Start Up No.1530: Facebook Dating gets cold shoulder, is your browser FLoCed?, Peloton v Apple, Greensill explained, and more

Careful analysis shows that Mr Spock’s predictions are wrong a surprising amount of the time. Could scriptwriting be to blame? CC-licensed photo by Tom Simpson on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Spaghetti for two, one plate. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

• 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?

Preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.

Facebook’s own ads reveal: not many people are using Facebook Dating • The Verge

Ashley Carman:


Facebook first introduced its dating product as a test in Colombia in 2018 and brought it Stateside in September 2019. Since then, the company hasn’t said much. The last time dating was talked about at length on an earnings call was right after it launched. In that call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he thought it was “already one of the top dating services, and we expect to continue growing.” In a release announcing its international expansion to Europe this past October, the company said it had made over 1.5 billion matches up until that point. Tinder, meanwhile, advertises “over 55 billion matches made” on its website.

But a year and a half after launch, Facebook Dating is far from a hit. The company hasn’t shared overall usage numbers, and data found by The Verge suggests the app is smaller than competing options. The company only shares data when it wants to, and because the service lives within the broader Facebook app, there’s no way to measure download numbers.

However, The Verge has found multiple screenshots that suggest the actual size of Facebook’s dating product isn’t all that large but that it’s growing. The company runs in-house ads that advertise the number of users it has in specific regions. In the country’s largest city, New York, for example, the company advertised 278,000 singles “currently dating” in the city this week. In Indianapolis last month, it advertised 43,000 people, and in Ottawa, Canada, earlier this month, it claimed to have 24,000.

Users in smaller cities also see hyper-localized data. In Bellingham, Washington, Facebook says it has 2,000 single people using it. Days after its launch in Ireland, Facebook advertised having 1,000 people on the service in Dublin. The numbers appear to be dynamic and adjusting, too. Just last week, the same in-house ad in New York City advertised around 2,000 fewer people, and a month ago, it showed 9,000 fewer, suggesting these in-feed ads are successfully signing up new users.

Census data estimates from 2019 suggest that nearly 4 million unmarried people call New York City home, meaning Facebook Dating has about 7% of the city’s singles on it.

In a statement to The Verge, a Match Group spokesperson said, “We have a number of brands with more active users than that in NYC, including Tinder and Hinge.”


I think Match Group is breathing quite the sigh of relief. Finally, something that Facebook just really doesn’t do well.
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Am I FLoCed?

Electronic Frontier Foundation:


Google is running a Chrome “origin trial” to test out an experimental new tracking feature called Federated Learning of Cohorts (aka “FLoC”). According to Google, the trial currently affects 0.5% of users in selected regions, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, and the United States. This page will try to detect whether you’ve been made a guinea pig in Google’s ad-tech experiment.


(I tried it on my version of Chrome: no. Statistically, at least a few Overspill readers should be, though. It could be you!)
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Peloton clarifies the Apple Watch GymKit mess • The Verge

Nilay Patel:


Okay. Peloton sells a very famous stationary bicycle with streaming workouts, an app, and a whole fitness lifestyle situation.

Apple sells a very famous smartwatch with heart rate tracking, apps, and the ability to sync with fitness equipment over a proprietary Apple system called GymKit.

The basic Peloton bike costs $1,895 and does not work with GymKit; the fancier Bike Plus, which works with GymKit, costs $2,495.

A lot of people bought the more expensive bike to use it with their Apple Watches over GymKit! And yesterday all those people were dismayed to learn that Peloton had disabled Apple Watch integration for “bike bootcamp” classes, which combine cycling with strength training. (The integration still works just fine with regular old cycling, but you understand, again, that Peloton is an entire fitness lifestyle situation.)

…Anyhow, irritating the huge group of wealthy people who own both an Apple Watch and a Peloton Bike Plus is a bad idea, so Peloton has a new statement today clarifying what’s going on. Here it is:


Apple GymKit is designed to work with equipment-based cardio workouts. However, Peloton recently implemented GymKit with Bike Bootcamp, a multi-disciplinary class type that combines strength and cardio, which the feature does not support. Members can still use GymKit to sync their cycling-only workouts to their Apple Watch from the Bike+.


So basically, the Apple Watch does not support switching from biking to lifting weights all in one workout. Fair enough. That said, if people want to use their Apple Watch in goofy off-label ways, it’s weird that Apple is stopping them in this way, no? And certainly adding a “bike bootcamp” workout mode to the Apple Watch fitness app would be relatively easy for Apple, the company that makes the Apple Watch.


There’s “relatively easy” and then there’s “priority”, and I think that for Apple doing that is only one of them. Not because it wants to block Peloton (which captures a different market than Fitness+) but because it has plenty to be getting on with around the Watch, and fitness tracking.
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Cosmic Ray Observer, enabled by smartphones

Thomas Andersen:


nSCIr runs the Cosmic Ray Observer – which is a distributed cosmic ray detector that uses smart phones to collect cosmic rays. Get the iOS app and take part in a global physics experiment. We are Canadian.


Quite fun: shows places where cosmic rays are hitting camera lenses of iPhones.
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The real scandal of the David Cameron affair • The New European

James Ball:


After a series of leaks – some of which seem to originate from Number 10, leading some to wonder whether Johnson’s team briefed against their boss’s disliked former schoolmate – both now face a public inquiry into the whole affair.

It’s impossible to know what that inquiry will find. But the scary yet very real probability is it will find no rules were broken – because that’s how the British system works. The reality of the political rules of Britain are that we have numerous codes which give the appearance of propriety, while making sure these have no real teeth.

Ministers have a code, the enforcement of which lies solely with the prime minister. The PM has an ethics advisor, but he can choose who that is – and the last holder of that office resigned when Priti Patel was found to have breached the ministerial code over bullying allegations made by her former permanent secretary, but faced no sanction.

Once politicians leave office, they are supposed to request permission from a committee before taking outside jobs, which will grant permission or not. But even that committee turns out to be entirely voluntary: it will usually toothlessly approve appointments but say the ex-politician shouldn’t lobby.

It then does no enforcement, but writes a stern letter if the media find lobbying occurred. Alternatively, the politician concerned can simply not consult the committee at all – as George Osborne did – in which case an even more stern letter is written, and then ignored.

Short of being caught on camera accepting a brown envelope full of notes, UK political regulation has no sanctions. And the system has been cleverly engineered so that no-one ever need offer or accept a brown envelope. Everything is done on an ‘understanding’ – private sector advisors are brought in to help, and later hire former politicians for their knowledge. No promises are made, no quid-pro-quos offered. Everyone knows the game.


Worth noting how much those currently in place really dislike Cameron, and are happy to do him down. But they’re bringing themselves down with him.
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What did Greensill Capital actually do? • The Guardian

Adam Leaver is a professor of accounting:


Greensill Capital, which entered administration last month, provided payment services including “factoring” and “supply chain financing”. Although the company represented itself as part of the “fintech” revolution, these services were not in themselves particularly noteworthy or innovative. To understand the growing appeal of Greensill and other providers, we therefore need a wider lens.

Supply chain financing (or “reverse-factoring”) solves a common payment problem. Firms traditionally supply goods or services to a customer and issue an invoice for payment. While the supplier might prefer the invoice to be paid immediately, the customer might want to delay payment. In situations where the customer is large and influential, they might insist the supplier wait two or more months. With reverse factoring, a financial institution offers to step in to pay the supplier sooner on the customer’s behalf, minus a small discount which they take as their fee, or part of their fee. The customer then settles with the financial institution at an agreed later date, often four or five months later. On paper, everyone wins and there are no risks.

But textbook definitions don’t always apply neatly to the real world. In recent years, the appeal of supply-chain finance has included the possibilities it provides for what’s euphemistically called creative accounting. Creative accounting has blossomed under the fair-value revolution – a change in the accounting rules towards a more market-based outlook.

This essentially means the business of doing one’s accounts has pivoted towards an evaluation of future cashflows rather than a valuation of past transactions. Many assets are no longer valued on the basis of the price paid for them, but on their current market values or even modelled estimates of the future cashflows they will generate. This also applies to some contracts, where profits are booked on the basis of future expectations. This approach to accounting creates the scope for discretion, subjectivity and speculation. It has arguably made it easier for firms to “recognise” profits than to generate the actual cashflows that support them. And it is here that supply chain financing can be misused.

…As Greensill pushed for growth, the collateral underlying the transactions with some of those companies appeared to be speculative. As investigative work has shown, Greensill did not just lend against the security of invoices for transactions that had already occurred, it lent against the “prospective receivables” the company might generate in the future. [Emphasis added – CA] In other words, it would lend against transactions that had not occurred and may never occur with companies that had never done business with its clients. (Representatives of Greensill have declined to comment.)


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‘No one was driving the car’: two men dead after fiery Tesla crash in Spring, officials say • Click 2 Houston

Amanda Cochran and Deven Clarke:


Two men are dead after a Tesla traveling in [the town of] Spring crashed into a tree and no one was driving the vehicle, officials say.

The crash happened at 11:25 p.m. in the Carlton Woods subdivision near The Woodlands. The car burst into flames after hitting a tree near 18 Hammock Dunes Place.

Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman told KPRC 2 that the investigation showed “no one was driving” the fully-electric 2019 Tesla when the accident happened. There was a person in the passenger seat of the front of the car and in the rear passenger seat of the car.

Herman said authorities believe no one else was in the car and that it burst into flames immediately. He said it he believes it wasn’t being driven by a human.

Harris County Constable Precinct 4 deputies said the vehicle was traveling at a high speed when it failed to negotiate a cul-de-sac turn, ran off the road and hit the tree.


Yet another failure for Tesla’s “self-driving” system. It’s leading to dangerous overconfidence.
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What have we learnt from a year of Covid? • Tim Harford

The presenter of the BBC’s (must-listen) More Or Less and (equally good if less frequent) Cautionary Tales podcast:


To my mind, there were two big calls to be made [in February 2020]. The first: was this virus a deadly enough threat to merit extraordinary changes to life as we know it? The second: should those changes be voluntary or a matter for politicians, the courts and the police?

The UK wavered over the first decision — long enough to ensure that the country suffered one of the deadliest first-wave outbreaks in the world. But in the end, the decision was made: this wasn’t just like a bad flu, which we should take on the chin. It was simply too dangerous to keep calm and carry on.

…Japan’s advice — to avoid the “Three Cs” of closed spaces, crowded places and close contact — is far more memorable to me than whatever strange combination of households, settings and exemptions the authorities in my own country are currently allowing. (Let’s not even start on the excuses made for the behaviour of Dominic Cummings.)

Nowhere was this clearer than in the government’s catastrophic handling of Christmas. It issued an incomprehensible tangle of rules allowing a three-household “Christmas bubble”, basked in headlines such as “Boris Johnson battles experts to save Christmas” and finally backpedalled at the last moment. The result was that many families made dangerous plans to spend Christmas with elderly relatives on the assumption that they must be safe because they were legal, then felt resentment at the change. Much of the damage was already done; most days in January had more than 1,000 deaths.

There is every reason to believe that vaccination is making short work of the pandemic in the UK, but it is always worth learning lessons. I’ll remember to trust the competence of the government a little less, to trust mathematical models a little more and to have some respect for the decency of ordinary people.


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Do we really still need to wear masks outside? • Slate

Shannon Palus:


as we’ve come to know more about the virus, as vaccinations are ramping up, and as we’re trying to figure out how to live with some level of COVID in a sustainable way, masking up outside when you’re at most briefly crossing paths with people is starting to feel barely understandable. Look: I believe masks (and even shaming) are indispensable in controlling the spread of the coronavirus. Despite early waffling, public health experts are virtually unanimously in support of them and have remained so even as our early dedication to scrubbing surfaces and Cloroxing veggies wound down.

In other words, as the pandemic has progressed, so has our understanding of what safety measures are truly most useful, and which aren’t worth the alcohol wipes. And I would like to calmly suggest that now is the time we should consider no longer wearing masks when we walk around outside.

I am not suggesting this simply because I am very sick of wearing a mask at all times outside my home. When it comes to coronavirus spread, evidence shows that being outdoors is very, very safe. A paper published in Indoor Air looked at 1,245 cases in China and found just one instance of outdoor transmission, which involved people having a conversation, which means they had to be close to one another for some period of time and face to face. According to data from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, shared earlier this month with the Irish Times, of 232,164 cases in Ireland, just 262 were associated with “locations which are primarily associated with outdoor activities.” That is, about 0.1%.


I’m still surprised by the Irish cases, and wonder if there was some sharing of facilities. You only have to look at the way that in the UK the number of deaths dropped dramatically during the summer even though many facilities were open, particularly restaurants for indoor eating. Simply, more people were outside, and so at lower risk. (In the UK, there’s no mandate to wear masks outdoors, only in shops and on public transport.)
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Turns out, Spock is kinda bad at logic • WIRED


In the [Star Trek] franchise, Spock makes confident predictions based on his superior Vulcan mind. [Julia] Galef was curious to see exactly how often these predictions pan out. “I went through all of the Star Trek episodes and movies—all of the transcripts that I could find—and searched for any instance in which Spock is using the words ‘odds,’ ‘probability,’ ‘chance,’ ‘definitely,’ ‘probably,’ etc.,” she says. “I catalogued all instances in which Spock made a prediction and that prediction either came true or didn’t.”

The results, which appear in Galef’s new book The Scout Mindset, are devastating. Not only does Spock have a terrible track record—events he describes as “impossible” happen 83% of the time—but his confidence level is actually anti-correlated with reality. “The more confident he says he is that something will happen—that the ship will crash, or that they will find survivors—the less likely it is to happen, and the less confident he is in something, the more likely it is to happen,” Galef says.

Spock’s biggest weakness is his failure to understand that other people don’t always behave “logically.” He also makes no attempt to update his approach, even when his mistakes get his crewmates killed.

“He’s not a spring chicken,” Galef says. “He’s interacted with non-Vulcans before, and so presumably he’s had lots of opportunities to see that, actually, lots of people don’t behave the way he thinks they—rationally —should behave. And yet he fails to learn from those instances of missed predictions because instead he just shrugs and says, ‘Well, the world didn’t behave the way it should have.’”


Galef isn’t a fool, and she knows that Spock is depicted that way because the scriptwriters want to create dramatic tension between the thing you’re told must happen, and what actually happens. But there’s plenty more in the article (and its linked podcast), especially about the question: what if the human lifespans were 170 years, and it was suggested it should be halved? (For comparison: what if someone suggested halving it from 85 years to 43?)
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A case for spreadsheet wireframes • UX Collective

Clair Rock:


[First,] I feel like it’s important to understand what a wireframe is. I’ve heard and worked with many people who use the word “wireframe” loosely, so I want to get on the same page here. We use wireframes to understand the design layout of a website. They are a low fidelity representation of the pieces that must come together to build a website. It’s the skeleton, simple as that. The blood and guts, the visual design; that comes later.

But why are wireframes important to information architects? Simple. This is the first time in a project when you can see all the strategies behind the IA connected to some visual representation of the site. The paths through the site start to become visible with a wireframe. When used appropriately and at the right time in a project, wireframes allow amendments to structure with a lot less headache. After all resetting, a bone is easier than reconstructive surgery.

I am not a visual designer, but I will happily give a client a basic static wireframe, and I know I’m not alone here. This simple deliverable can be enough. But then the inevitable happens. Something comes up, and a change must be made. The client decides they want to go in a completely different direction. Maybe the client is confused by Lorem Ipsum and doesn’t understand the “content” that is fake Latin used to fill space.

These are genuine issues. These things happen all of the time. And usually, these issues require going back to square one, maybe square two, scraping the work, and coming up with another rendition (at least in my experience). And — well, let’s be real, that’s annoying. It adds time that may not exist to get extra work done. There is rarely an opportunity to make a “simple” change in a timely fashion. It doesn’t make sense that creating such a useful and straightforward tool should come with this unnecessarily stressful work. Not only can a simple static wireframe lead to the above issues, but it also doesn’t offer enough. It can give your client an idea of how things might work, but that can be asking a lot of someone coming from a different perspective. They require a lot more explanation. And tend to have a pretty low return, at least in my experience.

And that’s why I’ve switched to making wireframes in spreadsheets.


Which is quite the needle scratch moment. But, as Rock shows (with an example!), it can make perfect sense; you can even do it collaboratively using tools like Google Sheets.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1530: Facebook Dating gets cold shoulder, is your browser FLoCed?, Peloton v Apple, Greensill explained, and more

  1. There’s likely some missing detail in the Tesla story. My understanding from checking is that Teslas have safety features which, in order to use software control, supposedly require someone be in the driver’s seat and have their hands on the steering wheel. Now, these safety features can be bypassed. But doing so requires deliberate hacking effort, with full intent to disable the safety and run the car outside the permitted operating conditions. This isn’t like the boilerplate legal warning where they tell you to always pay attention – and know that, practically, people will ignore it and trust the system too much. Rather, this looks like someone taking direct action to trick the car into an operating mode the manufacture explicitly disavows. I can’t see much moral culpability attaching to Tesla in that case.

    It’s a bit like the tricks to get around the charging protection circuit of overly discharged run-down lithium batteries, where further charging is dangerous. Do it, and it might work, or the battery might explode. If you do it, and the battery explodes, the manufacture really shouldn’t be blamed.

    • Absolutely agree that there will be more to the story: there must have been some shenanigans (such as hanging a weight off the steering wheel to fool the monitoring system). At the same time, though, it does indicate overconfidence by whoever started the car in thinking that the “self-driving/autosteer/navigate” system was better than it turned out to be. It’s the difference between “if I do this, the car will definitely crash” (if you put a normal car into cruise control) and “if I do this, things should be fine” (which Tesla’s publicity leads you towards).
      Ultimately, the fault is the driver’s. But there are contributory factors in the overconfidence.

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