Start Up No.1854: bacteria to eat plastic, Ukraine’s 3D printer warriors, papal linkrot, Apple’s HR problem, and more

The sealed battery in many modern consumer products such as Apple Airpods makes them more attractive to use – but limits their lifespan. And how long is that? CC-licensed photo by Maurizio Pesce on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Recharging. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Operational notes:
1: The Overspill is going on a two-week break. Back on Monday August 22.
2: The Social Warming Substack will (probably) continue publishing on the Fridays in between. Including today, if it gets finished.

Electronics are built with death dates. Let’s not keep them a secret • The Washington Post

Geoffrey Fowler:


Here’s a dirty little secret of the tech industry: “Almost every device these days has a battery that’s going to wear out, and it’s a built-in death clock,” says Kyle Wiens, the CEO of repair community iFixit. Today, there are batteries in everything from your toothbrush to your vacuum cleaner. They are consumable products, like printer ink or tires.

But buying gear with batteries sealed inside is kind of like buying a car where you can’t change the tires. We just don’t realize we’re doing it, or how it’s contributing to our climate and sustainability crises.
Gadgets don’t consume as much energy as planes and cars, but the damage they cause comes from manufacturing and disposing them. Making new devices requires mining raw materials such as cobalt, often at great human cost. Disposing old gadgets is costly and is fuelling a rash of dangerous battery fires in trucks and recycling centres.

And according to Apple, of all the carbon emissions its products add to the earth over their life span, 70% comes just from manufacturing. That means every time you buy a new gadget like a laptop, you’re adding hundreds of more pounds of carbon into the sky before you even switch it on.

But even if you wanted buy long-lasting devices, it’s often impossible to tell when any product’s battery might die. Of course, devices fail for many reasons, but dead batteries are the death clock that’s built in.
That’s why I spent six weeks pushing some of the world’s largest corporations to find these basic facts about some of our favourite gadgets:
• First, how many recharges — or, “cycles” — can the product’s battery take until its capacity drops to 80%? “After that, they are defined as dead,” because capacity starts to drop precipitously, explains Bas Flipsen, a lecturer in industrial design engineering at the Delft University of Technology.
• Second, when that inevitable day comes, what — if anything — can a consumer do to replace their battery?

Only three companies — Nintendo, e-bike maker VanMoof and Apple (in part) — disclosed these battery details on their websites. Nearly half of the companies I contacted, including Sony, Dyson, Logitech, Google-owned Fitbit, Amazon, Therabody and Samsung-owned JBL refused to answer or just ignored my specific questions.

None of this should be a secret.


It’s a reasonable point. And at least he isn’t insisting that there shouldn’t be sealed batteries. That ship long ago sailed: people have shown their preference very clearly.
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Can bacteria eat plastic? Hunt is on for mutants to devour waste on an industrial scale • The Times

Tom Whipple:


No one will ever know quite how it happened, or exactly when. But here is one plausible explanation for how bacteria in a Japanese recycling plant started eating plastic. Each day, plastic bottles piled up in the plant in Osaka, ready to be filtered, separated, recycled and reused. A few bacteria lived among this casually tossed detritus, surviving mainly on the sugary remnants of fizzy drinks left sloshing around in the bottles. It was an energy-poor environment — but the strange thing is, there was energy all around waiting to be unlocked.

It had taken energy to make those plastic bottles and this remained within their chemical bonds. Nature, though, had no way of unlocking it. How could it? In the span of evolutionary time, plastic has only just been invented.

The great tragedy of plastic is that this wonder material is destined to go brittle, fragment, degrade and become useless, but never decompose.

Except, on one ordinary day, in this one ordinary place in Japan, one piece of plastic did decompose. A bacterium had reproduced with a slight mutation, meaning the chemical tools its offspring used to eat things behaved slightly differently.

…PET, of which most plastic bottles are made, has a particular kind of bond between its monomers that can be cut using a specialised enzyme. There are other plastics, though — 80% of them, in fact — that have other, tougher, bonds that remain impervious, which need their own enzymes.

Even if we find the tyrannosaurus rex of PET, we need more plastic predators. Scientists are increasingly confident, however, that they are out there. To find a plastic-chomping bacterium once could be sheer luck. To find one twice? That’s different.

Other enzymes — better enzymes still — must be out there, and across the world, people are looking. They are burying plastics in soil, swabbing in the springs of Yellowstone, sieving the detritus of recycling plants, searching through the genomes of known species.


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Death from above, printed at home: Ukrainians deploy DIY weapons against Russian troops • Yahoo News

Michael Weiss and James Rushton:


The three Russian soldiers, filmed from a weaponized Ukrainian drone from above, scramble into what looked like a worn-down sedan somewhere near the city of Kharkiv. Their position had already been struck earlier by another drone and they were trying to evacuate an injured comrade. Just then, a small metal projectile about the size of a soda can descends on them. It has been outfitted with an incongruous white fin. It sails through the air, slipping right through the aperture in the car’s roof, detonating on impact. One soldier is still able-bodied enough to sprint away, although the same can’t be said for his co-passengers. As smoke billows from the top, the vehicle careers out of control, grinding to a stop.

The drone’s camera footage shows a Russian soldier through the sunroof. Another is crawling on the ground. Though the concussive force of the blast didn’t kill these men instantly, the numerous lacerations caused by the mortar’s shrapnel may yet prove deadly.

The video ends.

“We have thousands of volunteers in Ukraine hoping to say ‘hi’ to Russian occupiers in this way,” Yuri Vlasyuk said admiringly of his own team’s work. The soft-spoken 46-year-old explained to Yahoo News at a cafe in Kyiv that the white fin on the bomb, which gave it enough aerodynamic stability to perfectly meet its target, was 3D-printed by a Ukrainian civilian at home. Although it was dropped by an operator of Ukraine’s 92 Mechanized Brigade, the manufacturer received his own digital trophy.

“The volunteers that print these for the drones get a video showing them being put to good use,” Vlasyuk said with a grin. He then pulled up other videos posted to Facebook and Twitter showing grenades and mortars with 3D-printed fins hitting columns of unsuspecting Russian troops, as well as ones displaying Ukrainian hands packing their metal tubes with nails.

Vlasyuk self-effacingly described himself as a “just a guy who knows some cool people.” In reality, his cohort is an organic network of tinkerers — engineers, electricians, programmers and 3D printers — who’ve been helping their military wage a grassroots campaign against Russian invaders.


This is a different war from any previous in so many ways. 3D printing. Video. Citizen participation (though Iraq had that, we just didn’t see it that way). And for so many watching on social media, real death.
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The sublime Danielle Steel: for the love of supermarket schlock • LA Review of Books

Dan Sinykin:


Something unsettling has happened to Steel. For the first couple decades, she published one or two novels most years. From 1997 through 2014, she plateaued at a steady three. In 2015, she ticked up to four. Then, in 2016, an alarming six. She’s done six or seven annually since. That’s a novel every 50 days or so for a woman now 74 years old.

“I’ve reacted with amazement, shock, and outrage when people have asked me in my fan mail, who writes my books,” Steel wrote in a blog post in 2012, when she was working at a much more reasonable pace. “WHO writes my BOOKS??? Are you kidding? Who do you think writes my books, as I hover over my typewriter for weeks at a time, working on a first draft, with unbrushed hair, in an ancient nightgown, with every inch of my body aching after typing 20 or 22 hours a day […]” She enumerates the bodily horrors of such a regimen: bleeding fingers, popped veins in her hands, and, of course, an aching back. Nevertheless, she “would never just hand off an outline for someone else to write.”

More than an insane sleep schedule makes her productivity possible. As of 2012, she employed three assistants — Heather, Allee, and Alex — who protected her from paparazzi, fielded her phone calls, and talked with “lawyers, bankers, plumbers,” handling all her business. They fed her, too, given that she doesn’t want “to stop and eat anything complicated” when she’s writing. (“I have terrible eating habits, and in my early days for some reason lived on a writing diet of liverwurst and Oreo Cookies, which became the subject of many jokes.”) I presume this setup persists. She has a researcher on retainer, Nancy Eisenbarth, who supplies specificity, past and present: “I drive her insane, calling her at 3 am, or sending her emails, needing to know what floor something is on, how many people died in a famous fire, what is the decor of a certain restaurant, or a detail about a unit of the French Resistance in WW2.” One of their most ambitious endeavors resulted in the 500-page historical romance set during the Russian Revolution, Zoya.


You didn’t care about pulpish fiction writer Danielle Steel? But now you are. Or should be.
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Diving into digital ephemera: identifying defunct URLs in the web archives • The Signal

Olivia Meehan worked on the web archiving team at the US Library of Congress, and decided to see how well online archives of the papal transition (no, not that sort) in 2005 had survived:


Based on the results I have so far and conversations I’ve had with other web archivists, the lifecycle of websites is unpredictable to the extent that accurately tracking the status of a site inherently requires nuance, time, and attention – which is difficult to maintain at scale. This data is valuable, however, and is worth pursuing when possible . Using a sample selection of URLs from larger collections could make this more manageable than comprehensive reviews.

Of the content originally captured in the Papal Transition 2005 Collection, 41% is now offline. Without the archived pages, the information, perspectives, and experiences expressed on those websites would potentially be lost forever. They include blogs, personal websites, individually-maintained web portals, and annotated bibliographies. They frequently represent small voices and unique perspectives that may be overlooked or under-represented by large online publications with the resources to maintain legacy pages and articles.

The internet is impermanent in a way that is difficult to quantify. The constant creation of new information obscures what is routinely deleted, overwritten, and lost. While the scope of this project is small within the context of the wider internet, and even within the context of the Library’s Web Archive collections as a whole, I hope that it effectively demonstrates the value of web archives in preserving snapshots of the online world as it moves and changes at a record pace.


Good argument for throwing a few spare bucks over to the Internet Archive (and hoping that it won’t prolong its quixotic battle about lending ebooks from the pandemic).
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This is the future climate hawks want to see • BusinessGreen Blog Post

James Murray:


No country is even close to getting every part of the net zero transition right yet, no matter how often the UK government insists it is world leading. But there is a fascinating thought experiment to be had imagining what an economy would look like right now if it took the best part of different countries’ net zero strategies.

An economy that boasted the UK’s offshore wind industry and planned zero carbon industrial hubs, France’s nuclear plants, Denmark’s heat pumps, Norway’s EV adoption rates, China’s clean tech manufacturing and epic renewables projects, India’s solar boom, Germany’s passivhaus buildings, the Netherland’s cycling networks, South Africa’s Just Transition Partnership, Japan’s levels of energy efficiency, Costa Rica’s forest protection, the EU’s carbon market, Australia’s rooftop solar industry, Iceland’s direct air capture plant, and Silicon Valley’s innovation ecosystem, would be well on its way to net zero already.

Such an economy would be more productive, more competitive, and less exposed to volatile fossil fuel prices than its peers. It would play a leading role in the 21st century, shape the future of human civilisation, and push back against the march of petrostate authoritarians. It would be happier and healthier too. Done right, the public support would be overwhelming.

This is the future climate hawks want to see. It is mad they have to fight for it.


(“Climate hawks” being those who aggressively want action on the climate crisis, as opposed to climate doves who vaguely hope things will come together.)

Related: James O’Malley on how we shouldn’t expect the energy crisis to finish any time soon. Remember how people thought, in March 2020, that the pandemic would be done by September 2020? Like that.
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Hidden Menace: massive methane leaks speed up climate change • AP News

Michael Biesecker and Helen Wieffering:


To the naked eye, the Mako Compressor Station outside the dusty West Texas crossroads of Lenorah appears unremarkable, similar to tens of thousands of oil and gas operations scattered throughout the oil-rich Permian Basin.

What’s not visible through the chain-link fence is the plume of invisible gas, primarily methane, billowing from the gleaming white storage tanks up into the cloudless blue sky.

The Mako station, owned by a subsidiary of West Texas Gas Inc., was observed releasing an estimated 870 kilograms of methane – an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere each hour. That’s the equivalent impact on the climate of burning seven tanker trucks full of gasoline every day.

But Mako’s outsized emissions aren’t illegal, or even regulated. And it was only one of 533 methane “super emitters” detected during a 2021 aerial survey of the Permian conducted by Carbon Mapper, a partnership of university researchers and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The group documented massive amounts of methane venting into the atmosphere from oil and gas operations across the Permian, a 250-mile-wide bone-dry expanse along the Texas-New Mexico border that a billion years ago was the bottom of a shallow sea. Hundreds of those sites were seen spewing the gas over and over again. Ongoing leaks, gushers, going unfixed.

…Carbon Mapper identified the spewing sites only by their GPS coordinates. The Associated Press took the coordinates of the 533 “super-emitting” sites and cross-referenced them with state drilling permits, air quality permits, pipeline maps, land records and other public documents to piece together the corporations most likely responsible.

Just 10 companies owned at least 164 of those sites, according to an AP analysis of Carbon Mapper’s data. West Texas Gas owned 11.


And this is only for the US. It could be a fantastic resource if it were extended worldwide (Carbon Mapper is going to start using satellites to provide more rapid data) so we could identify hotspots. It can be a tossup whether to burn the methane: traps 80x more heat than CO2 over 20 years, 25x over 100 years. So how long do you think we have? (It seems worthwhile burning the methane.)
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The women calling out Apple’s handling of misconduct claims • Financial Times via Ars Technica

Patrick McGee:


In 2018, CEO Tim Cook spoke of the company’s commitment to “helping more women assume leadership roles across the tech sector and beyond”, launching an initiative to train and mentor female entrepreneurs building apps. In the company’s internal 31-page onboarding document called “Apple Start”, the iPhone maker holds itself to a high standard, telling new employees about the “Apple difference”, how it fosters teamwork and innovation, and “does things differently”.

Yet the stories shared by women at Apple indicate the world’s largest company is falling short in building the culture it aspires to. The accounts collected by the FT paint a portrait of a People [Human Resources, aka HR] team that acts less like a safe place for employees to go with complaints and more like a risk mitigation unit that protects bad managers. In six cases, women said speaking up had cast them as bad team members and resulted in their departure. In three instances, Apple offered multiple months of salary in exchange for not disparaging the company or being held liable.

In response to the FT’s findings, Apple said in a statement it works hard to thoroughly investigate all misconduct allegations, and that it strives to create “an environment where employees feel comfortable reporting any issues”. 

The company acknowledged it had not always met those ambitions. “There are some accounts raised that do not reflect our intentions or our policies and we should have handled them differently, including certain exchanges reported in this story,” Apple said. “As a result, we will make changes to our training and processes.” It declined to comment on specific cases “out of respect for the privacy of individuals involved”.

Insiders say it’s a matter of priorities. Apple “is so singularly obsessed about making the best products, that there are blinders to everything else”, says Chris Deaver, an HR business partner at Apple from 2015 to 2019. “This is an engineering-led organisation. It can be a bit logos-heavy. A bit detached from emotions.”


Is it internal Apple culture, or is it just male culture? One can’t deny the stories, and even if they’re only isolated incidents, it’s still a problem for those women. And HR departments are the same the world over: they’re not there to change the corporate culture, they’re there to protect it.
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Damien Hirst confesses he’s been ‘all over the fucking shop’ about NFTs as he plans to burn 4,851 physical works • The Art Newspaper

Anny Shaw:


If, like us, you find NFTs baffling, fear not. They also have Damien Hirst’s head in a spin.

One year ago, the artist launched a project in which the buyers of 10,000 NFTs were forced to choose between keeping the digital token (priced at $2,000 each) or swapping it for a corresponding work on paper. Now the jury is in: 5,149 people have traded their NFT for an enamel dot painting, meaning 4,851 NFTs remain in existence. The physical works that were not claimed will now be burned by the artist.

Revealing that he kept 1,000 NFTs for himself, Hirst has confessed on Twitter that he has “been all over the f****** shop with my decision making, trying to work out what I should do”.

In the beginning, Hirst says he was adamant that he would “chose all physical”, or “most physical”. Then he flip-flopped to thinking he would go half and half. “Then I felt I had to keep all my 1,000 as NFTs and… then all paper again and round and round I’ve gone, head in a spin.”

Despite the onset of “crypto winter”, but perhaps unsurprisingly given that The Currency project is backed by the technology company Heni, Hirst ultimately stuck to NFTs. He says: “I decided I need to show my 100% support and confidence in the NFT world (even though it means I will have to destroy the corresponding 1,000 physical artworks). Eeeeeek! I still don’t know what I’m doing.”


So if I read this correctly, there were 11,000 physical works (the 10,000 plus the 1,000 Hirst kept), but now there will only be 6,149 of them. I’d say that means the physical work has at least doubled in value, while the NFTs, which are attached to nothing that can be valued, haven’t. (If the figure is originally 10,000 and now just 5,149, the value has surely doubled.) That suggests the physical purchasers are the smart ones. Here’s the original story in March 2021, which makes less than zero sense. (Thanks Alan for the link.)
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Earth sets new record for shortest day • Time And Date

Graham Jones and Konstantin Bikos:


The narrow, jagged spikes in the chart are a result of the Moon’s monthly orbit around Earth. The longer, smoother waves—with the shortest days coming in or around July each year—are related to movements in Earth’s atmosphere.

What is causing the current downward trend in the length of the shortest day? It could be related to processes in Earth’s inner or outer layers, oceans, tides, or even climate. Scientists are not sure, and struggle to make predictions about the length of day more than a year ahead. But there are tentative ideas.

At next week’s annual meeting of the Asia Oceania Geosciences Society (presentation SE05_A009), Leonid Zotov—together with his colleagues Christian Bizouard and Nikolay Sidorenkov—will suggest the current decrease in the length of day could have some relation to the ‘Chandler wobble’.

Chandler wobble is the name given to a small, irregular movement of Earth’s geographical poles across the surface of the globe.

“The normal amplitude of the Chandler wobble is about three to four meters at Earth’s surface,” Dr Zotov told timeanddate, “but from 2017 to 2020 it disappeared.”

If Earth’s fast rotation continues, it could lead to the introduction of the first-ever negative leap second.


[Chandler from Friends voice:] Could the Earth be any more puzzling?

Also: “Chandler wobble”?


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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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