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Posts Tagged ‘chemistry’

Running Title: Bad Blood – Secrets And Lies In A Silicon Valley Startup

Several years ago I was sitting at home watching the telly and I came across this news flash about some woman named Elizabeth Holmes. Apparently, she was involved with some fraudulent behaviour involving some tech startup that got her into hot water. Sounds bang on and to the point. Little did I know, and thanks to members of my book club (yes, I run a book club in my branch and no it is NOT called the Evil Parrot Book club) and their recommendation of Bad Blood, I was made a bit wiser. And somewhat, troubled. But enough with the teasing, niceties, and other usual bollocks and let’s get on with the bloody review. Yeah?

The last thing I wanted to read was some boring blah-blah about some Silicon Valley tech startup, and about 20 pages into Bad Blood, it had dawned on me that Carreyrou’s tome was anything but boring. At some points I thought I was reading one of these creepy, conspiratorial Grisham novels, and to my dismal horror, it was not. Most importantly, it was based on something that was real and equally terrifying (don’t worry you’ll see the reason for such dramatic descriptions). Bad Blood introduces us to the interesting world of Elizabeth Holmes: blonde-haired, blue-eyed, super-intelligent AND a Stanford chemical engineering student. Or as my mum would say “wife material”, though my mum may be a bit biased since she is a retired chemist. Ah, we’ve detoured. When most of us at certain age were trying to figure out those labyrinthine first few years of college, Ms. Holmes was learning Chinese Mandarin and working at Singapore laboratory that performed tests for the SARS (remember that bit of craziness, oh … right we’re dealing with version 2.0 of that bollocks … coronavirus, they say). Then somewhere along the way Ms. Holmes had an Eureka moment and an LED bulb lit up in her mind: micro-sizing the world of blood testing. Instead of drawing vials of blood (as is currently done for blood testing) what if the same results could be achieved with blood droplets? Instead of scary needles, how about patches with micro-sized needles that could be applied to the skin to draw small amounts of blood? Best of all, instead of having to wait days or maybe more than a week, results can be sent back with hours? Now imagine if these testing devices were in everyone’s home and were beaming info back and forth through cellular and Wi-Fi technology. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? It most certainly did in Ms. Holmes’ mind to the point that she dropped out of college and filed a patent for the futuristic vision of a blood testing patch. And with college tuition money being used as seed money the health-tech startup known as Theranos was born, and Silicon Valley had a new neighbour. And the slow hitting of shit on the fan. Though a marvelous theory, building the machinery that would deliver all this medical greatness proved quite the bugger. And then appeared the silent partner known as “Sunny”: Ramesh Balwani, a Hindi-Pakistani software developer that was apparently more than a “mentor” and “advisor” to Elizabeth. Let’s just say that their relationship may have been more than “professional”. Chunder factor: this bloke was twice her age. Like a siren, Ms. Holmes had good sales pitch that most could not resist and it drew in the likes of many high-caliber personalities such as Larry Ellison, Henry Kissinger (aye, that one), and retired Marine general, John Mattis. Even after being told, by very competent engineers, that her “contraption” was very flawed and, in subtle terms, an engineering clusterfunk waiting to happen, Ms. Holmes did the next best thing: cheated by buying and hacking commercially competent Siemens systems to perform blood tests and then past the stuff off as Theranos testing. I know what you’re saying: that was wrong on so MANY levels. That was the good news part. The bad news was that she and Sunny went even further as they hired a high-end pitbull of a lawyer and weaponized non-disclosure agreements for incoming employees for “protection of intellectual property” (that was useless). And then there were the harassing and stalking of employees/potential whistleblowers (including family members that dared to work with her). And tossed into the mix, an unusual (and possibly unhealthy) fixation on all things Steve Jobs. Though being called a female Steve Jobs by Forbes magazine only added to the egos and the misery of others. Yes, characters were assassinated, reputations ruined and there was one suicide … all based on a carefully crafted lie.
Bad Blood, most would find in a very short time, is not a very boring read. Unchecked, Theranos was a potential Pandora’s box for the medical industry where faulty testing would have lead to healthy people taking unnecessary treatments (like chemotherapy or paying over $3000 out of pocket to find out that you’re really fine) and unhealthy people would be given a false sense of security (such suffering a heart attack when you were assured that you were “fine”).
A cautionary tale for those that are pro-business and at the same time think that regulations are too “bothersome” or “in the way of progress”. Though started with noble and lofty intentions, somewhere along the way ego, image, delusions and yes, greed kicked in and a lot of really good folks got plowed under into a churning, crimson tide. And in a time when whistleblowers and diligent journalism is treated with disdain, Bad Blood unwittingly, sheds a bright shining light on these silent and unsung heroes that are scattered throughout this society who remain oblivious to the greater good that they do. And the cost they pay. Good show, Mr. Carreyrou. Jolly good show.

P.S. I don’t think mum would approve too kindly of Ms. Holmes behaviour.

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Running title: The Poisoner’s Handbook – Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

Chemistry has always been my first love. Yeah, I know … how nerdy of me, but yes there it is. Some of my best memories, spent as a teen, was amidst pipettes, test tubes and Bunsen burners preparing for the General Certificate Examinations O Levels. I think also having a really awesome girlfriend (my true first love …awwww) as a lab partner sort of helped. And of course, having a mum who was a chemist may have factored into that whole equation and my fascination of the chemical world. Alas, I have detoured … and I haven’t even started the review. So on with it … shall we?

So there I was amongst the stacks at work, when this book literally screamed at me. Alright, alright that was a bit melodramatic … I actually caught glimpse of it whilst researching another book and … it … yes screamed at me. A bloodcurdling scream. And so I had no choice but to check it out. Unfortunately, my choice of reading may have raised a few eyebrows from some co-workers and I may have destroyed several dating prospects, whilst reading, on public transit (trust me, several arched eyebrows and judgemental stares from gorgeous women sitting opposite you says a lot). But that’s how the Evil Parrot rolls. Oh, the things I do for my reading public.

Poisoner’s Handbook (contrary to its name) is a chronicle of the work of Chief Medical Examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler that basically gave birth to forensic medicine in the 1920s. Yes, surprise, surprise, it is not a book teaching you how to poison people … though …
Though thoroughly enjoyed by chemistry buffs (such as yours truly), it is also a great compilation of crimes and incidents that involved … well … poisoning and some astounding bits of historical facts. Though very scientific in its writing, most non-scientifically inclined readers will still find it a delightful read since Blum doesn’t overwhelm on technicality and is a delightful storyteller. Some disturbing facts include people dying from alcohol poisoning during the Prohibition … even when they were WARNED of the dangers of imbibing treated wood or ethyl alcohol. Even more shocking was the government (i.e. the wonderful folks in Washington) putting forth decrees that required the poisoning of industrial alcohols as a DETERENT to those willing to break the law for a drink. Needless to say, many still kept dying. Ah Prohibition, a time where people were literally dying for a drink. Then there was the radium poisonings of the women that painted radium dials on watches, where the radium (a radioactive element that have a half life of 1600 years) not only penetrated their bones, but caused rapid decay of bones and whilst most people exhaled carbon dioxide, radium victims exhaled radon gas. Aye, makes secondhand smoke sound like aromatherapy. Beyond the alcohol and radium poisonings, there were also those criminal poisonings where, for the most, it was easy to poison someone (in the 1920s) and even when arrested most people walked before David Caruso could put on his dark glasses to the on oncoming strains of The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again. And boy, did people love their poisons back then. It is good to know that if my future wife serves food that tastes too metallic (arsenic) or desserts that have a hint of almonds (cyanide) even when there is NO almonds present that maybe I might need to reconsider my marital status. This is precisely why I do my own cooking. Yes, the Evil Parrot is full of surprises … and yet he is still single. Pray tell. Also note to self: I’ve got to stop watching too much bollocks on ID, BIO and Oxygen.
So whether you’re reading it for the science, the crime or even a bit of history … or all of the above, Poisoner’s Handbook turns out to be a majestic read. And who knows, some of this information just might save your life someday. Hey, I’m just saying, mates.

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