Start Up No.1762: Russia’s shifting tactics, Royal Mint turns scrap into gold, Google’s lawyerly emails, build your own Bing, and more

Drivers frustrated at high fuel prices might hope that fuel duty will be cut. But it’s a bad idea, for lots of reasons. CC-licensed photo by Images Money on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Warmer. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How the Russian military is starting to adapt in Ukraine • Task & Purpose

Andrew Milburn:


The Russians are already adapting, and by doing so are narrowing the Ukrainians’ tactical edge. The one-sided culling of Russian armored columns that characterized the opening days of the war, and kept YouTube subscribers around the world happy, are a thing of the past. The Russians now lead their formations with electronic attack, drones, lasers and good-old-fashioned reconnaissance by fire. They are using cruise missiles and saboteur teams to target logistics routes, manufacturing plants, and training bases in western Ukraine. Realizing that the Ukrainians lack thermal sights for their Stinger missile launchers, the Russians have switched all air operations to after dark. It may be for this same reason that Russian cruise missile strikes in western and southern Ukraine have also been at nighttime. 

The Russians have learned to play to their strengths. While Ukrainian soldiers mock their Russian counterparts, they are deeply respectful of Russian artillery, an asset that the Russians are using more frequently to compensate for their infantry’s deficiencies. Several snipers I spoke with recently agreed that the Russians’ indirect fire capability was the most concerning — a result of sheer reckless mass rather than technical skill. They told some hair-raising stories to illustrate their point, and one amusing one: Ukrainian soldiers defending Kyiv commute to the battle in their own vehicles. After a recent three-day insertion, the sniper teams returned to their extraction site to find their cars all flattened by Russian artillery – a contingency apparently not covered by their insurance plans.

Overconfidence may obscure for the Ukrainians one salient fact about this conflict: time is not on their side. They have fought a skillful and determined defence, but have also had the advantage of home turf, interior lines and the inherent superiority enjoyed by a defender with well-prepared positions, cutting-edge weapons and clear fields of fire. The question now is whether they can pivot to the offense, with its requirement for more comprehensive planning, faster than the Russians can adapt. If not, a prolonged conflict seems likely, and in a war of attrition, the Russians — with a military four times that of Ukraine — will inevitably have the upper hand. 

“They own the long clock,” a senior Ukrainian officer recently admitted. “We are calculating time not in weeks or days – but in lives.”


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Tanks may no longer be useful, Russia’s war in Ukraine shows • Business Insider

Sam Fellman and Mattathias Schwartz:


Russian commanders have made bad decisions that have wasted their forces’ potential. That includes tanks.

Soldiers, unsure of their ability to navigate through the mud, have been driving them down main roads. Russian tanks have been outrunning the infantry who can protect them.

With a range of around 600 miles, the T-72 weighs 40 tons and gets less than one mile per gallon. In Ukraine, many have strayed too far from the trucks they need to refuel; others have reportedly been sabotaged by their own crews. They have mostly stuck to streets, largely opting not to go off-road, disperse, or conceal their positions. In some instances, they’ve bunched together within range of artillery and paid a heavy cost.

Many Western analysts say they see few signs that Russia is capable of combined arms — where, for example, air power and artillery work in tandem to support the movements of tanks.

So tank proponents can rightly chalk up a lot of Russia’s ruined tanks to terrible tactics, which means that the US’s own tank-centric approach to land warfare is unlikely to change anytime soon.


If it carries all its fuel, that’s about 3 tonnes of fuel per tank. Estimates are that Russia has lost about 270 tanks – 10% of its entire force – in the past three weeks. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Fuel retailers defend high costs at UK pumps after drop in oil prices • The Guardian

Rob Davies and Jasper Jolly:


While [British chancellor Rishi] Sunak is under pressure to cut fuel duty, experts argue such a measure could disproportionately aid wealthier people, pointing to research looking at the impact of such moves in the European Union.

EU fuel duty cuts will cost European taxpayers €9bn (£7.5bn), according to analysis by the campaign group Transport & Environment shared with the Guardian. It showed the wealthiest households would gain the most, because they were more likely to drive more and to own larger cars that consume more petrol or diesel.

The richest 10% of EU households spent eight times more on [vehicle] fuel than the bottom 10%, with the UK exhibiting a similar divide, they said.

Griffin Carpenter, a cars analyst at T&E, said: “EU governments claim they stand with Ukraine, but instead of taxing Russian oil, they’re subsidising it with €9bn of taxpayers’ money.

“There are better ways governments can help people. We could impose a tariff or tax on Russian oil imports right now. Instead of subsidising the wealthy drivers of gas-guzzling cars, cash support could be distributed more fairly to families who actually need it.”


That spending difference between top and bottom deciles is eyewatering. The difference being, of course, that the top decile can afford it.

Presently, vehicle fuel duty for petrol and diesel is just under 58p per litre – which means that British drivers haven’t realised the true swings in fuel price; going from 120p per litre to 167p is a 39% rise, but without fuel duty it would have gone from 62p to 109p, a 76% rise. (Yes, it’s all cheaper, but you’d feel more outraged.)

Sunak is being urged to cut it. That though will reduce tax revenue, while making people more aware of the gyrations in price. Plus it helps the richer. A triply bad idea. He’ll probably go with it.
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The Royal Mint to build ‘world first’ plant to turn UK’s electronic waste into gold • The Royal Mint


The Royal Mint has announced plans to build a world first plant in South Wales to recover gold from UK electronic waste. The pioneering facility will help address a growing environmental issue, support jobs and skills in Britain, and create a new source of high quality precious metals for the business.

The Royal Mint is using patented new chemistry – created by Canadian based Excir – to recover gold within the circuit boards of laptops and mobile phones. The unique chemistry is capable of recovering over 99% of the precious metals contained within electronic waste – selectively targeting the metal in seconds.

Construction of the plant begins this month, and it will be located within The Royal Mint’s highly secure site to provide a stream of gold directly into the business. When fully operational in 2023, The Royal Mint expects to process up to 90 tonnes of UK-sourced circuit boards per week – generating hundreds of kilograms of gold per year. In addition, the new business venture will support around 40 jobs, helping existing employees to reskill as well as recruiting new chemists and engineers.

Each year, more than 50 million tonnes of electronic waste is produced globally, with less than 20% currently being recycled. If nothing is done, this is set to reach 74 million tonnes by 2030.

Instead of electronic waste leaving UK shores to be processed at high temperatures in smelters, the approach will see precious metals recovered at room temperature at The Royal Mint’s plant in South Wales.


Sir Isaac Newton was master of the Royal Mint, once upon a time, and obsessed with alchemy, particularly the question of how to transmute base metals into gold. (Partly because if you could, the currency would be undermined.) Neat that the Mint is at least doing a form of alchemy all these years later.
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We’re turning off the comments… • TorrentFreak

Ernesto Ban der Sar:


Today, we will stop offering the option to comment on articles. This is a tough decision that has been discussed internally for some time.

We are thankful for all the insightful and helpful responses that many readers have provided over the years, they often gave us inspiration and encouragement to press ahead. Sadly, however, increasing ‘noise’ in more recent times ran counter to community spirit and productive discussion, not to mention our core mission and beliefs.

Our goal is to report news, navigating through various perspectives on copyright battles, deflecting the bias on both sides. While we strongly feel that everybody has the right to voice their opinion, we are not immune to the disproportionate effects of a minority on otherwise productive discourse.

Almost everywhere on the internet, this isn’t a new phenomenon. However, we work as a tiny team and have reached a point where dealing with unnecessary diversions has become too much of a distraction. And with a plethora of other public fora available today, pulling the plug is regrettably the best option.


Happens everywhere in time. Mic Wright once called comments “the radioactive waste of the web”; I think the “national newspaper section editor” he refers to in that DF extract is me.

Ironically the article and the comments have been expunged – but you’ll still find them in the vitrification store known as the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. It’s a good piece.
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Reasons why abolishing DST in the US will be worse for users and developers • Evertpot

Evert Pot (for it is he):


this bi-annual time change was a great reminder to many developers that timezones are a thing, and you can’t just naively assume a UTC time + an offset is enough. Even more so for teams that are spread cross-continent because the DST change doesn’t fall on the same day. Currently I’m in the 3 weeks per year the time difference between me and my parents is 5 instead of 6 hours.

A lot of programming is (seems?) Anglo-centric. A similar situation is that before Emoji became wide-spread it was way more common to see a lot more issues around encoding non-ascii characters 🤷 (billpg). Especially in languages that don’t have good native unicode support (looking at you PHP).

So if DST goes away in North America, I predict we’ll see more people assuming using the offset is enough, resulting in bugs related to:

• Times in countries that have not yet abolished DST
• Countries that ever change timezone rules. (This happens more often than you think!)
• Applications that deal with historical data.

It doesn’t help that one of the most common date formats (ISO 8601) uses an offset! (2022-03-18T17:05:30.996-0400). This is OKish for things that have already happened, but not good for anything in the future.

So when you hear developers excited about the US abolishing DST because it will make their (work) life simpler, remind them this is only true if you never intend your software to be used outside of North America, or when the entire rest of the world makes the same change and also freezes all timezone rules forever!


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Google routinely hides emails from litigation by CCing attorneys, DOJ alleges • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:


The US Department of Justice and 14 state attorneys general yesterday asked a federal judge to sanction Google for misusing attorney-client privilege to hide emails from litigation.

“In a program called ‘Communicate with Care,’ Google trains and directs employees to add an attorney, a privilege label, and a generic ‘request’ for counsel’s advice to shield sensitive business communications, regardless of whether any legal advice is actually needed or sought. Often, knowing the game, the in-house counsel included in these Communicate-with-Care emails does not respond at all,” the DOJ told the court. The fact that attorneys often don’t reply to the emails “underscor[es] that these communications are not genuine requests for legal advice but rather an effort to hide potential evidence,” the DOJ said.

The DOJ made its argument in a motion to sanction Google “and compel disclosure of documents unjustifiably claimed by Google as attorney-client privileged” and in a memorandum in support of the motion. “The Communicate-with-Care program had no purpose except to mislead anyone who might seek the documents in an investigation, discovery, or ensuing dispute,” the DOJ alleged.

CCing lawyers is a common practice, but the DOJ says Google took it to an “egregious” level. “Google’s institutionalized manufacturing of false privilege claims is egregious, spanning nearly a decade and permeating the company from the top executives on down,” the DOJ said.

The practice “continued unabated after the company was on notice of the Department of Justice’s investigation and even after the filing of the complaint in this action,” the DOJ said. The DOJ also said, “it is well settled that copying an attorney does not confer privilege” on its own. 


If copying an attorney doesn’t confer privilege, can’t the DOJ just grab the emails and use them? The argument is part of the DOJ’s antitrust suit about illegal monopoly in search advertising. Apparently there are 80,000 documents being withheld by this method.
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‘He goes where the fire is’: a virus hunter in the Wuhan market • The New York Times

Carl Zimmer profiles Edward Holmes, who has looked at the emergence of zoonoses (animal-human diseases):


Growing up in western England, a young Edward Holmes had a biology teacher who put a poster of an orangutan on the wall that read, “I’m not your cousin.”

The teacher told the class not to read the garbage in their textbook about evolution. That made the 14-year-old eager to dive in.

He went on to study the evolution of apes and humans, and then turned to viruses. Over three decades — working in Edinburgh, Oxford, Pennsylvania and finally Sydney — Dr. Holmes has published more than 600 papers on the evolution of viruses including HIV, influenza and Ebola.

When he was invited to come to the University of Sydney, in 2012, he seized the chance to move closer to Asia, where he feared that the wildlife trade could set off a new pandemic.

“He goes where the fire is,” said Andrew Read, an evolutionary biologist at Penn State University, who worked with Dr. Holmes at the time.

As he was preparing for the move, Dr. Holmes got an email out of the blue from a Chinese virologist named Yong-Zhen Zhang, asking if he’d like to study viruses with him in China. Their collaboration quickly expanded into a sweeping search for new viruses in hundreds of species of animals. They studied spiders plucked off the walls of huts and fish hauled up from the South China Sea.

They ultimately found more than 2,000 virus species new to science, with many surprises among them. Scientists used to think that influenza viruses infected primarily birds, for example, which could then pass them along to mammals like ourselves. But Dr. Holmes and Dr. Zhang found that fish and frogs get the flu, too.

“That’s been quite eye opening,” said Andrew Rambaut, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved in the surveys. “The diversity of viruses that are out there is just enormous.”


Holmes is 57, so that 14-year-old was living in 1978 or 1979. What English classroom had biology teachers who didn’t understand – or teach – evolution then?
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The Steve Jobs Roll Your Own Calculator Construction Set • collects the verbal history of the early years of Apple:


Chris [Espinosa, who joined Apple as employee 8, aged 14] wanted to write a demo program using Quickdraw, in order to better understand it. He got excited about the idea of what we called “desk ornaments”, which at that point were not implemented yet. He decided to work on a Quickdraw program to draw the calculator.

After playing around for a while, he came up with a calculator that he thought looked pretty good. But the acid test was showing it to Steve Jobs, in his role as our esthetic compass, to see what he thought.

We all gathered around as Chris showed the calculator to Steve and then held his breath, waiting for Steve’s reaction. “Well, it’s a start”, Steve said, “but basically, it stinks. The background color is too dark, some lines are the wrong thickness, and the buttons are too big.” Chris told Steve he’ll keep changing it, until Steve thought he got it right.

So, for a couple of days, Chris would incorporate Steve’s suggestions from the previous day, but Steve would continue to find new faults each time he was shown it. Finally, Chris got a flash of inspiration.

The next afternoon, instead of a new iteration of the calculator, Chris unveiled his new approach, which he called “the Steve Jobs Roll Your Own Calculator Construction Set”. Every decision regarding graphical attributes of the calculator were parameterized by pull-down menus. You could select line thicknesses, button sizes, background patterns, etc.

Steve took a look at the new program, and immediately started fiddling with the parameters. After trying out alternatives for ten minutes or so, he settled on something that he liked. When I implemented the calculator UI (Donn Denman did the math semantics) for real a few months later, I used Steve’s design, and it remained the standard calculator on the Macintosh for many years, all the way up through OS 9.


This week Espinosa hit 45 years at Apple. But getting Steve Jobs to stop monkeying with his work by getting Jobs to do it instead may have been his greatest achievement.
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Lapsus$ hackers leak 37GB of Microsoft’s alleged source code • Bleeping Computer

Lawrence Abrams:


The Lapsus$ hacking group claims to have leaked the source code for Bing, Cortana, and other projects stolen from Microsoft’s internal Azure DevOps server.

Early Sunday morning, the Lapsus$ gang posted a screenshot to their Telegram channel indicating that they hacked Microsoft’s Azure DevOps server containing source code for Bing, Cortana, and various other internal projects.

Monday night, the hacking group posted a torrent for a 9 GB 7zip archive containing the source code of over 250 projects that they say belong to Microsoft.

When posting the torrent, Lapsus$ said it contained 90% of the source code for Bing and approximately 45% of the code for Bing Maps and Cortana.


Great – now all I need is a search index and maps that cover the world and I can have my own private search engine and map system! Oh, with voice search.

No idea who they thought that code would be useful to.
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‘I don’t know how we’ll survive’: the farmers facing ruin in America’s ‘forever chemicals’ crisis • The Guardian

Tom Perkins:


Songbird Farm’s 17 acres (7 hectares) hold sandy loam fields, three greenhouses and cutover woods that comprise an idyllic setting near Maine’s central coast. The small organic operation carved out a niche growing heirloom grains, tomatoes, sweet garlic, cantaloupe and other products that were sold to organic food stores or as part of a community-supported agriculture program, where people pay to receive boxes of locally grown produce.

Farmers Johanna Davis and Adam Nordell bought Songbird in 2014. By 2021 the young family with their three-year-old son were hitting their stride, Nordell said.

But disaster struck in December. The couple learned the farm’s previous owner had decades earlier used PFAS-tainted sewage sludge, or “biosolids”, as fertilizer on Songbird’s fields. Testing revealed their soil, drinking water, irrigation water, crops, chickens and blood were contaminated with high levels of the toxic chemicals.

The couple quickly recalled products, alerted customers, suspended their operation and have been left deeply fearful for their financial and physical wellbeing.

“This has flipped everything about our lives on its head,” Nordell said. “We haven’t done a blood test on our kid yet and that’s the most terrifying part. It’s fucking devastating.”

Public health advocates say Songbird is just the tip of the iceberg as Maine faces a brewing crisis stemming from the use of biosolids as fertilizer. The state has begun investigating more than 700 properties for PFAS contamination. Few results are in yet but several farmers’ independent testing revealed high PFAS levels, and statewide contamination has disrupted about 10 farms.

Farmers who spoke with the Guardian say other growers have admitted to hiding PFAS contamination because they fear economic ruin.

…PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a class of about 9,000 compounds used to make products heat-, water- or stain-resistant. Known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t naturally break down, they have been linked to cancer, thyroid disruption, liver problems, birth defects, immunosuppression and more. Dozens of industries use PFAS in thousands of consumer products, and often discharge the chemicals into the nation’s sewer system.


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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Social Warming, my latest book, has answers – and more.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1762: Russia’s shifting tactics, Royal Mint turns scrap into gold, Google’s lawyerly emails, build your own Bing, and more

  1. Wow. If the *search engine algorithms* are in that source code dump, it’ll be extremely useful to several groups of people. Consider, you might have no use at all for a high-frequency-trading algorithm, since actually trading with it requires a huge server infrastructure and many technical people. But if someone leaked the detailed trading algorithm of a major financial firm, that’s potentially useful to every competitor and associated participants in that business.

    Just off the top of my head:

    Small specialized search engines can try to get algorithmic improvements.

    Google could possibly look for areas of competitive weakness, or even see if there’s a trick or two they could use themselves.

    Major spammers have the ability to analyze the code and look for means of attacking search rankings – and it’s quite possible that if some attack works on Bing, it’ll work on Google too (worth a try).

    Naively one might think that the critics who work in the field of examining search algorithm bias would get a huge gift out of it. But I strongly suspect none of them have the expertise to use it. Maybe there’s someone, it’s possible, though I’m very cynical about that.

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