Author Archives: qsf

Cookie Monster

It’s so easy to focus on the more disastrous aspects of Brexit that I’d like to raise the spirits of UK citizens by pointing out one possible very positive outcome. But we’re going to have to work for it, make our voices heard, and bring freedom for our nation from a pan-European menace that has plagued us for years!

I am referring, of course, to the outrageously stupid legislation that requires websites to display those notices telling us that they use cookies.

It clearly hadn’t occurred to the idiots who crafted these rules — enforced first in the EU’s e-Privacy directive and implemented in the UK’s Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) — that basically every site on the web uses cookies. Therefore, unless you only ever visit the same half-dozen sites, you’re adding a burden to vast numbers of online interactions.

So it’s no surprise that nobody actually reads the notices. I have to agree to several of these every day, and I don’t think I’ve ever read any of them. It’s a fundamental and obvious part of user interface design that if you make users mechanically perform the same task too often, they’re not going to read the text in the dialog box before clicking OK. I have about five devices on which I regularly browse the web, so I need to click the OK button on each of them, even for sites where I’ve already said I don’t object.

And here’s the thing that makes it even more stupid…

Suppose you don’t actually want cookies stored on your machine, and you say ‘no’ when the website asks if it can store them. I don’t know if there’s anybody in Europe who actually does this, but let’s pretend for a moment. How do you think the website could remember your decision? Why, by storing a cookie on your machine, of course. That’s the only way. But you’ve just said it can’t do that, so you are going to get the stupid pop-up every single time you visit that site. If you are consistent about your refusal, then almost every page on the web is going to have this annoyance every time you visit it. (That’s in addition to all the ones that can’t work at all without storing cookies, because they need them to remember important things about your logged-in session, etc.) If this legislation was meant to enhance people’s privacy protection, it also gave them a big incentive to agree to giving it away.

I presume these rules must have been designed by people who only ever visited Facebook and one or two other sites, so they assumed that your preferences could be set in just a few clicks. They hadn’t fully understood the nature of the beast they were unleashing.

So we should start a determined post-Brexit campaign to end this madness, at least for Britons. If we can’t remove the requirements completely, then there are trivial technological solutions which could make it go away. Imagine, for example, that I could configure my browser to say, as a general rule, “Yes, I’m happy with that category of cookie and no, I’m not happy with this one”. It could send that as part of each HTTP request, or each HTTP request to a new site, and only if those headers are not present, or if the site wanted to use cookies for something else, would it be required to ask. If necessary, the browser could be required to prompt you every year to make sure your preferences hadn’t changed. And if you don’t want any cookies at all, you’d set that option and, while large chunks of the web wouldn’t work for you, at least you wouldn’t be prompted on every page.

In fact, most browsers allow you to change various settings on a per-website basis already, so you can decide whether or not you like cookies in general and enable them for sites you trust. People already had the ability to enforce some control of cookies for themselves. But even if you want the website to be told, for example, that you’ll allow cookies for some things and not for others, the legislation doesn’t allow that information to be transmitted to the site in place of an immediate, human, per-site interaction. And so we end up with this silliness.

It’s time to get this fixed. To whom do we write our letters? Or is one of those online petitions the best way to get started? If we demonstrate that it doesn’t have to be this way, we can set a precedent for our neighbours, and the rest of Europe will love us again at last!

Update: Some useful feedback in the Comments; see below!

Gymnasium

Danny MacAskill is always entertaining. This is quite superb, and inspiring for those of us who commute by bike and get a thrill out of riding off a kerb.

None shall pass

None shall pass

Children of the Stones

I visited the stone circle at Callanish this morning. Wonderful spot.

Callanish Stone Circle

Not a peaceful spot today, though: the photo doesn’t show you the 40mph winds whipping across the island!

Here’s an alternative view.

This put me in mind of the splendid 1976 TV drama Children of the Stones, filmed in Avebury, Wiltshire, which also has some dramatic standing stones, encircling half the village. One of the themes of the plot is the rumour that the stones sometimes turn into people and come back to life. I love the Avebury stones, but these ones looked more as if they might do that, given a little encouragement.

I didn’t watch Children of the Stones in 1976, which is probably just as well, since it has been described as “the scariest programme ever made for children”. It’s fun to watch as an adult, though, and is a great example of how you can tell a compelling story with a very low budget and some spooky music! Also, for people of my vintage, it has the added interest of featuring Gareth Thomas, better known as Blake, from Blake’s Seven.

More information on Wikipedia about the TV series, and about the Callanish Stones.

The Old Man and the Sea

I have a feeling this fine vessel could tell a few tales of adventure!

I’m on the Isle of Lewis, where, in order to take a good photo, you can almost wind down the window and click in a random direction.

You do, currently, have only six-and-a-half hours between sunrise and sunset in which to do it, though!

Achiltibuie

I walked through here yesterday, went into the village store, and somebody invited me to a ceilidh! (Which turned out to be great fun.) Such friendly people here, as well as beautiful views.

Nothing monstrous here

Loch Ness, last night

How to detect AI snake oil

This is a great set of slides by Arvind Narayanan of Princeton, on the dangers of assuming that current AI, powerful though it is, can make much in the way useful predictions when it comes to complex social factors.

His key claim:

For predicting social outcomes, AI is not substantially better than manual scoring using just a few features.

It would be nice if he had more than one example in the talk, but the one he’s picked is a good one, and these are very readable slides.

The question UK voters should be asking this morning

Well, we live in interesting times! The key emotion most of us felt, I imagine, on hearing the election results, was one of amazement, closely followed by joy, anger, disappointment etc depending on your political persuasion. Almost nobody expected this result, and though the polls had been predicting a probable Conservative win, it was expected to be a modest one, and their lead had been diminishing in recent weeks. So this was fairly astonishing.

If you are as surprised as I am this morning, and as I imagine most of my acquaintances will be, whatever their political persuasion, then I think there’s a key question to ask yourself:

What is it about my social circle (both online and offline), my sources of news, my breadth of reading, my understanding of politics, my grasp of statistics, or my knowledge of history, that caused me to be so mistaken about the country’s mood? And how should I rectify that?

Capitalism and Machine Learning

You may have wondered why AI companies, like DeepMind, who specialise in machine learning systems, seem to devote so much time to creating systems that can play chess, or Go, or Space Invaders. Why don’t they do something more useful?

Well, part of the answer is that a machine, like a child, can only learn the right things if you give it very clear feedback about how it’s doing. And the key thing about games is that they have scores, which quickly give you this simple, unambiguous, reinforcement. And they do so without much delay, and in particular without much interpretation or interference by fallible humans.

Compare that with, say, recognising that a dot on an X-ray taken in one hospital eventually became a tumour which was diagnosed two years later by a physician in another clinic inspecting an MRI image taken from another angle. The key problem, in the majority of machine learning systems, is not the one of noticing the dot or even distinguishing it from other dots. It’s the one of assigning it a score, when there are so many complicated factors in the way.

I was thinking of this when reading David Brooks’s opinion piece in the NYT: “I Was Once a Socialist. Then I Saw How It Worked.” (This is behind a partial paywall, but you can probably read it with some carefully-placed clicks or a free subscription.)

Extract:

Socialist planned economies — the common ownership of the means of production — interfere with price and other market signals in a million ways. They suppress or eliminate profit motives that drive people to learn and improve.

It doesn’t matter how big your computers are, the socialist can never gather all relevant data, can never construct the right feedback loops. The state cannot even see the local, irregular, context-driven factors that can have exponential effects. The state cannot predict people’s desires, which sometimes change on a whim. Capitalism creates a relentless learning system. Socialism doesn’t.

Lots of good stuff in here, and most of it, no doubt, is not new, but I don’t normally spend more time than I have to thinking about politics!

All of these leaders understood that the answer to the problems of capitalism is wider and fairer capitalism.

But capitalism, like all human systems, is always unbalanced one way or another. Over the last generation, capitalism has produced the greatest reduction in global income inequality in history. The downside is that low-skill workers in the U.S. are now competing with workers in Vietnam, India and Malaysia. The reduction of inequality among nations has led to the increase of inequality within rich nations, like the United States.

These problems are not signs that capitalism is broken. They are signs that we need more and better capitalism.

A big mistake those of us on the conservative side made was to think that anything that made the government bigger also made the market less dynamic. We failed to distinguish between the supportive state and the regulatory state.

The supportive state makes better and more secure capitalists. The Scandinavian nations have very supportive welfare states. They also have very free markets. The only reason they can afford to have generous welfare states is they also have very free markets.

(Emphasis mine)

Good reading, given the current rhetoric of the UK political parties as we approach our election on Thursday.

Renewing your sense of pride?

The UK doesn’t have much to be proud of at present, but I think we can rightly feel pleased with ourselves about this:

In the third quarter of 2019, we generated 1% of our electricity from coal, 20% from nuclear, 38% from oil and gas. And 40% from renewables.

More details on this page. Extract:

This is the first-ever quarter where renewables outpaced fossil fuels since the UK’s first public electricity generating station opened in 1882. It is another symbolic milestone in the stunning transformation of the UK’s electricity system over the past decade.

Gateway to Autumn

Trinity College, Cambridge

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser