Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup review

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley StartupBad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve always been interested in books about fraud and cons and whatnot. Add on the fact that I remember reading a little about Theranos before it was discredited, and I was drawn to this book.

And it’s very good! It lays out what happened in chronological order, with lots of colorful anecdotes (see below), because this story is pretty crazy. There are a lot of people involved, but I was able to keep track of them.

Elizabeth Holmes (the founder of Theranos) promised that they had the technology to run hundreds of blood tests in a small machine with just a pinprick of blood. It’s not hard to see why so many people were interested – the device would have been revolutionary.

A lesson to take away from the book is that while the reveal that it was all a sham seemed very sudden, there were a lot of people that had doubts along the way. But it’s hard to convince people that a whole company is built on a lie, and especially so when the company was so litigious and paranoid – everyone had to sign multiple NDAs, etc.

It’s hard to know for sure, but from the book it certainly sounds like Elizabeth Holmes is a sociopath. The number of lies in the book is just astonishing, and I’m guessing that’s part of the reason people were hesitant to think it was a sham. And apparently she might be working on a new startup, which is…something.

Here are some interesting things:
– Holmes was extremely quick to fire people she saw as disloyal. Often, she asked Theranos’s head of IT to build a dossier on the fired person that she could use for leverage. She also prohibited employees from putting Theranos on their LinkedIn profiles – instead they were supposed to use “private biotechnology company”. Apparently the second-in-command prohibited the use of Google Chrome on the theory that Google could use it to spy on Theranos’s R&D, which…wow.
– Many parts of the company turned into almost a cult mentality where people didn’t want to tell Holmes that something was impossible. At one point the head of software assured Holmes that they could write the user interface faster in Flash than in Javascript. The next morning, people saw a “Learn Flash” book on his desk!
– A friend of Holmes’s family (who apparently also had a shady past, and was also an undercover CIA agent after coming across a CIA ad in the Washington Post??) got wind of what Theranos was working on and filed a patent specifically about an improvement to the device. (some kind of tracking) And the patent was granted! Then there was a big lawsuit, and Theranos eventually won, but maaaaan that is a dick move. That’s not what patents are supposed to be for, I think!
– It is abundantly clear that Holmes has an abundance of charisma, which is part of why she got so far. When she was courting Walgreens, she made a big show of giving the Walgreens CFO an American flag that (she said) had flown over a battlefield in Afghanistan. And she had written a dedication to Walgreens on it! So weird.
– Walgreens probably lost the most – they had invested a bunch of money in Theranos and had opened some “Theranos wellness centers” in their stores. One of the Walgreens people involved with the pilot program could tell that something was up because Theranos wouldn’t give them access to their lab, wouldn’t do a comparison study to prove that their machines worked, etc. But he was overruled because Walgreens was afraid of CVS striking a deal with them, and apparently Walgreens has a huge rivalry with CVS.
– Holmes’s voice was a pretty deep baritone (here’s a video example), but apparently it was an affect – her real voice is several octaves higher. The speculation is that she thought this was necessary for a woman entrepreneur to be taken seriously in Silicon Valley, which is sadly probable.
– Holmes idolized Steve Jobs. At one point she said that a documentary about a 9/11 conspiracy theory wouldn’t have been available on iTunes if “Steve” hadn’t believed there was something to it. The day Jobs died, Holmes flew an Apple flag at half-mast at Theranos headquarters.
– People were fired so frequently that every time it happened the head of security would come down to the warehouse, where people would gather to gossip, then he’d slowly reveal who was fired. Then one of the people in that group got fired too!
– Holmes forced through a resolution on the board of directors that gave one hundred votes for every share she owned, which gave her 99.7% of the votes. I’m not sure why this is a thing that you can do, although maybe the fact that the company was private helped?
– There was a group of guys from the same fraternity who got hired into sales, who were originally called the “Frat Pack”, which is good, but nothing is better the name they got later: “Therabros”!
– The second-in-command under Holmes was quite the dictator. (he was responsible for a lot of the firings) One thing he did was to hire people on H-1B visas and put them in key positions. Since they were dependent on the company to remain in the country they had to be very deferential.
– The author is a reporter at the Wall Street Journal who wrote the first story that raised questions about Theranos. When Holmes heard that he was working on this story she tried all sorts of things to kill the story, including getting Rupert Murdoch (the owner of the WSJ) to invest in the company! Murdoch did invest in the company but didn’t intervene at the paper, thank goodness.
– Theranos hired David Boies’ firm to try to kill the story, and they were absolutely ruthless in intimidating sources, employees, and the WSJ. I guess this is all legal but it sure seemed shady.
– After everything came to light, Theranos eventually voided almost one million test results!

The story is gripping and the book is well worth reading.

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A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership review

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and LeadershipA Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s hard to read this book and not think highly of James Comey. The elephant in the room, of course, is his handling of the Clinton email “scandal” during the 2016 campaign, and while he valiantly tries to defend his actions, I still think he was wrong. But I do have a little bit better understanding of the tough spot he was in.

He frames the decision to send the “Comey letter” 10 days before the election (which Nate Silver has argued probably cost Clinton the election) as a choice to either “speak” or “conceal”. (for some context, the FBI was also investigating ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, but never made a public announcement about that until after the election) He frames it this way because he had already made a public statement about the matter earlier, and not announcing that the investigation had been reopened would be concealing the truth.

But the Department of Justice has guidelines about not releasing stuff like this too close to an election for a reason! It didn’t seem to matter that his actual letter was pretty neutrally worded – the media picked it up and made a huge deal about it. When they announced two days before the election that there were no new emails (he says people on the team said there was no way they’d be able to be done before the election, then they figured out how to de-duplicate a bunch of emails), no one seemed to notice.

He fairly points out that it probably would have leaked anyway, so there’s that.

Anyway, that section of the book was painful to read/relive. But the rest of the book was pretty interesting! (and not just the Trump stuff) Here are some tidbits:
– When he was an Assistant US Attorney he worked under Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani was well-known for being a publicity hound – apparently there was a saying around the office that “The most dangerous place in New York is between Rudy and a microphone”!
– He spent some time on Mafia cases, which led to the following observation

I wish I could say I felt something different when i was in the presence of a mass murderer, handing me a cup of espresso in an empty convent. In the movies, some foreboding music might play in the background or the light might dim. But there was none of that. Evil has an ordinary face. It laughs, it cries, it deflects, it rationalizes, it makes great pasta.

– As an example of the kind of person Comey is, when he was eight he wrote a note to his mother after getting sent to his room that said “I am sorry. I will be a great man someday.”
– He talks about cases where you have to prove that a person had a particular state of mind and says they’re generally tough to prove. Sometimes it’s easier with emails, though – in one case one guy emailed his coworker saying “I just hope the SEC doesn’t find out what we are doing here.” and got the reply “Forget the SEC, when the FBI comes, I’m going out the window.” So…yeah 🙂
– Comey is very tall, and got used to ducking to get through doorways in the White House. One day he was wearing new shoes that were a little taller and smacked his head pretty hard. When he arrived at his meeting with the President he realized he was blooding, so he tilted his head in different directions to keep the running blood inside his hairline!
– He talks a bit about the Martha Stewart case, who was convicted of insider trading in 2005. The case got a lot of negative publicity at the time because it was really small potatoes (she made maybe $50,000 on the trade), and people didn’t know why the government was wasting its time. Comey explains that if she had admitted she did it there would have been a small fine, but she blatantly lied to the government, and then evidence came to light that she lied. The government wanted a plea deal but she refused.
– He talks about a meeting where he refused to continue authorizing a secret NSA program that was blatantly illegal, and Dick Cheney told him “thousands of people are going to die because of what you are doing”. Which really made Comey angry because, as he said, that made him feel bad but didn’t change the legal analysis.
– He mentions when he was head of the FBI someone sent an email out instructing people to shelter in place or flee in the event of an active shooter in the workplace. His deputy director hit “reply all” and said that any special agent (who are armed) who failed to run _toward_ an active shooter would be fired!
– I’m not going to recap the Trump stuff, since you’ve probably read it all before. One bit that I did like was his first meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions:

The new attorney general had been in office less than a week at that point. My first impressions of him were that he was eerily similar to Alberto Gonzales – both overwhelmed and overmatched by the job – but Sessions lacked the kindness Gonzales radiated.

Buuuuurn!

Anyway, Comey seems serious about ethical leadership and integrity and so it’s no surprise he clashed with Trump so much the short time they were in office together.

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friday linked list: decency in the age of Trump, default privacy settings, algorithms surprising us

The Antidote to Trump Is Decency – I more or less agree with this. Yeah, it’s tempting to turn ugly and call Trump and his cohorts nasty names, but I don’t think it helps the cause.

Hands off my data! 15 default privacy settings you should change right now – this is a really helpful guide for privacy on Facebook, Google, etc. It’s quick to check these and make changes if you want!

The Places in the U.S. Where Disaster Strikes Again and Again – nice visualization.  Ouch, Gulf Coast 😦

When algorithms surprise us – funny examples, still kinda scary though.

How Watermelons Became a Racist Trope – I knew this was a thing, but didn’t realize the reasons why. (also the author is a doctoral candidate at Rice!)

Texas Hospitals Are Adopting New Routines To Curb Maternal Deaths – I remember reading (but can’t find) a study about how bad maternal death rates are in the US. This is a step in the right direction; apparently California cut their death rates in half in just four years of using new protocols!

The American Revolution’s Greatest Leader Was Openly Gay – whaaaat how have I not heard of this? Happy Pride, everyone! (thanks Emily!)

Mister Rogers fixed old shows if he felt they were wrong – that is really sweet. I was kinda interested in seeing Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and this makes me really want to…

‘Sherlock’ Star Benedict Cumberbatch Saves Cyclist From Muggers – this sounds fake but apparently it’s real!

A Classical Math Problem Gets Pulled Into the Modern World – yay math! (although the article is a little overblown…)

on same-sex marriages and wedding cakes

So this week the Supreme Court sort of ruled in favor of the Colorado baker who didn’t want to make a cake for a same-sex wedding case. The case has to be heard again, and was a narrow ruling despite the 7-2 vote, or if you prefer in meme form:

But I wanted to talk about the case in general. I can understand feeling put-upon having to do creative work for something you don’t support. I think I’m kind of OK in this specific case with letting the guy not bake the cake, especially since in this day and age the number of people that would refuse to do so would be hopefully few, even in more conservative areas. (I think?)

The problem is that this is a pretty slippery slope. I’m not a huge fan in general of slippery-slope arguments, but what about:

  • A wedding photographer who doesn’t want to take pictures at a same-sex wedding
  • A cake baker who doesn’t approve of interracial couples and doesn’t want to bake a cake for them
  • A wedding DJ who doesn’t want to play music for an African-American couple
  • A pediatrician who doesn’t believe same-sex couples should have children and doesn’t want to treat them
  • A hotel clerk who doesn’t approve of same-sex couples sharing a room
  • A grocery checkout clerk who believes condoms are immoral and doesn’t want to ring them up

That hotel clerk one is not really a hypothetical – African-Americans had to deal with this sort of thing up until the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade that kind of racial discrimination.

For me personally, I generally feel like people should do their jobs, and providing a service to someone isn’t an endorsement of their life. If we have some sort of exemption for people producing a creative work for an actual wedding ceremony, I would probably be OK with that as long as it was extremely narrowly tailored.

The Order of Time review

The Order of TimeThe Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh, man, this book broke my brain. I had learned about most of the individual pieces before (relativity means there is no “absolute time”), but it all leads to some crazy conclusions. (time is only partially ordered since there is no simultaneity, time flows from lower entropy to higher entropy)

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