Downward counterfactual thinking

Counterfactual thinking is a concept in psychology that involves the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that have already occurred. I’ve no doubt this is a sign of intelligence and it is a residue in our ability to project forward into the future. After all, if you can imagine the different possible futures, you could also imagine different possible pasts.

The question is whether the content of your counterfactual thinking is upward or downward. In other words, do you think the reality could have been better or do you think things could have been worse? People could be more positive when they consider that something worse could have happened rather than the actual outcome. In that sense, downward counterfactual thinking is actually a habit or strong mental re-frame that helps improve our well-being.

Nevertheless, the mind tends towards negativity because it sticks more than the positive. What I think is interesting is that different positions we are in can cause us to have inclination towards upwards or downwards counterfactual. It is interesting how being in second place encourages upward counterfactual thinking more than being in third place – just because you only have one person in front of you. So there are some kind of defaults that our counterfactual thinking drifts towards.

That’s not to say you can’t change your defaults. Part of my coaching practice especially around mindset shifts is exactly about that.

Printing Stuff

Ad Billboard
Cheaper way of lighting up...

Imagine you need a square meter of light, perhaps for a single ’tile’ on the ceiling that emits lights at your building. You’d probably get contractors to make a box with circuits inside that connects to a couple of fluorescent tubes (or if you’re quite rich, a couple of LEDs) and then cover the thing with a translucent white piece of acrylic. The entire structure is bulky and probably quite energy consuming. Now, scientists have found a way to make a ‘sheet’ of LED that would allow you to make that ‘lighted tile’ much more easily and is also much more compact. Essentially, the technology allows you to print a circuit that is wired in a way that acts as a diode, and one that emits light.

And since we’re at the issue of printing stuff; we mentioned previously about industrial prototyping machines that churns out 3D structures/models. I was quite intrigued by the idea of being able to print out a peg for your clothes or even design a shoe that fits you perfectly. But perhaps even more amazing would be the ability to print out cells, tissues and even organs as reported by The Economist.

The article mentioned about growing organs from scratch and raised the example of bladders being grown from original cells of patients. Essentially the patients are donating organs to themselves; the same applies for the printing of organs. The idea is appealing because there’s nothing artificial about them beside the involvement of doctors in the process of growing the cells and putting them together – ultimately the organ is still organic and from the patients. Perhaps then, Iran’s model for kidney donation won’t be so appealing anymore.

Open Musings

Extracting Neural Info in Progress...

Popular Science featured an article about mind-reading technology; it describes the development of technologies and computing that helps to reconstruct images from purely information extracted from brain scans. That is pretty amazing since it is basically deciphering the code used to contain information in our minds and then trying to build up the information that is stored in the codes.

What I was wondering is if these images reconstructed actually reflects any sort of thoughts by the person. In other words, has the brain processed these images at all? In the Awareness Tests that was part of a campaign by Transport for London to raise awareness of presence of cyclist to other road users, you realise that you do not see some things that you don’t focus on in an image sequence. The question then, is whether the brain really didn’t see the images or it merely didn’t process it. Would these mind-reading technology at this moment be showing those details or parts that we didn’t notice?

Or perhaps they need to improve the technology before they can answer such questions; then the complex ethical problems will set in. Philosophy can’t work on an ethical problem until infringing it becomes a real possibility. Even then, they almost never help us get an answer. So meanwhile we’ll just think and wait around.

The return of tuberculosis?

Dirty Lungs!

Jeneen Interlandi writes in Newsweek’s Special Edition – Issues 2010 about the return of tuberculosis (TB), an infectious diseases that is thought to be well under control but is in fact returning with a vengeance to many countries around the world. While focus on infectious diseases has been placed heavily on HIV / AIDS and malaria, tuberculosis has been left “to fester” as it continues to kill on average 5000 people daily, much more than “swine flu has killed in the past year”.

Medication against tuberculosis has been present since 1944, but the tuberculosis bacterium continues to develop drug resistance to newer drugs over time. The development of MDR-TB (multi drug-resistant TB) and XDR-TB (extensively drug-resistant TB) has been a worrying trend, not just in poor continents like Africa where many infectious diseases continue to rage, but even in more developed regions like Eastern Europe. TB specialists argue that money for research into curing TB is insufficient, and most of the research focus on infectious diseases is on other “headline” diseases like HIV / AIDS. This old but still strong bacterium is “exposing all the cracks in our multi billion-dollar global health system”.

Solutions? One that is already being undertaken by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is to tackle TB together with HIV / AIDS, since the reduced immunity of these patients will make them especially susceptible to TB. This approach does seem to have its own problems, as manifested in Swaziland.

Hence a more comprehensive solution needs to be developed that prevents diseases from occurring in the first place: “clean water, nutritious food and functioning clinics”. Vaccine development and drug discovery needs to continue, but we should not forget the real basis that will bring about good health in the first place, especially in disease-ravaged continents such as Africa. We cannot afford to ignore XDR-TB, in particular, because while it has high mortality rates of 90%, patients “usually live for several months”, enough to spread this extremely virulent form of TB to more people and create more havoc on the health system.

Programming Reality

Lego of Life

Saul Griffith is an inventor, not many people would have this as their main identification occupation/tag today; but when you read up his profile, he really fits the title of an inventor, basically a scientist who problem-solve through inventions. In one of his talk on, he talks about programming self-assembling systems, very much like creating life itself.

There’s is already what we call biohacking taking place in homes of people, much like the geeks of the 1970s who were assembling computers in their garage. Already, The Economist points out how this parallels the beginnings of the computer age where the geeks had their kits consisting of basic chips for computers.

Going back to mechanical stuff, objects can be ‘programmed’ to build themselves based on sequencing their materials in a certain way like what is shown in the presentation by Saul Griffith. A 3-dimensional object, in this sense, can be defined by a sequence of bits (in a digital sense). Seeing the universe – reality – as a compiler, changes the way we think about our world; it helps us see how everything contains information and how properties of objects are able to convey additional information about things they are interacting with.

Griffith also co-writes Howtoons, cartoons that teaches people how to build/make stuff.

Reads Again…

Globe Skimmer Dragonflies
Next Stop: The other side of the globe

I guess ERPZ recommends too much readings sometimes and so I think you could try watching more videos. Charles Anderson talks about his work and especially that with globe skimmer dragonflies on It is interesting how he made the discovery of the migratory route of the globe skimmer dragonflies just through rather informal research himself; cycling through the island of Maldives and counting dragonflies, calling friends to ask them which time of the year they observed swarms of dragonflies out there. His spirit of inquiry of nature is admirable.

Students of General Paper who are into Science & Tech questions should definitely watch a presentation by Kevin Kelly on the evolution of technology. He asks the question, ‘What does technology wants?‘ in the evolution kind of way; a little like questioning what the genes are trying to achieve and what each organism is trying to do as it lives life. He tries to identify the trends of technology, the direction everything is heading towards, comparing it with biology – where there is increasing complexity, diversity, ubiquity and such. He even defines technology as the seventh kingdom of life, integrating the man-made with nature, reconciling the arguments on man versus nature.

Interestingly, this issue that Kevin Kelly touched on is something I visited in the past on my personal blog. At that time, I was reading Origins of Wealth by Eric D Beinhock and was introduced to the idea of complexity. I was fascinated by it and believed that the idea of evolution as a proliferation of ‘experiments’ had great applicability beyond Biology and Economics. It’s such a pity I loaned out the book and seriously have no idea who it is with.

If is not enough for you, there’s always Academic Earth, which is way more academic in that it is practically university course lectures.

Benefits of Procrastination

Stop Procrastinating
Might not always be the right way...

Our views towards climate change are often tinted with a veil of emotions – fearful of our children’s safety, the prospects of more disasters and such. As a result, we proceed as cautiously as possible when studying it and would rather we err on the side of exaggerating the effects of climate change than to downplay it. Robert P. Murphy, an economist specialized in climate change economics, gave the whole story a more objective treatment in his article, The Benefits of Procrastination: The Economics of Geo-engineering

The article mentions some interesting geo-engineering schemes that are currently explored, but the main issue of the article is not the technologies involved but the cost-benefit analysis for the choice between waiting for more options to fight climate change and fighting it now through emission reductions. He argues for wait-and-see approach towards climate change and encourage geo-engineers to get on with their innovations and research.

Murphy believes that procrastination might give us a better assessment of the effects and extent of climate change our economic activity is resulting in and thus allow us to respond with more effective initiatives without compromising our economic growth at present and paying too high a cost from preventive measures such as reducing emissions.

Interestingly, discount rates isn’t even the issue. The significant idea Murphy is after is that we could buy time to refine our assessment of climate change and also the means to tackle them. And that it’s worth it. I’m not sure if the potential life loss from the risk is accounted for but his suggestions would sound insane to those who are suffering at the frontline of climate change, like the Inuits in Arctic region.

Even as an economist-to-be, I know that these issues is not always about economics and when we are thinking about global issues and aggregating cost, we almost definitely will leave out the non-monetary cost borne by the fringe groups. Perhaps Murphy could re-do his calculations and analysis after he reviews the cost of the effects of climate change even using more conservative estimates of the effects.

Science Bits

White Gramophone
Blasting out in 60, 59, 58...

It’s Christmas today and I have no Christmas gifts for my readers besides a new discovery. Scientific American offers a great podcast series called ’60-Seconds Science’. It offers bits of scientific discoveries from recent research within 60 seconds; the information is smaller than bite size and definitely don’t require much chewing, which makes it perfect for anyone tuning in to look for an anecdote for a speech or introduction for an article.

‘If Time flew, you had fun’ is a pretty interesting one and the same can be said for Caffeine Merely Masks Alcohol’s Effect. The narrator delivers their science bits in the most entertaining way for something so academic. For people who fancy social sciences and the less technical areas of science, the podcast is a wonderful window to the science mankind is engaging in today.

For other intelligent content delivered in 60 seconds, check out 60-second Psych and 60-second Earth. Who knows, you might just pick up some bits of interesting facts to start a conversation with a stranger.

Tech Highlights

Its colored!
It's colored!

Tech Quarterly is here again and here are some highlights.

There’s an interesting study about the contagious effects of loneliness. It sounds kind of paradoxical since the fact that it can be spread at all shows that the victims are already interacting with people and thus not ‘lonely’ technically speaking. In the area of medical research, there’s a glue designed for aiding bones to heal.

As for gadgets and machines, readers might be interested in an article on E-readers and potential future developments that these devices will move towards – especially having coloured displays. The discussion on ways of typing different language text on mobile phones helps you understand more about non-latin languages.

Finally, there’s something on mechanization of agriculture; the article reveals surprising labour shortage in this field of work. I thought the solution might be to move the unemployed people from the urban areas to these agricultural regions but well, they designed all sorts of machine to do the job so that means the unemployed will have to find something more complex to earn a living.