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Congestion or a Christmas cock-up? A Register reader throws himself under the bus • The Register

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Who, Me? A step back in time for today’s Who, Me? with a trip to the dying days of manual credit card imprinting and a coding cock-up to redden the cheeks of the new, online systems.

John, our latest confessor, and was working on one of the UK’s very first Electronic Funds Transfer at Point Of Sale systems (EFTPOS) during the early 1990s. His customer was a then-major electrical retailer, with a dizzying 500+ branches across the country.

Automatic credit card authorisation was part of the deal as the existing system was hopelessly manual. Imprinting machines were used to record details, and transactions over a certain amount required a telephone call.

The wait for authorisation was not popular.

“Also,” added John, “each branch received a daily list of known fraudulent cards that staff were supposed to check against; but the list was always out-of date.”

The whizzy new EFTPOS system, running on the mighty OS/2, could do all this electronically via a X.25 network. The person facing the customer would get an immediate response and not even have to thumb through the naughty card number list.

John pulled the relevant data specifications from his local library and had the card authorisation component up, running and validated ahead of an October roll-out and code-freeze. No further software changes would be permitted until after the January sales. After all, everything had been tested, right? What could go wrong?

But something did go wrong.

As December arrived, John noticed a small but growing number of failing transactions. “Random authorization sessions were dropped,” he said, “it looked like they were timing out.”

“The obvious answer was that the problem was down to increased network congestion as Christmas approached.”

And that should have been that. It was clearly the network to blame. Probably some idiot in the back office…

John decided that perhaps he should do a bit more investigation, just in case, before directing the pointy finger of blame anywhere.

And, as it transpired, that finger would have needed to have done a 180 degree turn back at John.

“I found that the affected transactions were consistently failing after 300 milliseconds. But according to the spec, the timeout should be 3 seconds.”

Rather than 3,000 milliseconds, John had set a timeout of 300 milliseconds in his code. Nearly 30 years on, he admitted to being a little hazy about the exact number, but suffice to say he was out by a very, very long way.

“Far from being inadequate, the network had been fast enough to process all the transactions in a tenth of the allowed time.”

There is an acronym in IT: PICNIC – Problem In Chair Not In Computer. And it was John in the chair.

With nobody else to blame for his mistake, John owned up. And was very surprised at the reaction of the team he’d planned to throw under the bus if he’d gone with his first instincts.

“The retailer’s network guys were ecstatic about how fast their network was, and convinced the suits that the incorrect timeout was an honest mistake, couldn’t have been foreseen etc.

“Even better, they were fine with deploying a patch that included the proper timeout, despite the fact that it was during the pre-Christmas lockdown.”

John’s lesson from the experience? “Sometimes not blaming the ‘obvious’ culprit, even if it means taking the blame yourself, is the right thing to do.”

Every found yourself wrong by a factor in the double-digits and confessed to your error? Or did you cast an innocent party under the wheels of the bus to save your own skin? Time to confess with an email to Who, Me?

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London is the best European city for founders, Startup Genome report

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The UK capital was the only European city to make the top ten in Startup Genome’s ranking, tying with New York in second place for the second year in a row.

London is Europe’s number one start-up city, according to a recent report by Startup Genome. The research and advisory body which specialises in start-ups released its ‘Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2021’ report today (22 September).

The report identified London and New York as joint second-best cities in the world for start-ups. London was the only European location to make it into the top ten. The city is attractive to founders thanks to its educated workforce and tax incentives, the report found.

Silicon Valley in California took the top spot, unsurprisingly. This year’s global rankings were dominated by the US, with half of the top 30 ecosystems coming from this region, followed by Asia with 27pc and Europe with 17pc of the top performing ecosystems globally.

Silicon Valley, New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles alone contributed more than 70pc to the US’s total ecosystem value.

Paris made the top 20, coming in at number 12. The Amsterdam-Delta region followed in thirteenth place. Dublin improved its rank from the previous year’s report, coming in at number 36 this time.

Beijing, Boston, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, Shanghai, Seattle and Stockholm also made the top ten best start-up cities.

The global start-up economy is currently worth more than $3.8trn in ecosystem value. There are 79 ecosystems generating over $4bn in value, which is more than double the number identified in 2017. This time last year, 91 ecosystems had achieved unicorn status.

Also in 2020, Startup Genome published a report indicating its concerns over the future of the start-ups ecosystem during Covid-19. The report suggested that 42pc of start-ups were in what it called ‘the red zone,’ meaning they had three months or fewer runway ahead of them.

Several countries  including the UK, France and Germany introduced special support packages for start-ups. Irish non-profit Scale Ireland also introduced a similar start-up scheme for Irish companies.

“Entrepreneurs, policymakers, and community leaders in Europe have been working hard to build inclusive innovation ecosystems that are engines of economic growth and job creation for all,” commented JF Gauthier, founder and CEO of Startup Genome on the report’s release.

“The Global Startup Ecosystem Report is the foundation of knowledge where we, as a global network, come together to identify what policies actually produce economic impact and in what context,” Gauthier added.

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.

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Facebook oversight board to review system that exempts elite users | Facebook

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Facebook’s semi-independent oversight board says it will review the company’s “XCheck” system, an internal program that has exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules.

The decision follows an investigation by the Wall Street Journal that revealed that reviews of posts by well-known users such as celebrities, politicians and journalists are steered into the separate system.

Under the program, some users are “whitelisted”, or not subject to enforcement action, while others are allowed to post material that violates Facebook rules pending content reviews that often do not take place. The Xcheck system, for example, allowed Brazilian footballer Neymar to post nude pictures of a woman who had accused him of rape, according to the report.

Users were identified for additional scrutiny based on criteria such as being “newsworthy”, “influential or popular” or “PR risky”, the Wall Street Journal found. By 2020 there were 5.8 million users on the XCheck list, according to the newspaper.

The oversight board said Tuesday that it expects to have a briefing with Facebook on the system and “will be reporting what we hear from this” as part of a report it will publish in October.

The board may also make other recommendations, although Facebook is not bound to follow these.

The Journal’s report, the board said, has drawn “renewed attention to the seemingly inconsistent way that the company makes decisions, and why greater transparency and independent oversight of Facebook matters so much for users”.

Facebook told the Journal in response to its investigation that the system “was designed for an important reason: to create an additional step so we can accurately enforce policies on content that could require more understanding”. The company added that criticism of it was “fair” and that it was working to fix it.

A representative for Facebook declined to comment to the Associated Press on the oversight board’s decision.

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Philippines imposes 12 per cent digital services tax • The Register

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The Philippines has become the latest nation to impose a digital services tax.

Such taxes require the likes of Netflix and Spotify to pay local sales taxes even though their services are delivered – legally, notionally, and physically – from beyond local jurisdiction.

The Philippines has chosen a rate of 12 per cent, mirroring local value added taxes.

“We have now clarified that digital services and the goods and services traded through digital service providers should generally be subject to VAT. This is just a matter of common tax sense,” said Joey Salceda, a member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives and a backer of the change to the nation’s tax code.

Salceda tied the change to post-pandemic economic recovery.

“If brick and mortar establishments, which are the hardest-hit by the pandemic, have to pay VAT, the giants of e-commerce shouldn’t be exempt,” he said.

However, local companies that are already exempt from VAT by virtue of low turnover won’t be caught by the extension of the tax into the virtual realm.

Salceda’s amendments are designed to catch content streamers, but also online software sales – including mobile apps – plus SaaS and hosted software. The Philippines’ News Agency’s report on the amendment’s passage into law even mentions firewalls as subject to VAT.

The Philippines is not alone in introducing a digital services tax to raise more revenue after the COVID-19 pandemic hurt government revenue – Indonesia used the same logic in 2020 .

But the taxes are controversial because they are seen as a unilateral response to the wider issue of multinational companies picking the jurisdictions in which they’ll pay tax – a practice that erodes national tax bases. The G7 group of nations, and the OECD, think that collaborations that shift tax liabilities to nations where goods and services are acquired and consumed are the most appropriate response, and that harmonising global tax laws to make big tech pay up wherever they do business is a better plan than digital services taxes.

The USA has backed that view of digital services taxes, by announcing it will impose tariffson nations that introduce them – but is yet to enact that plan.

Meanwhile, the process of creating a global approach to multinational tax shenanigans is taking years to agree and implement.

But The Philippines wants more cash in its coffers – and to demonstrate that local businesses aren’t being disadvantaged – ASAP. ®

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