Start Up No.1803: Google shuts Russian offices, Tesla’s ESG failure, Musk’s Buffalo silence, the wheat forecast, dictionary fun, and more

If you ask a software engineer to build a billing system, you’ll discover why utilities bills are so perplexing and inflexible. CC-licensed photo by Images on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Every three months, right? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google’s Russian subsidiary to file for bankruptcy after bank account seized • Reuters


Google’s Russian subsidiary plans to file for bankruptcy after authorities seized its bank account, making it impossible to pay staff and vendors, but free services including search and YouTube will keep operating, a Google spokesperson said on Wednesday.

The Alphabet unit has been under pressure in Russia for months for failing to delete content Moscow deems illegal and for restricting access to some Russian media on YouTube, but the Kremlin has so far stopped short of blocking access to the company’s services.

“The Russian authorities seizure of Google Russia’s bank account has made it untenable for our Russia office to function, including employing and paying Russia-based employees, paying suppliers and vendors, and meeting other financial obligations,” a Google spokesperson said. “Google Russia has published a notice of its intention to file for bankruptcy.”

A TV channel owned by a sanctioned Russian businessman said in April that bailiffs had seized 1 billion roubles ($15m) from Google over its failure to restore access to its YouTube account, but this is the first time the US tech giant has said its bank account as whole has been seized.


Even China just ticked some boxes to force Google out back in 2010. But will Russia block access? It’s the logical next step.
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Why Tesla was kicked out of the S&P 500’s ESG index • CNBC

Lora Kolodny:


Changes to the index took effect on May 2, and a spokesperson for the index explained why they were made in a blog post published Wednesday.

It said that Tesla’s “lack of a low-carbon strategy” and “codes of business conduct,” along with racism and poor working conditions reported at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California, affected the score. Tesla’s handling of an investigation by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration also weighed on its score.

While Tesla’s stated mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy, in February this year it settled with the Environmental Protection Agency after years of Clean Air Act violations and neglecting to track its own emissions. Tesla ranked 22nd on last year’s Toxic 100 Air Polluters Index, compiled annually by U-Mass Amherst Political Economy Research Institute — worse than Exxon Mobil, which came in 26th. (The index uses data from 2019, the most recently available.)

In Tesla’s first-quarter filing the company also disclosed it is being investigated for its handling of waste in the state of California, and that it had to pay a fine in Germany for failures to meet “take back” obligations in the country for spent batteries.


Certainly it feels pretty weird that Exxon – as in, the oil company – should be on the list when Tesla is not. Elon Musk was, predictably, annoyed about this and called ESG [environment, social, governance) “a scam” that has “been weaponised by phony social justice warriors”. Sure, a chunk of it is a scam (observe: Exxon). But Tesla really isn’t the shiny clean company Musk claims – observe its trading in bitcoin, which hardly helps reduce energy use.
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Elon Musk’s silence on how he’d moderate the Buffalo shooting livestream is deafening • The Verge

Corin Faife:


Under Elon Musk’s view of content moderation, any restriction on speech beyond what the law proscribes is censorship. And by that standard, the video of the attack in Buffalo — however graphic — should have remained on the platform since videos of graphic violence are not illegal speech. In practice, platforms were criticized for being too slow to remove them, and Musk found no need to weigh in on the debate.

The details of the Buffalo, New York shooting are widely known and still painful to report. Ten people were killed on a Saturday afternoon in a supermarket that was a mainstay for residents of Buffalo’s predominantly Black East Side. A gunman livestreamed the murderous violence on Twitch and planned to inflict yet more before being stopped by police.

The Buffalo gunman was, beyond doubt, radicalized online. He cited the Christchurch mass shooter as an inspiration, copying large parts of the New Zealand terrorist’s manifesto into one of his own. He was motivated by the “great replacement” theory, which holds that white people are being intentionally dispossessed from their positions of power through immigration and interracial marriage. He wrote that he had learned of the theory through 4chan, the online message board that spawned QAnon and has been linked to many other acts of white supremacist terrorism.

…If [Musk] had stopped tweeting entirely over the weekend, it would be fair to suggest that he was occupied elsewhere.

In reality, within hours of the shooting, Musk had posted a number of tweets, some of them even touching on content moderation. Approximately five hours after the shooting took place, he explained to users how they could access the chronological feed to avoid being “manipulated by the algorithm.” Later on in the evening, he found time to share a newsletter from Matt Taibbi on corporate regulation in California, some images of a recent Space X launch, and a royal portrait of King Louis XIV of France. The next day, he revisited the thread on chronological ordering with a tweet about the importance of open-source code. On Monday, he found enough time to troll Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal in a conversation about spam. But watchers looking for any comment on Buffalo found nothing.


Good to see The Verge calling Musk out on this. It’s the sort of thing that people think is easy to sort. It isn’t.
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Grain: world markets and trade forecasts • US Department of Agriculture


Global wheat consumption is projected at 788 million tons, down 3 million from last year as reductions in Feed and Residual use are only partially offset by higher Food, Seed and Industrial (FSI) use. High global food inflation will impact consumers’ ability to purchase wheat and wheat products in developing markets and may direct consumers to alternative food grains. However, the global economic recovery following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in most countries, as well as emerging market consumers’ general shift toward more wheat-based diets with rising incomes and increased urbanization, continue to push FSI consumption higher. FSI is forecast at a record in 2022/23, with growth seen across nearly all regions.


That consumption figure is projected higher than production, which is put at 775m tonnes, down 4m on last year; and of course the big cut in production is Ukraine. Wheat had some boom production years in 2016, 2017 and 2019, but for four of the past seven years (including this one) consumption has exceeded production.

And just take a look at wheat futures prices.
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The Apple Car could feature VR technology and no windows • VRScout

Kyle Melnick:


On May 3rd, 2022, Apple filed a patent with the United States Patent & Trademark Office for an in-car VR entertainment system that utilizes the motion of the vehicle to further immerse passengers in their in-headset experiences. VR content is synchronized with the movement and acceleration of the autonomous vehicle as it travels to the desired location, offering a unique location-based experience that changes based on your commute.

In addition to entertainment, the patent details how the technology referenced could be used to reduce motion sickness. Instead of conventional windows, passengers would view the outside world by using their VR headset to access cameras mounted on the outside of the vehicle. The technology could also be used to watch videos and read books in a stabilized environment as well as conduct virtual meetings while on the road.


There’s no way on this earth that any Apple Car would have no windows. Apart from anything, if you’re wearing a VR headset, you don’t know if there are windows or not. And the patent doesn’t imply “no windows”. But well done to VR Scout for a headline that puts such a ludicrous spin on things that linking to it was irresistible.
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Four surefire ways to eliminate spam from Google Messages • Android Police

Karandeep Singh:


Armed with RCS, Google Messages is the current face of the company’s longstanding quest for a worthy messaging app. While the multipurpose SMS app now has the features to rival the likes of WhatsApp, it still fails in one key area—and that area is spam. That’s especially true when the sources are verified business accounts that have been hassling scores of users lately with spammy in-chat advertisements within Google Messages.

While Google and ads usually go hand in hand, the search giant has little part to play in this case. Several pushy financial services brands have been exploiting their verified business privileges to spam users (or anyone whose number they have) with rich media ads in Google Messages over past year. The trend initially blew up with Kotak Mahindra Bank, Bajaj Finserv, Buddy Loan, and PolicyBazaar have turned out to be the biggest offenders.

Moreover, this isn’t limited to Pixel or Android One users, as the Messages app now comes as the default SMS app on most smartphones. Some Samsung phone owners have also seen these ads in their preinstalled SMS app, leading us to believe that the RCS protocol is being used to relay these ad banners.

So, how do we get rid of these spammy ads in Google Messages?


The answer turns out to be: turn off the RCS capability. (RCS, as a reminder, is a WhatsApp-like data-borne method of messaging. Of course when data is effectively free, it’s going to be abused. Maybe Apple’s unwillingness to embrace it makes sense. Not that SMS (or indeed iMessage) is totally free of spam, but abuse of low-cost products that reach a lot of people is a certainty.
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Plastic-eating enzyme could eliminate billions of tons of landfill waste • UT News


An enzyme variant created by engineers and scientists at The University of Texas at Austin can break down environment-throttling plastics that typically take centuries to degrade in just a matter of hours to days.

This discovery, published in Nature, could help solve one of the world’s most pressing environmental problems: what to do with the billions of tons of plastic waste piling up in landfills and polluting our natural lands and water. The enzyme has the potential to supercharge recycling on a large scale that would allow major industries to reduce their environmental impact by recovering and reusing plastics at the molecular level.

“The possibilities are endless across industries to leverage this leading-edge recycling process,” said Hal Alper, professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin. “Beyond the obvious waste management industry, this also provides corporations from every sector the opportunity to take a lead in recycling their products. Through these more sustainable enzyme approaches, we can begin to envision a true circular plastics economy.”

The project focuses on polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a significant polymer found in most consumer packaging, including cookie containers, soda bottles, fruit and salad packaging, and certain fibers and textiles. It makes up 12% of all global waste.

The enzyme was able to complete a “circular process” of breaking down the plastic into smaller parts (depolymerization) and then chemically putting it back together (repolymerization). In some cases, these plastics can be fully broken down to monomers in as little as 24 hours.


Looking back through collected links (nearly 19,000 presently), a version of this tech seems to come up every few years. (Here’s the previous one, in 2019, and the one before that in 2018.) Still not seeing it in use.
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😵‍💫 Why billing systems are a nightmare for engineers • Lago blog



When implementing a billing system, dealing with dates is often the number 1 complexity. Somehow, all your subscriptions and charges deal with a number of days. Whether you make your customers pay weekly, monthly or yearly, you need to roll things over a period of time called the billing period.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of difficulties for engineers:
1. How to deal with leap years?
2. Do your subscriptions start at the beginning of the month or at the creation date of the customer?
3. How many days/months of trial do you offer?
4. Who decided February only holds 28 days? 🤔
5. Wait, bullet 1 is also important for February… 🤯
6. How to calculate a usage-based charge (price per seconds, hours, days…)?
7. Do I resume the consumption or do I stack it month over month? Year over year?
8. Do I apply a pro-rata based on the number of days consumed by my customer?

Although every decision is reversible, billing cycle questions are often the most important source of customer support tickets, and iterating on them is a highly complex and sensitive engineering project.


This is just the very tip of the iceberg. So you look at the big billing systems run particularly by utilities (and most especially by the newest utilities, ie broadband and mobile companies) and realise that there are all sorts of implicit problems that they’re struggling with.
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Time Traveler: search words by first known use date • Merriam-Webster Dictionary


When was a word first used in print? You may be surprised! Enter a date below to see the words first recorded on that year.

In explanation: It is essential to keep a few factors in mind when assessing the First Known Use Date:
• The date may not represent the very oldest sense of the word. Many obsolete, archaic, and uncommon senses have been excluded from this dictionary, and such senses have not been taken into consideration in determining the date.
• The date most often does not mark the very first time that the word was used in English. Many words were in spoken use for decades or even longer before they passed into the written language. The date is for the earliest written or printed use that the editors have been able to discover.
• The date is subject to change. Many of the dates provided will undoubtedly be updated as evidence of still earlier use emerges.

The First Known Use Date will appear in one of three styles:
• For the Old English period (700-1099), “before 12th century”
• For the Middle English period (1100-1499), by century (e.g., “14th century”)
• For the Modern English period (1500-present), by year (for example, “1942”)


You can pick individual years all the way back to 1500. Could I suggest you try 1884? Might need to scroll a little.
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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?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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