new software specifically to fight spam of the sort you were dumping on me. All I can say is that you reap what you sow. And as to your threats that my Google ranking is somehow in jeopardy due to your past behavior, I believe Google is fully aware of whether your site or my site should be penalized for such spam, and it is not going to be my site.

Should The Coyote Blog get around to addressing the spammer’s request, it usually adds an update to the post itself saying that “[company with link] has confessed to being unapologetic spammers in the past and a link to their site [and I include the link] has been moved from the comments section at their request and moved to the main post to give their bad past behavior more visibility.”

Hear! Hear! Way to stick it to the Man Mouse!

Long-missing ‘Inverted Jenny’ returns after 61 years

inverted jenny

Among America’s most famous stamps is the 1918 “Inverted Jenny,” featuring a misprint of a Curtiss Jenny JN-4HM biplane which is shown upside down, or “inverted,” and is valued at more than $1 million.

Just a single sheet of 100 of the misprinted stamps was accidentally released to the public in spring 1918, where a single individual snapped them up for $24. Until recently, 98 of the famous stamps were accounted for.

Now only a single Inverted Jenny remains missing after officials confirmed a stamp purported to have been purchased at a garage sale in Ireland sometime before late 2013 is one of the missing Inverted Jennys, one of four stolen in 1955.

The US Post Office created the stamp to coincide with the launch of the first regular airmail routes in May 1918, in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia. A fleet of six modified Curtis Jenny biplanes was to be used to transport mail.

Given that flying was hardly an inexpensive proposition, the post office recognized that new stamps were needed and designed the 24-cent Flying Jenny, which were eight times more costly than standard first-class stamps.

Given the short lead time – engraving began on May 4, 1918, printing May 10 and the first sales to the public May 14 – it’s not surprising that mistakes were made. At least three sheets with upside-down biplanes were spotted by inspectors and destroyed, but a single sheet of 100 stamps managed to slip past, according to The History Blog.

Collector William T. Robey of Washington, DC, was the lucky philatelist, purchasing the sheet on May 14, 1918. He eventually sold the Inverted Jenny sheet for $15,000 to Philadelphia dealer Eugene Klein, who later sold it for $20,000 to collector H.R. Green.

Green would later break up the sheet and sell many of the individual stamps to other collectors. Prior to breaking up the Inverted Jenny sheet, Klein and Green lightly penciled a number on the back of each stamp so that each stamp’s original position on the sheet could later be identified, according to The History Blog.

The recently returned stamp is position 76 from the Inverted Jenny sheet.

That stamp was part of a block of four that belonged to Ethel B. Stewart McCoy, a philatelist and daughter of Charles Bergstresser, one of the founders of Dow Jones & Co.

McCoy had purchased the block from New York City stamp dealer Spencer Anderson in 1936 for $16,000. In September 1955, during an exhibition at a convention of the American Philatelic Society in Norfolk, Va., the McCoy Block was stolen by an unknown thief or thieves.

“It’s one of the most notorious crimes in philatelic history, and there’s a piece of the puzzle now that’s in place,” said Scott English, the administrator of the American Philatelic Research Library.

Inverted Jenny No. 76 turned up in April of this year when it was consigned for auction to Spink USA Inc. by Keelin O’Neill.

Spink sent the stamp to the Philatelic Foundation in New York to be authenticated, and personnel of the foundation identified it as having belonged to the McCoy block.

After Spink identified the stamp as one from the infamous block it alerted the FBI and the American Philatelic Research Library. The FBI approached O’Neill, who stated that he had received the stamp in or about October 2013 from his grandfather, now deceased.

Before her death in 1980, McCoy assigned all of her rights, title and interest in the stolen McCoy Block to the American Philatelic Research Library.

The FBI recovered one of the four missing stamps in 1977 and another in 1982, and both were returned to the APRL, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

O’Neill voluntarily agreed to relinquish it to the American Philatelic Research Library once he was told the stamp was stolen. He received a $10,000 reward from the American Philatelic Research Library and also got a $50,000 reward from Donald Sundman of Mystic Stamp.

“More than 60 years ago, a block of four of the most famous error stamps in philatelic history – the Inverted Jenny – was stolen from an exhibition. There were no witnesses, no suspects and little evidence to pursue,” said Assistant Director-in-Charge Diego Rodriguez of the FBI. “Today, the FBI is proud to assist in the return of the third Inverted Jenny stamp to the American Philatelic Research Library. This is just one example of the FBI’s commitment to restore significant arts and antiques to their rightful owners.”

The fourth and final Inverted Jenny from the McCoy block remains missing.

Spectacular violet diamond to go on tour this week

argyle violet diamond

An “impossibly rare” violet diamond, plucked deep from a remote mine in the north of Western Australia, will go on tour later this week, with an estimated value of nearly $4 million.

The gemstone, originally 9.17 carats, was the largest jewel of its kind ever discovered when found last summer at Rio Tinto’s Argyle mine. It has since been polished down to a 2.83 carat oval-shaped beauty.

“Rio Tinto said that the jewel had been assessed by the Gemological Institute of America, and while they said it would be the centerpiece of their upcoming show, they would not disclose its estimated value,” according to the website Red Orbit. “However, the firm noted that they expected to receive a significant amount of interest from potential buyers, and some figures suggest it could bring in $3.96 million.”

The diamond has been assessed by the Gemological Institute of America as a “notable diamond with the color grade of Fancy Deep Greyish Bluish Violet.”

Site of Argyle Diamond Mine, in the East Kimberley region in north of Western Australia.

Site of Argyle Diamond Mine, in the East Kimberley region in north of Western Australia.

“It is not known how diamonds acquire their colored tinge but it is thought to come from a molecular structure distortion as the jewel forms in the earth’s crust or makes its way to the surface,” according to Agence France-Presse.

The Argyle Violet is the largest such diamond Rio Tinto had ever recovered from the mine.

London-based Rio Tinto said that violet diamonds are extremely rare, and that only 12 carats of such polished stone have been produced during the 32 years the Argyle mine has been in operation.

Other unusually colored diamonds, including those that are pink or red, are typically worth 50 times more than regular white diamonds, the firm told the Daily Mail. Some of them have even sold for as much as $1.95 million per carat, it said.

The Argyle Violet gem was polished in Western Australia by one of Argyle’s master polishers, according to a Rio Tinto press release. The diamond’s tour will take it to Copenhagen, Hong Kong and New York, the company added.

(Top: The Argyle Violet diamond – the big, purty one – next to smaller diamonds.)

Venezuela: Continuing down the rabbit hole of ineptitude

venezeula inflation

Unbridled inflation tends to wreak havoc with economies, but one would think that if any industry were to benefit from rampant rising prices it would be that of paper currency manufacturers.

A country which is churning out billions of bank notes has got be good for the folks who run the printing press, right?

Leave it to Venezuela to botch that line of business, along with just about everything else.

As the country’s hard currency reserves sink to critically low levels, Venezuela’s central bank is paying foreign paper currency providers so slowly that the latter are beginning to back off on taking on additional contracts. In addition, it was disclosed recently that one company under contract to print money for the South American nation was owed more than $70 million.

Venezuela began its downward spiral with Hugo Chavez’sBolivarian Revolution,” which involved nationalizing different industries, implementing price controls and expropriating farmland.

Today Venezuela’s inflation is the highest in the world; it’s expected to rise to nearly 700 percent this year.

Adding to the nation’s fiscal difficulties is the fact that it takes a boatload of money for even the most basic transactions. Venezuela’s largest bill, the 100-bolivar note, barely pays for a loose cigarette at a street kiosk, according to Bloomberg.

Venezuela differs from other countries that have struggled with hyperinflation because it hasn’t reacted to raging prices by printing bank notes of astronomical denominations, such as the $100 trillion note produced by Zimbabwe not too long ago.

As inflation skyrockets and hard currency reserves plummet in Venezuela, paper currency manufacturers find themselves reluctant to commit sizeable resources as the nation’s ability to repay dwindles daily.

“The first signs of the currency shortage date back to 2014 when the government began increasing shipments of bank notes as wallet-busting wads of cash were already needed for simple transactions,” according to Bloomberg.

Today, Venezuelans spend hours waiting in line for consumer staples, lining up first at banks and cash machines, and often carrying money in backpacks and gym bags to pay for dinner out.

In 2015, the nation’s central bank selected companies in the United Kingdom, France and Germany to produce 2.6 billion bank notes. Before the delivery was even completed, the companies were approached by the central bank seeking even more notes.

UK-based De La Rue, which handles work for more than 150 nations, took the lion’s share of the order and enlisted Ottawa-based Canadian Bank Note Company to ensure it could meet a tight end-of-year deadline.

How big an order are we talking about?

Once printed, they arrived in Venezuela in dozens of 747 jets and chartered planes, according to Bloomberg. Under cover of security forces and snipers, it was transferred to armored caravans where it was spirited to the central bank in the dead of the night.

Even as the cash was still arriving authorities began planning for 2016. In late 2015, the central bank more than tripled its original order, offering tenders for some 10.2 billion bank notes.

But currency manufacturers began to grow concerned.

“According to company documents, De La Rue began experiencing delays in payment as early as June,” Bloomberg reported. “Similarly, the bank was slow to pay (Germany’s) Giesecke & Devrient and (France’s) Oberthur Fiduciaire. So when the tender was offered, the government only received about 3.3 billion in bids, bank documents show.”

Just last month, De La Rue sent a letter to the central bank complaining that it was owed $71 million and would inform its shareholders if the money were not forthcoming.

(Top: Even simple transactions require stacks of paper currency in Venezuela, thanks to massive inflation.)

Teamster lackey: Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

screwball

This blog remains largely immune from hate mail, probably because a) it’s readership is miniscule and b) the topics so arcane that few crackpots can work up the energy to put crayon to paper in order to fire off a misguided missive.

Still, just as a blind pig finds an acorn once in a while, the occasional screwball will manage to direct a harebrained epistle my way.

Consider: Last week a hack for the Teamsters Union decided to take me to task for a post I wrote in February 2009 about an area trucking company that had gained a well-deserved reputation for treating its employees particularly well. Mind you, this is a post that’s more than seven years old, but that didn’t stop the commenter, using the decidedly unoriginal nom de plume of “Greg Hoffa,” from wading into the fray, albeit very tardily and very ineptly.

Last Thursday, Mr. “Hoffa” wrote:

“WHY DONT YOU PAY YOUR DRIVERS OVERTIME PAY AFTER 8 hrs in a day or after a 40 hour work week? You are a damn crook, a typical preacher of religion. You must be related to Lyin’ Ted !!! Ps: and don’t tell me you don’t pay overtime because of some ridiculous agricultural law or railroad act. The Teamsters should represent this and every other shady trucking outfit. Pay your drivers what they deserve.”

It’s difficult to say what set off old Greg Hoffa. The point of my story, penned oh so many moons ago, was that a family-owned trucking company, during what was then the heart of the Great Recession, had managed to avoid laying off any of its more than 6,500 employees, the only major US trucking line able to be able make that claim.

My post contained no talk of pay, overtime and certainly no indication that I worked for the company. I don’t and never have. But then again, when it comes to reasoning skills, Teamster trolls are rarely mistaken for the second coming of Socrates.

I didn’t realize blogging made me a crook, and a “damned crook,” at that. As for being a typical preacher of religion, I am again mystified. I keep the proselytizing to a dull roar here, and with good reason. To paraphrase Mark Twain, “We were good Catholic boys when the weather was doubtful; when it was fair, we did wander a little from the fold.”

As to whom “Lyin’ Ted” is I have no idea. Cruz? Turner? Kennedy? Kaczynski?

A good rule of thumb if you’re going to write angry letters is that they should make sense and be based, at least in some small degree, on reality. Also, lay off the exclamation points. Greg Hoffa, you dropped the ball on all three counts.

I will give Mr. Hoffa one point and admit that he was pretty close to being accurate in one of his closing lines. Toward the end, where he wrote, “The Teamsters should represent this and every other shady trucking outfit,” he need only have shortened it to “The Teamsters should represent every shady trucking outfit,” and he would have been right on the money.

New app allows users to rent backyards in crowded cities

tiny urban backyard

This blogger makes no secret of his love of the outdoors. Whether its woods or wilderness; swamps or savannas; fields or fens; meadows or marshes; pastures or plains, I’ll take being outside most any day to being enclosed in the glass and steel of the city.

Yes, there are plenty of interesting things to do in a metropolis, but if I have to pick one over the other, my first choice is always going to be the countryside.

As such, I’ve never understood those that willing live in crowded cities where greenery is almost non-existent and it’s a lengthy drive to romp in legitimate open space.

Apparently in the San Francisco Bay Area, green space is at such a premium that a new sharing app has been launched to allow you rent out your backyard or rooftop by the hour.

Nookzy allows the reservation of small “creative urban spaces,” according to its website.

In fact, it is currently beta testing a selection of backyard-based spas and saunas in San Francisco and Oakland, and is in the process of finding swimming pools and other amenities to list.

It has been called the “Airbnb of backyards,” referring to the website that enables people to list, find and rent lodgings for short periods.

Nookzy users can reserve spaces for as little as 30 minutes and as long as hosts are comfortable with.

Upon booking, guests will receive access permission and instructions, agreeing to host-specified conditions for conduct. During their reservation, guests will receive text message notifications, including when they have 15 minutes remaining in their reservation. Guests may extend their reservation if the space is still available.

I never cease to be amazed by the ingenuity of some. Those behind this app apparently identified a need and have created a means to fill it. Good for them.

On the other hand, I can’t help but feel for kids who live in an environment with so little green space that their parents have to go online to rent a backyard or pool. Seems like a rather Dickensian childhood in some respects.

(HT: Carpe Diem blog)