Month: January 2019

181231143615-07-best-books-large-169Theranos was supposed to the company that changed health care forever.  The Silicon Valley startup had issued a bold proclamation that it had developed technology that could analyze a person’s blood and screen it against a multitude of known conditions, thereby providing early detection of sometimes fatal conditions.  The startup attracted attention and investments from big name players, all highly interested in the potential of what promised to be a revolutionary product.   Today, Theranos is gone, having officially become defunct in September, 2018.  Its proposed device nicknamed “Edison”, never materialized into the product it was designed to be and the fall of Theranos left many with shock, frustration and anger.  But why did a small company with such a game-changing idea, fail to live up to its potential? John Carreyrou is a journalist with the Wall Street Journal who received a tip about an obscure Silicon Valley startup plagued by internal problems and using deception as a tactic to accumulate investors.  His investigation has resulted in this best-selling account of the rise and fall of Theranos.

The central figure in the story is Elizabeth Holmes, the wide-eyed young lady with bright blonde hair who envisioned a product that would project her to stardom in the male dominated world of information technology.  Although she only completed two years at Stanford, she was able to launch the startup with the help of very wealthy investors.  Interest into the product accumulated and in a short amount of time, the money rolled in. But as time went on, investors began to realize that little return was being shown.   And as the facade slowly crumbled, the truth was revealed for the world to see.   And even then, many on the outside of Theranos had no idea about what really transpired behind the scenes.

Former employees agreed to talk to Carreyrou, even in the face of legal threats from Theranos’s counsel.  A widow also talked, even as she mourned the suicide of her husband, once one of the company’s best technicians.  The picture that has come together is a web of secrets and lies that doomed the company from the start.  This inside story is nothing short of mind-boggling and it is surreal that the startup existed for as long as it did.  During its prime, it claimed as members of its Board of Directors, Henry Kissinger and Gen. James  “Mad Dog” Mattis.  Investors such as the savvy Rupert Murdoch also put their money into the startup, believing it truly did have an innovative concept that would change the world.  The ability of Holmes to sway investors towards Theranos and finalize deals with major carriers such as Walgreens, highlighted the ambition behind her vision that carried a win at all costs mindset.  But that same mindset would later prove to be her downfall and that of Theranos.

Interesting, Carreyrou does not enter the story until about midway. Prior to that, we learn about Holmes’s life and the foundation of Theranos.  Contacts are reached and employees soon fill the roster of a promising young company.   But as they would soon learn, there was far more than meets the eye and no one would come away unscathed.  Leadership that evolved into tyranny cast a dark cloud over the startup and a revolving door of employees ensues.  Carreyrou tells each of their unbelievable stories while covering the progress of Theranos step by step.   But over time, optimism faded and former employees could no longer ignore the many illegalities and outright lies purported by the company.  And as Carreyrou is beginning to learn about the startup, he finds assistance and guidance in the voices of those who were once on the inside.  At this point in the book, the story picks up the pace and the battle between Theranos and the media, in particular the Wall Street Journal, is nothing short of a slug-fest.

The investigation by the Wall Street Journal, in addition with anonymous tips to the Center for Medicaid and Medicare services, combined to seal the fate of Theranos. And despite threats of litigation to the paper from Theranos’s legal counsel, the Wall Street Journal moved forward publishing a series of articles that opened the eyes of many to a deception that had gone unnoticed by even the sharpest of eyes.   By the time the end came and the company was a shell of its former self, nearly all of the major players and investors were gone but the memory of Theranos remains firmly implanted in their minds.

Silicon Valley is full of startups, bristling with activity in the belief that it might by the next big thing in technology.  But sometimes, a company can move too fast too soon, never stopping to evaluate itself and its motives.  Haste of that nature combined with ego and vindictiveness, can combine to form a nexus of nefarious behavior that can only lead to defeat and in some cases, total destruction.  This is the unbelievable story of the mysterious and ultimately disappointing, Theranos.

ISBN-10: 152473165X
ISBN-13: 978-1524731656

Investigative Report

20190119_180840This past November marked forty years since the assassination of Harvey Bernard Milk (1930-1948), who is recognized as being the first openly gay politician to hold office in the United States. The 2008 film Milk, starring Sean Penn, brought Milk’s life back into public light, where public interest has continued to increase. In the City of San Francisco, he is revered as one of its greatest citizens and the Castro neighborhood where he operated his camera store and conducted his political campaigns, pays homage to him with a bar named in his honor. Throughout the streets of the Castro, his image can be found throughout and on occasion, tourists might be fortunate enough to encounter someone who knew Milk personally.   On a visit to San Francisco a year ago, I did not have this fortune, but I did visit 575 Castro, the former site of his store which now serves as the base for the Human Rights Campaign.  Standing in the middle of the floor felt surreal as the realization settled in that this was where Milk lived and worked nearly forty years prior.  In the upstairs window at the front of the apartment where Milk lived, there is a full size image of him looking down at the street. It is as nostalgic as can possibly be. As I walked the Castro, I began to think, what if he were alive today?   What would he think of progress made by the LGBTQ community?  I think he would be proud but not satisfied, continuing to push for further advancement and acceptance of LGBTQ men and women  in society.

Sadly there are many young gay men and women who still have yet to learn about Milk’s life and contributions to the gay rights movement.  But fortunately for them and us, he left behind scores of speeches and writings devoted to the cause he wholeheartedly believed in.  Part of this collection of speeches and writings contained herein, are  appropriately titled An Archive of Hope, which brings the past alive as Harvey takes center stage in his own words.  Frank M. Robinson (1926-2014), was a speechwriter for Milk and had a cameo in the 2008 film where he plays himself.  He provides a foreword for the book, which he wrote in 2012, that is a testament to Milk’s legacy and some of the best writing I have ever read.  It is not hard to see why Milk solicited his assistance in creating the speeches that would help define his legacy.  On June 30, 2014, Robinson died at his home in San Francisco following a decline in health, due in part to heart problems.  His death was confirmed by friend and fellow activist Danny Nicoletta.

Milk’s brilliance cannot be overstated and it is on full display in the book.  The writings that are included are taken from newspapers that Milk contributed to, letters he wrote, sometimes to editors, and highlights from his most famous speeches.  The book follows a chronological order and at the beginning of each section, the authors provide a back story to the writing at hand.  It serves as a compliment to Milk’s words and helps the reader to follow along as Harvey challenges the establishment while throwing himself into the political arena as he runs for City Supervisor.  And although he lost the first few races, his popularity increased exponentially and all in San Francisco knew that Milk was here to stay.  What I found the most attractive in the book was Harvey’s foresight into the future.  It is with profound sadness that I can say that many of his predictions about San Francisco have come true. His words were prophetic and had his vision for San Francisco come to fruition,  the course of Californian politics would have undoubtedly taken a different course.

Reading Milk’s writings was a pleasure in itself.  His ability to analyze and critique the system was beyond precise and his words are still relevant today.  And while he did run for office, he was never a true politician.  In his view, they were all hypocrites and for Harvey, there was no way he could join that club.  Perhaps he was too driven, honest and outspoken for politics. Regardless,  he never wavered in his dedication to the movement which he rightfully called the candidate in his tape recorded will.  But as much as he railed against the persecution of the LGBTQ community, he also criticized the same community for its failures as well.  His words of advice for the gay community can applied today as they were in the past.  As Harvey believed, everyone, whether gay or straight, had a role to play in the movement.  And that movement found itself on a collision course with the evangelical right, determined by any and all means to take away the rights of the LGBTQ community.   They would find their icons in singer Anita Bryant and former Senator John Briggs. The advancement of California Proposition 6, also called the Briggs initiative, resulted in call to arms in the gay community and as Harvey points out, the forces mobilized in response to Anita Bryant’s crusade against homosexuals.  I had hoped to see more of the transcripts of the debates between Milk and Briggs included but as the authors point out, many were not recorded and others  suffered from sub par sound.  But from the small section that is included, it is clear that Harvey had mastered the art of politics without becoming a politician.  At his core, he was an activist or even more plainly stated, a humanist.

No book about Milk would be complete without his campaigns to become a City Supervisor which finally resulted in victory in November, 1977 after several failed attempts. The book follows these campaigns and includes the text of his speeches following his history win.  Harvey realized his work was far from over and continued to push forward until he succeeded with the successful vote of the gay rights ordinance that was opposed by only one Supervisor, Dan White, the man would later murder him.  A year before his untimely death, Milk tape recorded his will, the full text of which is included in the book.  And those words truly define the vision and goal that Milk had for the movement.  The Mayor of Castro Street had arrived and had he lived, I believe he would have gone on to accomplish even greater things for the gay community and the State of California. Right now we find ourselves as nation, in the midst of a turbulent political climate where individuals rights are sometimes still under attack.  Wounds of division and a short memory can combine to produce a society in which no one moves forward and we continue to make the same mistakes of generations prior.  Whether you are heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, contained within the pages of this book truly is an archive of hope.

ISBN-10: 0520275497
ISBN-13: 978-0520275492

Speeches

nothing to envyThe Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains one of the most secluded nations on earth.  To some, it is the best example of the society George Orwell described in his masterpiece, 1984. Documentaries, photographs and videos taken in North Korea have given the rest of the world glimpses into a nation ruled by an iron fist, where individuality and personal expression are as forbidden as foreign literature and films.  Every living moment of North Korean life is in service to the State under the tutelage and patronage of the “Dear Leader”.   The ideology of the North Korean Republic known as “Juche” was made famous by the late Kim il Sung (1912-1994) and has been carried forward by his son Kim Jong il (1941-2011) and currently his grandson, Kim Jong Un.  Portraits of the leaders can be found on the walls of nearly ever building in the country, reinforcing the demand for subservience by the government of its citizens.  The threat of American Invasion and moral corruption of young Koreans by foreigner influence are used by the State as justification for its seclusion from most of the world.  But for some citizens, the smoke and mirrors become clear as nothing more than propaganda used to keep society in line. and curiosity of the outside world creeps steadily in.   Their awakening results in a mix of emotions, one of which is defection to South Korea typically by way of China.

Barbara Demick is the former Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and spent five years in Seoul interviewing defectors from North Korea. This book tells the story of several individuals who made the difficult decision to leave the only place they have called home.  I think it is fair to say that anyone outside of North Korea is aware of the totalitarian regime imposed upon the people of that nation.  Journalists have lifted the carefully guarded veil constructed by Pyongyang. But what is contained in the pages of this book might surprise even the most knowledgeable readers. In fact, descriptions of their daily lives will stun some but in order to understand their desire to learn about the outside world, escape a suppressive regime and find peace and happiness, we must learn their stories and the challenging lives they were born into.  Their names are Kim Hyuck, Mi-Ran, Jun-Sang, Oak Hee, her mother Song Hee Suk and Dr. Kim Ji-eun.  Their stories are different but they are all united in the defection to South Korea, leaving behind family members and friends.  But what they witnessed will remain with them for the rest of their days.   Those events which we learn about in this book are more than any of us would want to endure.  I guarantee that for American readers, after you have finished this book, you will have a greater appreciation for the privilege of living in the country that is perhaps the most powerful nation on earth.

 

For those readers new to literature about North Korea and/or its defectors, the author provides a good history about the Japanese occupation of North Korea and its liberation following World War II.  Kim il-Sung would rise as the leader of the new Soviet backed North Korea while Syngman Rhee (1875-1965) established him as the leader of the U.S. backed South Korea.  The establishment of the 38th Parallel also known as the DMZ, as the dividing line between the two countries, remains firmly in place as the line that separates two very different countries and different worlds. Sung’s goal to create a new version of Communism, resulted in a regime that ranks among the most brutal anywhere in the world and seemingly stuck several decades behind the rest of the modern world.  And as the nation endured periods of famine and near economic collapse, increasing numbers of North Koreans, including those in this book, made their way south by any means necessary.

When we first meet our characters, their lives are typical of North Korea, far removed from any knowledge of or influence by the western world.  Allegiance to the “Dear Leader” is mandatory and all seem to stay in line willingly.   But over time the facade wears away and the death of Kim il-Sung on July 8, 1994, would provide the catalyst for many to open their eyes to the truth about life in North Korea.   Radio programs and even television from South Korea began to infiltrate the nation as growing numbers of citizens began to question all that they had been taught from a young age.  For figures in the story at hand, the moment of revelation of a life outside of North Korea proved to be too seductive to ignore and once the decision was made, the next step was to act which they did under the most intuitive of ways.  And in stark contrast to the idea of communist citizens all falling in line without thought, each of the characters prove to be as sharp and clever as anyone determined to seek asylum in the hope of a better life.  Their successful defections to the South are not without complications and their adjustment to life in Seoul, also shows the complicated efforts that exist to undo many years of indoctrination and seclusion.

Throughout the book, a constant theme is the possible collapse of North Korea and even the author remarks that it has been predicted for many years.  In spite of conditions that should cause the downfall of any government, North Korea continues to maintain its position as the rogue nation that issues threats to neighboring countries while preparing for a believed conflict with the United States.  The government operates on a system of dysfunction and in some cases hypocrisy.  While those at the top enjoy American cars, films and imported goods, millions of North Korea endure malnutrition and destitution.  Time will tell if the regime will collapse but what we do know, not just from news reports but also from the stories in this book, is that outside of Pyongyang, life for millions of North Koreans is marked by famine, poverty and fear of the State.  Defectors have survived the roughest of ordeals and no longer live in the fear that grips North Korea.  However, their hearts are still with those left behind and they do believe in the dream that one day Korea may once again be unified.  Until then, the number of defectors may continue to rise and people seek to move away from scavenging for food and praising the Dear Leader to having a full meal, talking freely and being able to watch any show they prefer on television.   Their stories may give others inspiration that there is a life outside of North Korea and for some, it is worth dying for.  But it is hoped that they are able to escape and enjoy the many privileges that so many of us take for granted.

This book has caused me to really think about the concept of freedom and how precious is truly is. I have seen and accomplished things that most North Koreans either have no knowledge of or ability to do. I am grateful for the life that I have and the author is correct when she says that life in North Korea is nothing to envy.

ISBN-10: 9780385523912
ISBN-13: 978-0385523912

Investigative Report