Paul W.K. Rothemund’s cover article on DNA origami in the March 16 issue of Nature appears to represent an order of magnitude increase in the complexity of objects that can self-assemble to roughly atomic precision (whether it’s really atomic precision depends in part on the purposes you’re using it for – every atom is put in a predictable bond connecting it to neighbors, but there’s enough flexibility in the system that the distances between distant atoms generally aren’t what would be considered atomically precise).
It was interesting watching the delayed reaction in the stock price of Nanoscience Technologies Inc. (symbol NANS), which holds possibly relevant patents. Even though I’m a NANS stockholder, have been following the work in the field carefully, and was masochistic enough to read important parts of the relevant patents produced by Ned Seeman several years ago, I have little confidence in my ability to determine whether the Seeman patents cover Rothemund’s design. (If the patents were worded as broadly as many aggressive patents are these days, the answer would probably be yes, but they’re worded fairly responsibly to cover Seeman’s inventions fairly specifically. It’s clear that Seeman’s inventions at least had an important influence on Rothemund’s design.)
It’s pretty rare for a stock price to take days to start reacting to news, but this was an unusual case. Someone reading the Nature article would think the probability of the technique being covered by patents owned by a publicly traded company to be too small to justify a nontrivial search. Hardly anyone was following the company (which I think is a one-person company). I put in bids on the 20th and 21st for some of the stock at prices that were cautious enough not to signal that I was reacting to potentially important news, and picked up a modest number of shares from people who seemed to not know the news or think it irrelevant. Then late on the 21st some heavy buying started. Now it looks like there’s massive uncertainty about what the news means.
Book Review: The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt
This eloquent book is mostly fun to read. It provides a good alternative to the standard view of sluts: “A slut shares his sexuality the way a philanthropist shares her money”.
But much of the book seems designed mainly to reassure sluts that they aren’t alone and shouldn’t be ashamed of themselves. I didn’t get much out of those parts.
They say a number of things that don’t seem quite right, such as defining consent to refer only to “active collaboration”, or suggesting that people schedule fights (a rather strange way of describing how to ensure communication).
Their claims about how desirable polyamory is seem exaggerated. One of their more appropriate analogies is “having a second child doesn’t usually mean that a parent loves the first child less”. The people who think parents have an unlimited supply of love but love between spouses is a zero-sum game appear to be hypocrites, but I suspect the first child doesn’t fare as well as the optimistic view suggests.
I think a more instructive analogy would be supply side economics. The zero-sum thinking that leads some people to think that tax cuts/polyamory simply shift a fixed amount of wealth/love assume an unrealistically static human nature that overlooks the ability of people to be more creative when constraints on income/love are weakened, and that can easily make the average person better off. But there will be plenty of shifting of income/love that makes it hard to predict which individuals will be better off.
Lest my comments be interpreted as being overly critical of polyamory, I should mention that this book was recommended to me by a very polyamorous boyfriend (who has by his example taught me more than a book like this could), not to help with our relationship, but to help me look for an additional boyfriend. Our relationship is sufficiently atypical that I’m still wondering how well a typical polyamorous relationship works.
People interested in this subject might also get something out of Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits : Secrets of Sustainable Intimate Relationships by Deborah M. Anapol, which is written more carefully but in a less entertaining style.
Book Review: Fantastic Voyage : Live Long Enough to Live Forever by Ray Kurzweil, Terry Grossman
This book provides a lot of interesting ideas for improving your health, but it is a bit too ambitious and I’m often left wondering whether they researched a particular idea well even that I should respect their opinion. They often seem to be more interested in showing off how many different topics they know something about than they are on focusing on the most important steps that a typical reader should be taking.
They are somewhat biased toward technological solutions, but occasionally surprise me with other approaches, such as pointing out some clear evidence that some kinds of meditation improve longevity.
I’m fairly suspicious of their advice about aluminum. It’s unclear why we should consider aluminum dangerous enough to be worth worrying about, but if it is then choosing the right baking powder and antacids are at least as important as the aluminum sources the book mentions (minor gripe: the index doesn’t have entries for aluminum or metals). Parts of the book leaves me wondering whether a close examination would reveal similar questionable aspects to their advice.
Book Review: Adapting Minds : Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature by David J. Buller
This book makes a strong case that there are problems with claims put forth by leading Evolutionary Psychologists, but the problems are somewhat less important than the book tries to imply.
This is the most serious and careful attack on Evolutionary Psychologists so far. But it is often hard to tell to what extent the theoretical claims he attacks are reflect bad theories or whether some of them are just careless misstatements by people who are too focused on attacking the tabula rasa worldview to worry about criticisms from other viewpoints. For instance, it’s hard to believe that the Evolutionary Psychologists mean the word “universal” in the phrase universal human nature as literally as Buller takes it.
He presents strong arguments that Evolutionary Psychologists have overstated the extent to which dna encodes specialized mental modules, and presents detailed arguments that their empirical results have been sloppy and at least slightly biased against the idea of a general-purpose mind. But if Evolutionary Psychologists are willing to modify their theory to refer to somewhat less specialized modules whose features are influenced by dna in less direct and more subtle ways, then the features of their theories that they seem to consider most important will survive.
His analogy with the immune system illustrates how a system that looks at first glance like it requires some fairly detailed genetic blueprints can actually be caused by a general purpose system that learns most of its specializations by reacting to the environment.
This is not in any way an attack on the idea of using evolutionary theory to understand the mind. In fact, he even points out that Evolutionary Psychologists have been overly interested in questions asked by creationists rather than those that evolutionary theory suggests are important.
Ironically for a philosophy professor, his weakest arguments are the most philosophical ones. He correctly points out the problems with using an essentialist notion of species that is based on universal phenotypic characteristics, but then proposes a definition of species based on continuity and spatiotemporal localization that seems as essentialist and as far from what people actually mean by the word as the definition he criticizes. If I understand his definition correctly, it implies that recreating a Dodo from dna would produce a new species. He should study the philosophy of concepts a bit more (e.g. Lakoff or the neural net literature) and decide that the concept of species doesn’t need either type of essence, but can instead be a more probabilistic combination of several kinds of attributes.