Book Review: “How America Lost Its Secrets” by Edward Jay Epstein

How America Lost Its Secrets by Edward Jay Epstein

Edward Jay Epstein presents a fascinating investigation of the Edward Snowden affair. This book is even more timely, as Snowden is making noises about wanting to return home.

Epstein digs beyond the Hollywood version, seeking to understand full story. He has discovered a gripping story, with many unanswered questions. It reads like a spy thriller—which it is.

As in any case involving espionage, much of the picture is obscured by secrecy and deception. Snowden himself has created a version of the story, in his own statements, and in prize winning documentary and popular film. But these accounts are incomplete and far from satisfying.

The US government has consistently maintained a different story, reporting that Snowden stole vast amounts of secret data, much having nothing to do with domestic surveillance. The stolen information appears to have ended up in the hands of Russian and Chinese intelligence agencies, with serious consequences for US intelligence gathering. Aiding repressive foreign super powers is not exactly the act of a patriotic whistleblower.

Epstein raises a lot of imporant questions about Edward Snowden’s actions and motives. We can’t answer these questions because Snowden is living in Moscow, under the control of the Russian FSB.

[Read the full review]

  1. Edward Jay Epstein, How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, The Man, and the Theft, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.


Sunday Thursday Book Reviews


Readers of this blog know that I routinely post book reviews on Sunday.

This week I will post additional book reviews, one per day.  These posts are somewhat longer and more detailed than my usual short note.

Book Review: “Valley of the Gods” by Alexandra Wolfe

Valley of the Gods by Alexandra Wolfe

Alexandra Wolfe’s new book joins the growing collection of “silicon valley stories”, including Chaos Monkeys, Hatching Twitter, Dogfight, and Year Without Pants. Wolfe documents the supercharged environment of Silicon Valley, a place where the kids are definitely in charge, and someone gave them billions of dollars to play with.

Throughout the book, Wolfe covers the progress of several of the youngsters who won Thiel Foundation Fellowships, following them through their year.

Wolfe’s coverage of the Thiel kids is extremely interesting, not at all matching up the romantic vision of this program.

Wolfe also gives us first hand fly-on-the-wall insight into a variety of goings on in SV, hanging out in group residences, attending to parties, workshops, and various peculiar and indescribable hybrid events. She also interviewed many notables and not-so-notables of the Valley, and offers more observations than I really need about food and fashion.

[Read the full review]

  1. Alexandra Wolfe, Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Sunday Wednesday Book Review


Readers of this blog know that I routinely post book reviews on Sunday.

This week I will post additional book reviews, one per day.  These posts are somewhat longer and more detailed than my usual short note.


This is truly a great age of material science!

As I have always said, if I can manipulate individual atoms, I can perform Black Magic!

This month IBM researchers have published the synthesis of “Triangulene”, an impossible triangular molecule [2]. Cool!

Triangulene was first hypothesized more than fifty years ago, but “has been an enigmatic molecule ever since its existence was first hypothesized.” ([2], p.1) The molecule is extremely unstable and has evaded attempts to synthesize it until now.

The new molecule is made up of six hexagons of carbon joined along their edges to form a triangle, with hydrogen atoms around the sides.” ([1], p.284)


The IBM team created the molecule through direct manipulation of the atoms with a Scanning Probe Microscope, basically, “knocking around atoms using a needle-like microscope tip.” ([1], 284) As far as I’m concerned, this constitutes “a lever and a place to stand”.

(We’ve been dreaming about this sort of thing for a long time, since Feynman (1959!) and in science fiction)

The details of this sorcery are far beyond my own knowledge. I barely scraped through basic Chem class not long after Triangulene was hypothesized, so I’m not really sure of all the implications.

But, hey! It’s called “Triangulene“! Just look at it! It’s awesome!

Some have expressed reservations that making one atom at a time “by hand” is impractical, unlikely to scale up.

But making molecules one at a time will be useful only in particular situations. And the method is unlikely to work for those with complicated shapes or structures that make it hard to identify or target individual atoms.” ([1], 284)

Coming from the world of digital technology, I think these fears are overly pessimistic. If there is a reason to scale this up, I will bet you we can build programmable robots that automate and speed up the process, and probably extend it to 3D (just like we extended 2D printing to 3D). Such a a development will lead to software libraries and CAD systems for designing and then printing molecules.

Simply awesome!

  1. Philip Ball, Elusive triangulene created by moving atoms one at a time. Nature, 542:284–285, 16 February 2017.
  2. Niko Pavliček, Anish Mistry, Zsolt Majzik, Nikolaj Moll, Gerhard Meyer, David J. Fox, and Leo Gross, Synthesis and characterization of triangulene. Nat Nano, advance online publication 02/13/online 2017.


Book Review: “Wonderland” by Steven Johnson

Wonderland by Steven Johnson

In popular historian Steven Johnson’s latest,he writes about How Play Made the Modern World [2].

His overall theme is not that humans are playful, but that play is productive (of both bad and good), and that many innovations and revolutions appear first as toys or amusements. He has a lot of interesting points, as well as some misunderstandings and blind spots.

While necessity is the mother of invention, “if you do a paternity test on many of the modern world’s most important ideas or institutions, you will find, invariably, that leisure and play were involved in the conception, as well.” ([2], p. 12)

[Read the full review]

  1. Steven Johnson, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, New York, Riverhead Books, 2016.

Sunday Tuesday Book Reviews


Readers of this blog know that I routinely post book reviews on Sunday.

This week I will post additional book reviews, one per day.  These posts are somewhat longer and more detailed than my usual short note.

Book Review: “Measure for Measure” by Thomas Levenson

Measure for Measure by Thomas Levenson

This book is interesting to read today because it was written in the early 1990s, right at the cusp of the Internet revolution. Levenson writes about the history of science and music, exploring the role of tools (i.e., technology) on culture. Even based in Boston, and in touch with the latest digital gizmos, he could little imagine the changes we all saw in the next quarter century.

The theme of this book is the term and concept of “instrument”, which is commonly used to refer to musical instruments and scientific instruments. These two uses of the word evolved around the same time, and many times technical advances in both areas have moved in tandem.

[Read the full review here]

  1. Thoma Levenson, Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1994.


Sunday Monday Book Reviews

Book Review:”IQ” by Joe Ide

IQ by Joe Ide

This is Joe Ide’s first novel, and it’s a doozy.

He is inspired by that old braniac Sherlock Holmes, who famously solved problems just by thinking. Ide lives in Southern California, which is not quite Victorian England, but still has lots of problems to solve, and plenty of call for a Sherlock.

The protagonist is Isaiah Quintabe, AKA IQ, a young man living in East LA. His life is plenty messy and tragic, and with thing and another, he sinks into a deep depression, drops out of high school, and spins out into crazy and risky choices that have even more tragic consequences.

But Isaiah breaks out of his depression, and rededicated to helping out and lifting up his neighborhood in the ways he is best at, takes up a new life.. He solves problems, kind of like a PI, but without a license. Isaiah is really smart. And he’s the straightest arrow you’re likely to meet in all of LA, and definitely not fooled or intimidated easily.

Like Holmes, IQ finds solutions through reasoning and research. Also like Holmes, he has his own Watson (in the form of his pal Dodson). In retrospect, the answers he comes up with often seems obvious, amazing, or both—just like the Victorian Holmes.

In this book, we learn about his past and early cases, as well as the many interesting folks in his neighborhood. I can’t say if this is “authentic” LA culture, but it certainly is the way I imagine it—filled with a lot of decent people, trying to make a go of it in the face of crime and violence.

In the story, IQ is called upon to help protect a flaking out multi-platinum Rap Star from a weird death plot. It’s hard to have sympathy for the excesses of a mega celebrity, but its important to learn the truth and try to protect the client, however nutty.

I can’t say the plot makes a lot of sense, but I guess you wouldn’t need Sherlock Holmes or IQ if it were a simple case. In the end, IQ unravels the scheme, and faces down an extremely dangerous killer, and generally saves the day for everybody.

IQ is really neat, and I’d love to meet him. I hope we might get some more stories about him in the future.

If Ide would like a suggestion, I’d love to see some “young adult” stories about IQ—he’s such a great character that teens will identify with. Keep the danger, the characters, the ‘hood, crime, drugs, and even the hard language. Tone down the graphic violence and other tough stuff. Not baby stuff, but less detailed.

  1. Joe Ide, IQ New York, Mulholland Books, 2016.


Sunday Book Reviews

A personal blog.

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