Adam's Brain Dump

Cognitive biases as visual illusions

I’m intrigued by Adam Mastroianni’s framing of cognitive biases as being akin to visual illusions.

Often we look at all these “irrational” biases- everything from Anchoring bias to the Zeigarnik effect - as deficiencies in our brain, failures in reasoning. Even more so when we think that we see others falling prey to them whilst we ourselves are of course clever, unbiased, objective thinkers (see also the fundamental attribution error bias).

But we don’t poke fun at people for being able to see visual illusions. We don’t laugh at them for being bad at seeing. Often you can know an illusion is an illusion and still not be unable to see the effect; it’s not a matter of education or sophistication. Sure, you can program yourself to say “squares A and B are the same colour” but you can’t necessarily viscerally sense that they are.

(image from Wikipedia)

Rather, we take these illusions as evidence of what your visual system does in order to process the unimaginably large input that is everyday reality into something you can understand and act on. Seeing the things that aren’t there in visual illusions is evidence that your visual system is working well. They simply reveal what is being done behind the scenes by a healthy visual processing system.

Likewise, responding to cognitive illusions is not necessarily a matter of “You’re stupid” or “Your brain is deficient”. They’re just the healthy and natural result of the incredible set of assumptions and processing shortcuts your brain has at its disposal to let you live a rich and full life in a world that’s far too complex for you to fully comprehend.

All this of course doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to reduce our tendency towards cognitive biases, most critically on the occasions where their end product is one that causes harm to ourselves or other people. But the fact that someone has the bias does not make them stupid.

Over here I wrote about 3 papers that investigate the effectiveness of rainforest carbon credit projects on the prevention of deforestation.

Although the findings are being contested by the owners of these schemes, the bad news for now is that they all point towards these schemes preventing far less carbon release than was claimed, with many projects having no impact at all.

Slightly astonished to learn that there’s a 2022 series of UK Beauty and the Geek. It’s on a channel I don’t have, but I’m a bit shocked if the original premise aged well when considering modern-day progressive sensibilities.

The FT has a fascinating look into life as a high-ranking female spy now that for the first time ever 3 out of the 4 of the Director Generals of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, aka MI6, are women.

Such high ranking positions have traditionally been the preserve of men, with women mostly being recruited as secretaries or for the purpose of honeytraps. Or “I like my girls to have good legs” as Vernon Kell, the founder of the former British Security Service apparently said.

But of course the very fact that people still don’t readily imagine a spy as being female opens up potential avenues of exploitation that might be less available to the more traditional James Bond demographic.

Human Rights Watch is concerned that the UK is increasingly turning into an abuser, rather than protector, of human rights.

From the press release surrounding the release of their 2023 report:

The UK government introduced laws that stripped rights of asylum seekers and other vulnerable people, encouraged voter disenfranchisement, limited judicial oversight of government actions, and placed new restrictions on the right to peaceful protest.

In “products I’m really not sure need to exist” news, a company called Reviver will sell you an app-enabled digital number plate for your car, if you live in one of the very few US states where it’s allowed.

It seems to be yet another way companies have found to add ongoing subscriptions to your driving experience - I may return to this topic soon. In return for your $20-25 a month, it enables such unmissable features as being able to switch your number plate into dark mode and displaying a tiny app-controlled banner under the plate; essentially a microtweet for anyone driving way too close to you I guess.

One feature that I can actually see some potential use for is that it contains enough tracking technology that you can see the location of your car by using the accompanying app.

The problem is that until recently it wasn’t just you and Reviver that could see where you are. Security researchers managed to find a way to alter their own user account so that they could see the live location of every vehicle who had one of these number plates. And a lot more besides:

  • Track the physical GPS location and manage the license plate for all Reviver customers (e.g. changing the slogan at the bottom of the license plate to arbitrary text)
  • Update any vehicle status to “STOLEN” which updates the license plate and informs authorities
  • Access all user records, including what vehicles people owned, their physical address, phone number, and email address
  • Access the fleet management functionality for any company, locate and manage all vehicles in a fleet

That vulnerability has been fixed now. But it’s events like this that make me wonder whether it’s really necessary to put app connections and internet-connected surveillance technology in absolutely everything a product designer can dream up, even if it’s possible to imagine the odd use for it.

Played Into the Breach 🎮.

This is a turn-based strategy game in which you control mech pilots to save the world from alien invasion. Not the most original storyline and by it’s look I first assumed it was akin to the famous XCOM series. But it’s not really, because here you know exactly what your enemies are going to do in advance, with no guessing or random luck involved. In some ways it felt more like a puzzle game.

If you lose you get sent back to the beginning to try again. Often I find that style of “roguelike” game frustratingly repetitive. But here the missions differ a bit each playthrough. You also have the ability to upgrade your mechs in different ways and unlock lots of new characters so it doesn’t get boring. You get the chance to send one of your heroes back through time which gives me the sense of not having lost all my progress (when I remember to do it).

Each fight takes place within small land grid and only takes a few minutes to play, making it well suited to mobile devices, although it’s available on all sorts of platforms. It won a lot of awards in past years, deservedly so. And if you’re a Netflix subscriber you can play it for free.

Happy 10th anniversary to what unfortunately turned out to be the most evergreen meme of all time, This Is Fine.

Some thoughts from the creator of the comic it’s from, K. C. Green.

Microsoft has created a language model called “Vall-E” that can simulate a person’s voice saying whatever they choose with the only input needed from the person being 3 second clip of the actual person saying something. I guess a fraction of a TikTok video would do the job.

It can even preserve emotion - so if you have a 3 second clip of your friend angrily shouting about something then they could in theory make a clip of your friend angrily shouting about something completely different.

Right now I don’t think you can play with the model yourself. Some people might feel that’s in some ways for the best , until society has figured out some idea of how we’re going to deal with the sheer amount of future “recordings” of things that never happened that everyone is going to be able to produce with minimal effort using with tools like this and the various other generative AI type tools that are already out there.

But I imagine someone else will release a more public tool all too soon. It didn’t take long for folk to figure out how to get AI tools to generate images that are really rather against what most of the systems designers involved wanted them to do.

In the mean time you can hear some Vall-E samples on this page. Scroll down a bit and compare the “Speaker Prompts” - which are the 3 second actual recordings of someone’s voice they fed it - with the “VALL-E” output, which is what the model produced based on it.

A few of us just started the Statistical Rethinking online course in order to learn more about using Bayesian data analysis in the field of causal inference, connecting scientific models to evidence.

Whilst we didn’t get there in time to register for a place in the live class, instructor Richard McElreath is kindly providing recorded lectures, slides, homework and memes for all. It’s based on his book Statistical Rethinking, although that’s not necessarily required to follow along.

I’m unduly nerd-excited to have received a tote bag from the Office of National Statistics.

Last year Europe had its hottest ever summer. Almost half of its countries broke their previous monthly temperature records at least once.

Whilst we didn’t see the same temperature rises everywhere, globally the last 8 years are the 8 warmest on record 😬.

Just realised that the Obsidian text editor supports MathJax.

So for the mathematically inclined, write your Latex equations either inline by surrounding them with $s, or on their own line starting with $$.

It’ll transform e.g.: $$ p = \frac{(W+L+1)!}{W!L!} p^W(1-p)^L $$


Coming soon: the first mainstream UK TV show based on deepfakes

Prepare yourself for the ITV sketch show “Deep Fake Neighbour Wars”, the first mainstream UK TV show based on deepfake technology (as far as I know).

Appearing on ITVX on the 26th January, it’s a comedy sketch show seemingly showing people living their everyday mundane lives. Except these aren’t either characters created for the show or actors doing impressions of other people. They are ‘real’ megastar celebrities - well, real in the sense that they look and and sound like them, even though the celebrities concerned haven’t been anywhere near it.

Instead, the show was first acted out by less well-known actors. StudioNeural - “the world’s first provider of synthetic media for long form TV” - then used deepfake technology to replace their faces with ultra-realistic visages of actual bigtime celebrities.

From a summary of the preview:

We meet loved up Nicki Minaj and Tom Holland who are not happy with Mark Zuckerberg next door, Idris Elba gets a shock when new neighbour Kim Kardashian starts making her presence known in their communal garden, Harry Kane’s perfect patio is damaged by upstairs neighbour Stormzy and dental hygienist Billie Eilish clashes with neighbour Beyonce when she starts working from home.

Mainstreaming deep fake technology for entertainment like this does feel like a potential turning point for popularizing this technology. It’ll allow things to be done that never otherwise could have been. Up until now deepfakes have usually been discussed as in the context of nefarious use-cases - fake news, fraudulent political persuasion, personal attacks or revenge porn. But even for entirely benign uses, as the Guardian notes, there’s not really much in the way of established etiquette or guidelines for the use of this very new technology yet.

What is fair in the name of comedy, vs what is some kind of unethical exploitation? Whether this be of the celebrities or the relatively nameless actors who are hidden behind the fakes (until the end of the show anyway in this particular case).

Unless a message is constantly superimposed over the broadcast that this isn’t real, what are the implications in a world where it’s extremely common for short clips to be taken out of videos and shared on social media?

To borrow an example from the same article, Spitting Image was an extremely funny satire (the original one at least), but how would it have come across if instead of using caricature puppets the show used representations of the people being satirised that were basically indistinguishable from their actual IRL selves?

Nadine Dorries, admittedly someone who one might argue has a strong agenda of her own, was worried that the This England TV drama which purports to document a dramatised version of how the UK government dealing with Covid-19 (amongst other things) was dangerous:

Admittedly, the producers put a disclaimer before each episode, stating that the drama is fictional, based on true events. But the fact that scenes are interspersed with real news footage makes it very deceptive. Also, many scenes involving politicians and civil servants are eerily convincing.

How much more convincing would it have been if Boris Johnson was played by his digital doppelganger as opposed to Kenneth Branagh?

Watched season 1 of The Traitors 📺.

A reality show where by day a group of strangers complete missions to build up a prize pot, and by night they viciously accuse each other of treachery in order to eject them from the show entirely.

Which is fair enough, because a few of them are in fact traitors. Claudia Winkelman secretly assigned them that role at the start. The viewer knows who they are, the participants do not. They have to figure it out by whatever means they can. Each night they must vote out the person they collectively believe is most traitorous. Of course, to maintain their subterfuge the traitors also have to pretend that’s what they’re doing too and put their public votes in too.

If the “faithful” vote out all the traitors then they share the prize pot. But if even one traitor remains by the end of the series then the surviving traitors get it all.

Each night whilst the others sleep the anonymous traitors also get to metaphorically kill one of the contestants, kicking them off the show without the ability to defend themselves.

Honestly, it feels a little grim and exploitative to watch. I really hope there’s a pile of expert psychologists behind the scenes to help the players cope with the virulent suspicion, deception, mistrust, arguments, paranoia, confrontations and the rest of it.

But watching the participants - the genuinely legit and the traitors trying to appear as such - try to figure out who the traitors are provides incredible examples of all sorts of cognitive biases - confirmation bias, the halo effect, salience bias, a kind of pareidolia, overconfidence, the gambler’s fallacy and a ton of herd instinct to name but a few. And all this at the same time as being put into an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people.

It’s such a fascinating example of all these psychological processes going on, some that we can probably recognise very well in ourselves if we stop and think about it for a minute in between screaming at the TV, that it turns out to be compulsive viewing. Even if it’s probably not exactly great for most of the folk involved.

It’s getting on for four months since Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested in Iran for not wearing her hijab in the style the authorities prefer, died when in the custody of the Iranian police after being beaten. The resulting protests are ongoing, at incredible personal risk to the brave souls who take part and their loved ones.

As of yesterday, Iran has now formally executed 4 protestors, the latest two likely having been tortured beforehand. But the overall death toll is far greater, with at least 516 demonstrators including 70 children known to have died. Almost 20,000 others have been arrested, hundreds of whom may face the death penalty.

Today’s Observer reports that:

NHS trusts with record waiting lists are promoting “quick and easy” private healthcare services at their own hospitals, offering patients the chance to jump year-long queues

This, whilst not a new thing, does not feel good in the midst of a growing NHS crisis, particularly if it’s on the rise. The private services that are provided - whether a £300 MRI scan or a £10,000 hip replacement - supposedly don’t impact the services the NHS provides under its public funding. But they often take place in the same premises with the same staff that you would get if you made it to the top of the public waiting list.

I’m sure there’s some technicality that allows them to say it’s not sucking resources from our still much loved public health system. But, simplistically, at the end of the day it surely is potential life-or-death British medical capacity that is exclusively available to the rich rather than the person that needs it the most.

The ideal of course would be that the NHS working conditions and funding was improved such that there was no incentive for hospitals or medical staff to operate a private practice at all. For now though, we’ll have to decide whether to laugh or cry at the Shalborune Private Health Care website’s claim that “We believe quality healthcare should be readily accessible.”

15th time lucky - the US elects a speaker of the House

After repeating the same vote 15 times over the last week, the US House of Representatives has finally managed to elect a speaker, Kevin McCarthy.

It’s been the longest contest for the position since 1859, preventing any of the real business of the House taking place whilst the battle continued.

But if it felt like a long time, it was certainly no 1855. That contest stretched on for two whole months and required 133 ballots to take place before a speaker was selected.

In the end they temporarily changed the rules so as to accept a plurality of votes as opposed to the standard absolute majority rules that require the victor to have gotten the support of at least half of the voters. This allowed Nathaniel Banks won the contest with 103 votes from a possible 214 electors.

The repeated election attempts over the past few days apparently became so tedious that the representatives elect started bringing in comics, books, iPad games and their own children in order to keep themselves entertained. Perhaps my favourite photo of the event was the below one, taken by Anna Moneymaker, showing U.S. representative Katie Porter’s research into how to live the good life.

Finished reading The It Girl by Ruth Ware 📚.

A thriller set in the grounds of Oxford University, the kind of backdrop that usually appeals to me. A popular rich girl that everyone knows was murdered by a creepy college porter…or was she?

You can probably guess the general answer to that, but I didn’t figure out the specific solution until very near the end. A compulsive read with satisfying twists and turns, if not particularly challenging. Just what I needed for the holidays.

Watched season 5 of The Crown 📺.

Starting to get into the years I actually remember something about now. I love this as a way of accidentally learning the country’s history. The only problem is it seems a lot of it isn’t true. John Major seems to be particularly annoyed at it.

The show does admit to being fiction. But not knowing which bits are true makes it hard to know what to take from it. Though an article in the Atlantic is probably right to conclude that “the show is so popular that its interpretation of history will become the definitive one for millions of viewers.”

From the NYT:

Without a speaker, the United States House of Representatives essentially becomes a useless entity.

Entering day 3 of the US not really having much of a government.

Perhaps the rules on electing a speaker need revision for the future. The job is different in the UK, but here if there’s no majority for the speaker we remove the candidate with the lowest number of votes plus any with minimal support before trying again.

The Financial Times looks into why the UK’s NHS is in such a disastrous condition at present. It turns out it’s not all that complicated to understand.

  • There are currently lots of ill people - a new wave of Covid-19 is once more sweeping the nation, and the flu (amongst other infectious diseases) is also surging. A real twindemic.
  • We don’t have enough hospital beds. This is partly because we haven’t built enough capacity in the first place. But also because the lack of anywhere to discharge patients who still need some amount of social care (but not hospital-level care) to means that thousands of people are unnecessarily stuck in hospital.
  • There are not enough staff. All parts of the workforce have staff shortages. Those that are there are exhausted, demoralized and in recent times are occasionally on strike or leaving for better opportunities elsewhere. To be clear, these problems started way before the current spate of strikes were on the agenda.
  • There has not been enough investment. This is nothing new, it’s been going on for at least a decade. NHS demand is constantly rising at present, so funding needs to rise substantially beyond inflation just to maintain performance. This hasn’t happened for at least a decade. The UK has amongst the lowest healthcare capital spending as % of GDP of it’s peer countries, leaving us with fewer beds, MRI scanners, CT scanners and so on. The chart below, also from the FT, may provide a clue as to why.

Unlike previous generations, UK and US millennials are not becoming more conservative over time

There’s a widely held belief that younger people tend to start off being politically left-wing (or liberal, socialist, whatever one wants to call the axis). Then, as time goes on and they start to age, they end up with more conservative views and political preferences.

This trend is encapsulated in a maxim whose origin and exact wording is much quibbled over but often turns up in this sort of form.

A man who is not a Liberal at sixteen has no heart; a man who is not a Conservative at sixty has no head.

Personally I hope and trust the implied value judgement isn’t true, otherwise, sorry, looks like I’m just getting stupider as I get older.

But, treating it as purely descriptive of a trend, the idea that people tend to get more conservative when they get older does usually seem to be true. Of course it isn’t necessarily their age that causes these changes; it may be to do with the fact that people’s wealth, status, position in life, psychology and so on tends to alter in an on-average predictable way as they get older.

However, John Burn-Murdoch of the FT notes that it’s just not happening that way for UK and US millennials.

They started off liberal as other generations did. But now, even though the older ones are now 40+ years old, they’re still very liberal, compared to the rest of the population at least.

Why so? Burn-Murdoch hypothesises that this is a cohort effect due to British and US millennials entering adulthood during the aftermath of the financial crisis. They emerge into an economic environment where generating enough wealth to, for example, own a home is often a ludicrous pipe-dream.

The primary UK and US conservative party’s respective fixation on culture war topics probably also doesn’t help them much. The typical conservative side of the relevant arguments tends to be less attractive to more academically educated folk, and millennials are the best-educated generation at present.

Morten Støstad produced some follow-up work that showed that this trend also exists elsewhere, particularly in English-speaking countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand. His first chart looks at English speaking countries and shows similar findings to Burn-Murdoch’s original graph.

In the second though, Støstad finds that in many other non-English-speaking countries, for example Germany, France, Italy and Spain, the millennials do seem to be behaving “as normal” and becoming more conservative over time.

Played The Pharaoh’s Tomb from Exit: The Game 🎲.

The Exit advent calendar was so good we couldn’t stop. This one, from the same makers, is a one-session game where you attempt to solve puzzles to free yourself from an ancient Egyptian tomb. It’s rated as one of the harder ones, perhaps because you need to figure out what the puzzles even are and which order to solve them in as well as the puzzle solution itself - but we got there in the end.

Played the The Mysterious Ice Cave advent calendar from Exit: The Game 🎲.

This is an advent calendar that gives you a puzzle to solve each day of advent. The answer to each one tells you which door to open next in your attempt to escape from a catastrophic mountain avalanche.

We actually ignored the entire premise and completed it over two lengthy sessions. The puzzles were fun and varied, some harder than others but most of them felt very fair.

Something happens towards the end that was one of my favourite ever twists in these kind of games. Even more fun than a chocolate calendar for anyone that likes puzzle escape room kind of things, highly recommended.