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      One of the great crimes and tragedies of our world is how we treat the animals we eat (or whose milk or eggs or other products we eat and use.) Factory farming keeps them in tiny enclosures, feeds them monotonous foods, and then when they’re slaughtered it’s a terrible experience: they’re terrified and die in […]
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The Inventor. Or everything wrong with America. Part II

If you’ve watched The Inventor on HBO, or if you’re reasonably familiar with any high tech environment populated by venture capitalists, start up equity owners or day traders, you’ve probably heard the words “disruption”, “creative destruction” and “reality distortion field”. That last one was attributed to Apple founder Steve Jobs whose vision and drive frequently created an alternate universe where his employees did what was initially thought to be impossible.

It’s not impossible, it’s just a combination of Moore’s Law, new technologies and someone who could synthesize it all and think around corners. We’ve discussed previously how biology doesn’t really work this way. With living things, trial and error and long, hard slogging through experiment after experiment is how things get discovered. It’s just not very sexy to the vulture capitalist who’s going to expect some ROI in pretty short order.

In any case, it’s jargon and jargon is insidery stuff. If you’re part of the team, the cognoscenti, the cool kids, you use jargon. Jargon drives me crazy. Where I work now, there are quite a few people who think it’s ok to use “decision” as a verb and “ask” as a noun. For example, “For this feature, the ask from the users was…” or “I saw that task in my queue and decisioned it to the out bin”. Come on, people. You don’t sound smarter or more professional. What’s wrong with “made a decision” and a “request”?

A long time ago, I read a book for a business writing class called “Less Than Words Can Say” by Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian. His message to business writers was to avoid jargon as much as possible. There are two good reasons for this: it’s vague and imprecise, and it leads to mental shortcuts, which can have practical consequences down the road. How do you know if you’re doing something correctly if there’s no clear definition of words or instructions?

We’re all familiar with jargon on the left. What exactly is a “neoliberal”? No one really defines the word but it sure sounds bad. Same with “corporatist”. Incorporation is just a way a business can organizes itself. A corporation by itself should be a neutral term. It’s how those corporate shareholders lobby their representatives and how laws are written that incentivize those corporations to make money that give the word its negative connotation. After years of biotech startups failing to thrive in the wake of the decimation of the research industry, you’d be hard pressed to find a chemist or biologist who wasn’t a little wistful for the corporate lab. Trust me, someday, you’re going to believe me when I say that pharma R&D is not your enemy. The MBAs who run the companies are. But I digress.

I’m bringing language up with respect to The Inventor because in some ways, the atmosphere that Elizabeth Holmes created at Theranos resembled a cult. She was the charismatic, unblinking, blue eyed Svengali who rallied her troops to even greater heights of self-delusion. Even the professionals who knew better where captivated by her ability to cheer them on. They were fighting a battle against an establishment entity, in this case Quest Diagnostics, and Quest was hell bent on destroying their business model and the future of healthcare.

If that kind of thinking sounds familiar, it’s probably because creating an enemy and describing how you’re crushing it with underdog determination and moxie is a technique that’s been around for millenia.

It can also be soul crushing. Because if you’re not relentlessly onboard with the vision, then you become a “subversive person” in the Scientology sense of the word. Elizabeth Holmes was notorious for firing or threatening anyone who harshed her mellow with inconvenient data or evidence of her dishonesty. One of her best scientists, Ian Gibbons, a guy with a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge, was one of the people who kept telling her the truth she didn’t want to hear. He was marginalized and lost his office and was on the verge of being fired when he committed suicide in 2012. Yep, that was a bad year for chemists and biologists. Jobs were in very, VERY short supply. (Well, steady full time work for an extended period of time is still hard to come by) The prospect that Holmes would fire him for not being a team player made him realize that his career in science was effectively over.

But it didn’t stop Theranos’ collapse. Their nanotainers and Edison machines never worked as advertised. The company compromised the health of many people in Arizona and frittered away almost a billion dollars. The truth catches up with you, no matter how many times you utter the words “disruption”.


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