Lessons from Theranos
Hopefully writing about this purges the obsession.
Lessons from Theranos
To say that I have been obsessively following the Theranos trial is a bit like saying the French government of Les Misérables had a passing interest in the loss-prevention of the country’s baked goods. I am fascinated by this case, nearly to the point of distraction. For starters, I listened to the audiobook of John Carreyou’s Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup on a Illinois-to-Wyoming road trip. Since then, I’ve read all the articles and listened to all the courtroom updates. Hell, at this point I might as well buy a John Carreyrou Fan Club necktie or something.
Richard Feynman’s Wisdom: In his letter that tied a bow on his investigation of the Challenger disaster, Dr. Feynman wrote “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.” Before I realized in my early twenties that quotes, no matter how profound, looked douchey in professional email signatures, this one was a favorite. It’s incredibly apt in the Theranos case.
On/Off-record Flip-Flopping: The latest episode of Carreyrou’s podcast Bad Blood: The Final Chapter featured the dinner-interview recordings of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes’s interview with The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta. I was both amused and shocked that 1) Holmes often bounced back and forth, even mid-sentence, between “on the record” and “off the record” statements in her interview with Auletta, and 2) Auletta actually appeared to accept this. Generally, this is a bad idea. Assume everything is “on the record.”
Ethical Whistleblowing: There’s a tendency to ascribe heroism to any and all whistleblowers. However, I’d like to offer one key question worth asking: “Did the whistleblower engage in reasonable attempts to change these organizational behaviors from within?” I’m struck by the fact that, from what I’ve seen so far, the Theranos employees who stepped forward all made some attempt to tell Holmes and her partner/COO Sunny Balwani “This is wrong.” The converse would risk looking like opportunism — it might be more profitable or career-advancing for an employee to not help an organization pursue remedies and, instead, fire up the bullhorn.
Affinity Fraud: Much has been made of the high-powered board that Holmes convened by through a level of charm that I have, at least thus far and from a distance, not observed. As former Cypress Semiconductor CEO T.J. Rodgers once pointed out with characteristic bluntness, “[a] Board of Directors is not a ceremonial watchdog, but a critical management function.” But the point of the Theranos board clearly wasn’t governance but, rather, perpetuating affinity fraud. (“Look! George Schultz and “Mad Dog” Mattis are on our board!”) Hopefully, one of the Theranos lessons includes improved board composition by corporations and stricter evaluation by, well, everyone else.
Mad Attic Mailbag
How do lists of influential people fit within an industry [crypto and DeFi] working toward decentralization of control (at least, more user-controlled than current platforms)? I find there's a great contradiction between moving in that direction, and our industry placing any value in lists aiming to crown the most important people.
Interestingly, I remember pundits would ask a similar question during the pseudo-decentralization evangelized during the Web 2.0 era. “How ‘decentralized’ is this new world of blogging when Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch, Om Malik’s GigaOm, or Pete Cashmore’s Mashable has [x] many Technorati links?”
(Just writing that makes me giggle about what kind of measurements mattered to people back then.)
The fact is that these lists of “The Most Influential People In Crypto” aren’t at all ironic within an industry that holds decentralization as a core value or article of faith.
They do, however, reflect:
The normies’ desire to know whom to follow without having to think about it too much.
Publishers’ economic desire to fulfill that need.
Professionals’ desire to credentialize and support career growth.
Industry participants’ natural instinct to flex.
In media, business, crypto, and nearly everything else power law distributions are inevitable. And the press loves winners-vs-losers stories. They love them because we do, no matter what industry you’re in.
It can get a little ridiculous, though, even within our industry. About four years ago, I was on an agency team that pitched the business of a multi-company Bitcoin consortium looking to mount a PR campaign. We’re talking about more than a dozen representatives from names-you-know in the Bitcoin space were in that room. The pitch team’s biggest mistake: Including a slide in the deck with a homegrown ranking of crypto influencers. As a result, about 10 minutes of the 45-minute pitch was spent arguing about who was (not) on the list and why Person A placed higher than Person B.
So, again, the desire to rank and be ranked is natural. I don’t necessarily find these “most influential” lists contradictory to the crypto/decentralization movement, per se, because what is actually getting built is (as we all hope) furthering this agenda. These lists are simply a reflection of human nature.
Recommendations & Rejections
LITERATURE: “The Crooked Man,” Playboy (1955) — “In August 1955, Playboy published sci-fi writer and famed Twilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont’s The Crooked Man. Written in his 20s, Beaumont’s short story followed a man named Jesse who was forced to hide his heterosexuality in an alternate universe where all inhabitants were gay and straight relationships were criminalized. By the time the story reached Playboy Editor in Chief Hugh Hefner, it had already been rejected by Esquire. … As Hef said at the time of publication, ‘If it is wrong to persecute heterosexuals in a homosexual society, then the reverse is wrong too.’”
TECH: “The Silk Road Case: The Real, Untold Story,” FreeRoss.Org — Whatever your feelings about the war on drugs, this sympathetic, well-annotated accounting of the government corruption surrounding the Silk Road case is absolutely chilling.
MUSIC: “Age of Quarantine: Steve Von Till,” Revolver Magazine — Metal guitarist. Fourth-grade teacher. Family man. Whether you’re a metalhead or not, this interview is a wonderful journey into a mind of a true artist who not only shares his musical evolution but his personal growth. “At the time, we were thinking we were only one broken arm away from five families going hungry.”
FILM: The Eternals — So rarely does the title of a superhero movie simultaneously deliver 1) the collective name for its heroes, and 2) a subtle warning to the audience about the movie’s length and pacing. While grateful for the invite from a dear friend, my return to the cineplex after an eighteen-month absence threatened to paralyze me as my posterior grew numb in the middle of the second act. When Disney acquired Marvel, it touted that the purchase gave them access to thousands of characters. I kept wondering throughout the movie whether the terms of the acquisition obligated them to include every single one in some movie or TV show. Sometimes, though, you gotta let some of ‘em go.
Posting this on Facebook gets you laughs. Posting this on LinkedIn will probably cost you that promotion. Posting this here lets you decide.