Thursday, July 1, 2021

Book 291: Bad Blood


"A month or two after Jobs's death, some of Greg's colleagues in the engineering department began to notice that Elizabeth was borrowing behaviors and management techniques described in Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Apple founder. They were all reading the book too and could pinpoint which chapter she was on based on which period of Jobs’s career she was impersonating. Elizabeth even gave the miniLab a Jobs-inspired code name: the 4S. It was a reference to the iPhone 4S, which Apple had coincidentally unveiled the day before Jobs passed away"

Dates read: January 24-28, 2019

Rating: 8/10

When I was getting ready to graduate from high school, I applied to two colleges: Michigan and Stanford. I'd gone to a summer program at Stanford the summer after my sophomore year and fallen completely in love with it and wanted desperately to go there. And this was back under the old points system that the Supreme Court later tossed, so I was able to do the math for my likelihood to be admitted to Michigan and I knew I'd get in. I sent off my applications and got the small envelope from Stanford. I loved my time at Michigan and am so glad I went there, but a part of me always wonders what my life might have been like if it had worked out differently.

I'm hardly alone at having not gotten into Stanford, as they accept only about one in every twenty applicants. Not everyone who gets in stays there, though, and one dropout is more notorious than the rest: Elizabeth Holmes. At 19, she left the university to found her own company, Theranos, the rise and fall of which is chronicled in John Carreyrou's Bad Blood. Holmes' original idea was a patch that could administer medications directly to the bloodstream. When that proved untenable, though, she turned to blood testing. Terrified of needles, she came up with the idea of being able to run diagnostics using just a few drops from a finger stick instead of the giant scary needles in the arm. It promised to revolutionize the industry, making testing cheaper and easier. There was just one problem: it didn't work.

For a long time, though, she was able to convince people that it did. She raised billions in capital. She built a prestigious board of directors. She was courted by the CEOs of pharmacies and supermarkets, desperate for a chance to implement her technology. And if anyone seemed like they might get in her way or slow her down, she terrified them into silence with legal threats. Eventually, though, a leak sprung, and Carreyrou began to write about the company's struggles in The Wall Street Journal. Despite high-powered lawyers doing their best to separate him from his sources, he was eventually able to expose the massive house of cards that was all Theranos ever was. Holmes and her ex-boyfriend, Sunny Balwani (the company's COO), currently face federal criminal charges that could imprison them for years.

Corporate malfeasance can make for highly entertaining movies, but there's a reason most true crime writers shy away from white collar stuff in favor of murder: it's hard to render bad business practices as exciting on the page. But in Holmes and Balwani, Carreyrou has two striking personalities to work with and he makes the most of them. It might be easy to write Holmes off as a deluded posturer, but he shows how her vindictiveness towards those that might have been able to expose her is the behavior of someone who knows full well what she was doing. And Balwani's fiery temper, the fear he inspired, leap off the page. The writing does sometimes veer into the technical, but the outlines are fundamentally of a confidence scheme, and Carreyrou keeps the book engrossing by focusing on the way it plays out, the way Holmes so often seems trapped in a corner and manages to escape yet again.

Between Holmes, Anna Delvey, and Fyre Fest, scammers are having a moment in American culture. There's something revolting and yet fascinating about people who operate without any of the fear many of us seem to feel about deserving our place. Anyone inclined to feel sympathy for Holmes, to feel like she just got in over her head, will have a hard time maintaining that once they read the truly heartbreaking account of how a prominent scientist who tried to get things back at least adjacent to the track was preyed upon by both Holmes and Balwani. When he eventually committed suicide, the company's only response was to get his work laptop back. We live in a time when technology companies, and the people who run them, are effectuating enormous changes with very few probing questions asked. This book, which I really enjoyed and highly recommend, demonstrates why we should ask more.

One year ago, I was reading: The Borgias

Two years ago, I was reading: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Three years ago, I was reading: Perfect Murder, Perfect Town

Four years ago, I was reading: My Antonia

Five years ago, I was reading: Missing, Presumed

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