Sunday, 15 July 2018

Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

It actually pulls off a photo cover. (Source: Goodreads)
★★☆☆


Author: E. Lockhart
Genre: Literary Fiction/YA Contemporary (? - it's a weird book)
Pages: 225 (paperback)
Source: Local library












We Were Liars is a strange book. It's very ~literary~, i.e. nothing happens for a very long time and you don't relate to the characters, but the writing is beautiful - sometimes pretentiously so. The narrator is unreliable and describes emotions like this, which is actually kinda cool: 

'Then he pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down into a flower bed. Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound,
then from my eyes,
my ears,
my mouth.
It tasted like salt and failure. The bright red shame of being unloved soaked the grass in front of our house, the bricks of the path, the steps of the porch. My heart spasmed among the peonies like a trout.'


'Silence is a protective coating over pain.' This was her family's approach to dealing with problems, i.e. to just not talk about it; she loves Gat, her cousin's Indian friend, because he believes wounds should be looked after and talked about.

While the writing was for the most part very nice, it did annoy me how the narrator kept describing people like 'She is sugar, curiosity and rain' and 'He was contemplation and enthusiasm, ambition and strong coffee'. What does that even mean

At the moment I'm looking through Goodreads Quotes to find excerpts (don't go there if you don't want spoilers) and oh boy there are definitely things I did not get the meaning of when I read them before knowing the twist. Like 'Be normal, now. Right now. Because you are. Because you can be.' and 'This island is ours. Here, in some way, we are young forever.' and 'Just think before you complain about stuff other people would love to have.' 

I agree with Publishers Weekly's comment: 'it will prompt some to return immediately to page one to figure out how they missed it.'

I can't say much because really the whole point of this book is in the twist ending, so I'll just say that it's about a girl from a very rich and privately troubled family struggling over the inheritance returning to their private island to try and figure out, despite her amnesia, what really happened two summers ago. 

It can be a bit of a chore to read for the first, well, 70% of it, but if you're going to put in the effort to start it, make sure you get to the end because that's when all the payoff is. It ramps up a lot towards the end.

I give it 3/5 stars; 3 stars for the beautiful writing, the twist and the fact that it did manage to make me cry in the end even though I didn't think I was particularly attached to the characters, and 2 knocked off because it's definitely a trudge for the first part and doesn't have much in the way of plot or character development until you realise she has amnesia about that summer and then it gets a bit suspenseful as you wonder what actually happened.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Review: Mistborn Book 1: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

I've just finished Mistborn, which I read as a break before the third book in another Brandon Sanderson series, The Stormlight Archives. In short, his books are among my favourites ever. Pretty good for a book genre I thought I didn't like!



Pretttyyy cover

*I have yet to review either of the Stormlight Archives books I've read because they're so good and so long

Mistborn takes place in the 'Final Empire', a land where ash constantly falls from the sky and coats the barren landscapes, and the night is filled with mysterious mists and mistwraiths. There's the supreme Lord Ruler, a God who's been in control for a thousand years; the nobles, who live decadent lives in Keeps; and the skaa, a slave labourer class whose lives are seen as worthless. Life is extremely cruel for the skaa - they work on plantations and in factories for nobles, are killed frequently for the slightest transgression, and noblemen often take young female skaa they own (or rent from the Lord Ruler) to have sex with them, and kill the girls afterwards so they can't bear half-breed children. Only people who've lost two or more limbs are 'allowed' to beg, and the police will kick them every so often to make sure they really are helpless. 

There have been many attempted revolutions over the last thousand years of the Lord Ruler's empire, but they've barely ever even got off the ground. But now some Allomancers are on the case. 


Worldbuilding: 

There isn't a huge amount of physical worldbuilding, although we do learn that there are no flowers in this empire, and plants are all brown rather than green. The cultural worldbuilding is interesting and largely revolves around the power relationships between the skaa, the nobles and the Lord Ruler.

The magic system is the real star of the show, and is called Allomancy. Allomancy is magic of metals; Allomancers can swallow certain metals and 'burn' them for particular results - one each for strengthening senses, calming others' emotions, strengthening your physical abilities, rousing others' emotions, pulling and pushing metals from a distance, and more. The pulling and pushing of metals is really cool and I suspect would look awesome visually; Allomancers use it to basically fly around and it's cool because it's physicsy, talking about how it has to be just action and reaction, not whatever random direction you want to fly. For example, an Allomancer will drop a coin onto the ground and push against it, sending themself flying into the air because they're effectively pushing against the ground - but if the coin is in the air instead, that push will instead accelerate the coin away from the person because the person is heavier than the coin. Super cool how systematic it is, and it makes fight scenes super cool. There's also another type of magic in the book but I'll keep hush on that one. 

In what I've come to see as a Sanderson trademark, our introduction to Allomancy was mainly through the process of Vin learning how to do it, similarly to how we learned about the magic in The Stormlight Archives through [spoiler] discovering their powers and gradually learning more. I preferred how we learned more about the magic in this book, how it was more systematic. 

Characters:

I looooove themmmm. So much. I got ridiculously, painfully attached to the characters in this book - at one point about halfway through they were in trouble and I had to go for lunch, and I had to get my boyfriend to promise me the characters got through it okay to get over my anxiety about it and eat. And then near the end something really really sad happened and made me not really want to finish the book :( 


Enough about how sad their suffering made me - the characters were awesome, especially the main characters (the side characters could be a bit one-dimensional but were still pretty fun to see). Kelsier is a super charismatic though cocky team leader and is honestly a joy to be around. So daring, but impulsive. An archetype really, but still, I loved him. Vin is probably the main viewpoint character although they're joint main characters; she starts out as a street urchin, half-breed child of a prostitute and a noble, nearly killed by her mother and beaten by her brother, travelling with thieving crews and struggling for survival with absolutely no one to trust. I definitely related to her beginnings and so it was so so sweet seeing her get to be part of a crew. Kelsier creates a crew with the goal of taking down the Final Empire, and despite how dangerous the work is, it was wonderful seeing her going from a backstabbing petty thieving crew, to this one where people actually trusted each other. Lovely spots of wholesomeness between the fights.

Plot: 

A lot happens, and the first book has an awfully lofty goal. They want to overthrow this supreme emperor, who's seen as a literal god, and free the skaa. It's definitely the sort of thing you'd think would take a whole trilogy but nope, that's the goal of just the first book. At the same time, it's kinda weird because they say near the start that the plan is to overthrow the Final Empire a year from now so you're sort of waiting for that one thing to happen the whole time. But yeah, it does feel a bit rushed and like some things aren't given the time they deserved or are left a bit confusing, especially the ending.

Overall:

I absolutely loved it, though watch out if you get very invested in characters because the aforementioned incident is crushing. Nevertheless, a brilliant book with a fascinating magic system and characters I loved spending time with. There's so much more to the book that I haven't mentioned, since it has various subplots and lots of surprises (from Kelsier: 'There's always another secret'), but I think you'll just have to read it for yourself.

Source: I got my copy from the college library; you can also buy it, and if you're doing that I recommend Book Depository for free worldwide shipping.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Holiday to Waterford

Leon and I were planning to have a few days holiday in Dad's caravan. When that offer fell through, we booked a spontaneous 2-day holiday down in Waterford in the Woodlands Hotel & Leisure Centre. 

(All photos taken by Leon.)

Sunday

Up earlyish for the 9.50 DART to Connolly, walk to BusAras, get the 11.30 bus to Waterford, which takes 2 hours. I read about 200 pages of Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson and got very into it. Man I love Brandon Sanderson's books. 

We arrived in Waterford at 2 pm and go shopping for suncream and a swimsuit for me, since the main reason we wanted a hotel is to go swimming and use the jacuzzi (we realised later that when we feel like a holiday we should go to a local swimming pool to try get that out of our system first as it turns out hotels don't have a monopoly on swimming pools!). It was super hot and sunny - it literally felt like getting out of the plane in Germany. 

We got the 5 pm regional bus to the hotel after a bit of stress trying to figure out where the bus stopped out of the various unmarked bus stops. The buses were funny - on one of the short journeys the bus driver didn't charge at all, while another one was 2 euro. 

Got to the hotel, checked in, dropped off our stuff and ordered a takeaway because we couldn't cook in the hotel. The takeaway was apparently a traditional chipper but unfortunately was terrible; the chips had no salt in them and the garlic bread was neither garlicy nor the kind of bread we were expecting. It was sort of like unflavoured naan bread? Hopefully that's not just what they count as garlic bread in Waterford because if so they are missing out. 



Finally we headed down to the pool and enjoyed that and the jacuzzi for about an hour. It was lovely; it had been too long since we'd last been swimming, and we'd missed it. I love the feeling of weightlessness in the water. The deep end was significantly too deep for me to stand up in, but eventually I figured out that if I relaxed I could just float in a standing position and still have my head above water, which was cool. I love floating in general. Swimming is cool too, especially backwards.

Monday

Monday was the day we had intended to go out and see Waterford City but alas we ended up spending most of the day in our hotel room. Thankfully, we're both people who like that sort of style, of getting to relax on holiday. We had a nice pastry-based breakfast with stuff from the nearby Lidl, then I read Mistborn a bunch, until finally we went out for lunch to a nice cafe called Oskars where I got soup, bread and chips and Leon got nachos. It was a nice time but man eating out on holiday is so expensive! 



I spent a lot of the lunch being really anxious about Mistborn because the characters were in a major pickle and I get really really empathetic towards characters, until I got Leon to slightly spol it for me so I didn't have to be as worried about the characters anymore. 

Leon took a bunch of cute photos so here are some:





We then went down to the pool and swam and again it was great. We're now thinking of going to Trinity's pool to swim twice a week after work. Something I love about swimming is that it kinda requires concentration; a major reason I never exercise is that I get really bored with nothing occupying my mind, but with swimming you have to concentrate or you could, y'know, drown. Or get water unpleasantly in your mouth and nose. So hopefully that can be a remedy for my sedentary lifestyle.

We had another takeaway for dinner (ironic after talking about living healthy but I don't know what else to do on holiday but eat out or order in), this one pizza from Apache. Thankfully that one was solid.

Tuesday

Tuesday was our leaving day, but since we didn't go anywhere Monday, we decided to also do some tourism. We got the bus in to the city (apparently Waterford is indeed a city) and bought passes to the Medieval Museum and the Bishop's palace. 

The Medieval Museum was pricey but pretty cool. We first explored the wine cellar (and with all the steps and rickety footing I thought about how bad it must be to be unable to walk trying to get around inside):



We then got the lift up and watched a show about Waterford's medieval history, which was mostly about their long war with New Ross and their efforts to prove to the British king how loyal they had been to him through history so that they'd get better trade rights. They had a Great Charter Roll made to flatter the king and also secure exclusive trading rights in Waterford Harbour, and Waterford was known as the city that never betrayed the Crown (there was a snappier name that I've forgotten). 

It was a bit cringe how they constantly prostrated themselves before the British crown - quite the embarrassment to the nationalist movement, though I'm not sure how strong that was in the Middle Ages. 

Does he really need a sword on his belt too?


That floor had a lot of really cool artefacts, mostly focusing on Waterford's relationship to the Crown but with some cool models of the city that Leon loved. Also a place with crayons where you could do rubbings, so I did a quick one of those.



We then went down to the first floor, which focused on religion in medieval Waterford, and watched a show about the golden vestments and how they were protected through the years as power changed hands between Protestants and Catholics. The vestments were super important because they're embroidered with gold and overall very fancy. We also saw a lot of not-very-good statues but I suppose you can't be too harsh on people working in the Middle Ages. 

Overall, the museum was very good. As an aside -- the giftshop had cards for gay couples!






We then went to the Bishop's palace which unfortunately was a let down; for some reason I'd been expecting a church, but it was really just a house with some nice furniture and the first Waterford crystal item (a decanter). Might have been better if we'd done the audio tour though, and they did have this very cool sculpture made entirely of shells, that we sadly couldn't get a great picture of.




By this point we were hungry and went looking for food but couldn't find much walking down a main street that would serve a decent lunch but wasn't super expensive. Eventually we went to the Book Centre, a lovely big bookshop I'd seen recommended online, and ate there before spending an hour browsing through the books. I got very excited when I saw Cait Drews' book A Thousand Perfect Notes on the shelf face-out, and even as a Book of the Month! I know her!



 I also bought Leon the Brandon Sanderson book Steelheart. The book shop was awesome - both of us really enjoyed it.

After that, it was into the bus for the 4 hour journey home. The journey and evening weren't great because I came down with something very unpleasant and resembling heat exhaustion, but it was gone by morning thankfully. Damn Waterford heat. 

It was a good holiday - plenty of time to relax with Leon but also a nice bit of tourism. Big advantage of this over family holidays - get to decide what to do together as equals, and if you want to rest together you can do just that :) 



Saturday, 7 July 2018

Review: Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

3 stars.

This is the 3rd book in the Discworld series. I've read a few others that I enjoyed, including Going Postal and Mort, but unfortunately this one was pretty underwhelming.

It centres on Eskarina, or Esk, an 8-year-old girl, and Granny Weatherwax, the village witch. A dying wizard wants to pass on his powerful wizard's staff before he dies, so he comes to the village of Bad Ass to give it to the 8th son of an 8th son - only that son turns out to be a daughter, Esk, and now suddenly there's a female wizard. Granny tries to bring her up as a witch but the wizardness keeps coming through and causing havoc, and eventually they decide they need to take her to Unseen University, to which women are not allowed to be admitted. So now there's a witch-wizard hybrid and she's determined to get in.

Good: 


It's a nice concept - why are witches always shown as women and wizards always shown as men? Why can't that change?

And as usual, Terry Pratchett is very funny moment-to-moment and very unafraid of breaking the fourth wall (at one point he says something like the kind of lighting that would make Steven Spielberg reach for his copyright lawyers). 

Other funny bits (a very non-exhaustive list; he has some kind of funny or self-aware bit basically every few lines):

  • Someone asks Esk 'Why are you here?' and she says something like 'I don't know, Granny won't tell me. Something to do with men and women I think.'
  • 'It must be quite interesting, reading books,' said Esk. 'Sort of. Can't you read, Esk?' The astonishment in his voice stung her. 'I expect so,' she said defiantly. 'I've never tried.'
  • 'She was opposed to books on strict moral grounds, since she had heard that many of them were written by dead people and therefore it stood to reason reading them would be as bad as necromancy.'
  • 'The lodgings were on the top floor next to the well-guarded premises of a respectable dealer in stolen property because, as Granny had heard, good fences make good neighbours.'
And many, many more funn(ier) bits besides. It's also very amenable to reading aloud because it's largely dialogue.

Granny is a funny character; when she's training Esk to be a witch, she likes to teach her 'practical magic', so she learns about herbs but also about washing the dishes. And the idea of 'Borrowing', that witches can 'borrow' the mind of animals so for example Granny will read through an owl's eyes when it's dark, or borrow the mind of a different bird to travel far, was cool. It was interesting to read about the principles of witching, about how you don't try to manhandle the animals etc but you just want to gently sway their wills, and that's also how you convince people. Esk had issues with that because she naturally had powerful magic and didn't always have the patience to do it patiently in the witching way.


Bad: 

Unfortunately, the book was very underwhelming because there doesn't seem to be any overarching plot, or stakes, or tension. Towards the end of the book she wants to go to Unseen University and tries to convince them to let her in and they don't. Then something weird happens with shadows from another universe and she has to go save a wizard and so they make her one - but the rules aren't made clear at all and so I've no idea what counts as success, and things are very hand-wavey. Maybe I've just been spoiled by Brandon Sanderson's 'hard magic' but things just felt awfully wishy-washy and there was no structure to the story so I wasn't very attached to it or gripped by it, and I didn't even feel that close to the characters, possibly because of the two main characters one is an 8-year-old girl and the other is an old witch. I hear other Discworld books are better though, and apparently Pratchett was just finding his feet. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Visual Disorders I: Aphantasia

This post is inspired by a cool Twitter thread I saw about how our eyes trick us during the saccades that occur when we move our eyes from place to place e.g. when reading, which you can find here. It's called saccadic masking or chronostasis, and it's an interesting example of how what our eyes detect and what we actually experience visually are quite different. 

I then saw another thread (which I can't currently find) that mentioned akinetopsia (not being able to see movement) and simultanagnosia (only being able to see one thing at a time) and so here I am looking at unusual eye disorders that are down to the counterintuitive ways our brains process vision.

I'll be doing two posts on this: Part 1 is just about Aphantasia, which I have, and Part 2 will be about other interesting visual/cortical disorders.

Aphantasia

Aphantasia is the lack of a 'mind's eye' or the inability to voluntarily visualise. I have it, and it means I can't picture anything in my head, from a simple red triangle to someone's face.  I was interested to read that it's defined as inability to voluntarily visualise - that's mostly true for me as I can't voluntarily visualise, but I also rarely visualise even involuntarily i.e. in my dreams.

 It's incredibly understudied but that's starting to change. The revival in interest in it appears to have come from a man who went to his doctor saying he had lost his ability to visualise after a minor surgical procedure and then was profiled in the New York Times, leading a lot of people to say how could someone not visualise but also some people to say wait, I've never been able to do that! It's odd that scientists (apart from someone in the 1800s) never actually discovered congenital aphantasia until someone lost the ability.

It's a really fascinating subject because everyone assumes other people are just the same as them since it's such a private experience. I always thought counting sheep was just metaphorical and that you weren't supposed to actually picture them, or that when you were told to visualise during meditation (argh) it was also just a metaphor or something. It did make meditation very frustrating - we'd go on school retreats and they'd lead us down memory lane with 'Imagine you're walking up to a door. What colour is the door? You walk in and see photos on the wall. What's happening in the photos?' I guess people must have been actually seeing things in their heads while they narrated this but I was seeing absolutely nothing and having to just lie there and make up answers like 'OK I guess the door can be red' even though I couldn't actually see the door at all. 

For a great long explanation of this, I recommend this post by a man with aphantasia. 

There's a really interesting link to blindsight [ability of cortically blind people to respond to/locate objects they can't consciously see] there in my experience - I can't visualise (most of the time - I tend to get one involuntary image in my head right before I go to sleep some nights, and I occasionally dream in pictures) but I could still reasonably accurately tell you how many windows (etc.) were in X room of my house. It's sort of like a coordinate system in my head, where I could imagine walking into that room and having a sense for how far away or near the windows were to me in each position without ever actually seeing anything.

The way I 'see' things is interesting albeit difficult to explain. Say I'm trying to picture a graph of y = x^2, which is a parabola opening upwards centred on the y-axis. I can't see it in my head in any normal sense of the word 'see' - there is no colour, no form, no anything visual. However, I have recently enough picked up a skill with which I can imagine that I am a point on the line and so I can trace out the line in my head purely through imagining motion, but there'll be no visual image, just the sensation of movement. That doesn't scale well; I could draw out a triangle or a rectangle, but it will only exist in the place where I currently am in the motion so there's no actual trace left of it so there'll never be a full shape. I can sort of imagine moving as a different shape, so instead of being a point I could be a square and by moving that could create the sense of a cube. But there still won't be anything you'd actually associate with a picture, no boundaries/colour/lines. And that approach only really works with simple geometric shapes because I can't exactly imagine myself as a travelling point to picture someone's face; the whole face needs to exist at once, whereas the y = x^2 curve can just exist as an infinite series of points.

Scientists asked that guy who'd lost his ability to say which letters of the alphabet had low-hanging tails e.g. j, g, and were suprised to find out he could do it even though he couldn't visualise. I can do it too - I would run through the alphabet in my head (without seeing anything visually) and either do it just by knowing it because I've already classified them while learning to read, or imagine I'm a point moving along the letters. 

It feels like there's just no screen there. The information must be there because I can recognise people (usually - I'm not brilliant at it) without having to run through a checklist, but there's no 'screen' in my head for me to assemble that information visually. When I try to remember what someone close to me looks like, all I have is words I've specifically thought of while looking at them so 'brown hair' 'tall' and my emotional response to that. If I want to think 'is X person pretty?' I have to think back to the last time I saw them and remember what my response was then - I can't just picture them and judge how I feel now about how they look.

However, the screen must exist because I do get a flash of mental vision some nights before I go to sleep and because sometimes some things in my dreams are visual. 

Super interesting stuff and I hope they do more research on it soon. I feel like it should maybe be classed as a disability; it certainly made organic chemistry very difficult as that's all pictures and I can't remember pictures at all. I remember in primary school we had to look at a picture for X seconds and then had Y seconds to write down as many things as we could remember from the picture and maybe where they were; I think now people must have done that by snapshotting the picture in their heads and holding it in memory to look at it, but I had to just name the things and memorise the list of names, so 'socks, slide, tree, cat, blanket'. It's also very annoying that basically all the words we use for imagining (including that word itself) are based on vision, e.g. 'visualise the future', 'picture this'. I can still imagine, just in words, concepts and feelings (sometimes sounds) rather than images. 

Someone said recently 'but you must be able to visualise, you read all the time!' [this was after I brought it up and was in response to an English student who'd said they couldn't do it either], which was funny but also fascinating because clearly our reading experiences are very different. I definitely miss out on some parts of books because I basically just skim the descriptive bits since I can't visualise them. So I hate books that constantly visually describe the surroundings and will only read it in case there's information there that I might need, so if it describes a uniform in great detail and mentions they've a knife in one pocket, I'll only remember the knife because that might be relevant later. And I draw and paint (though not brilliantly), either by looking up and down at the thing I want to draw a lot, or if I'm drawing from memory (because I can't looking at it in my head) I either use a geometric shape or draw a little bit, see if that's recognisable as the shape I want to draw, and if so keep going in that way. 

It's definitely an interesting thing to find out about, and a great opportunity to think about how other people think. 


Sunday, 1 July 2018

Review: June 2018

Hey all! Started some new things in June. 

LAIDLAW SCHOLARSHIP: The first Leadership Weekend for the Trinity Laidlaw Scholars took place near the start of June. We learned about mission, styles of leadership, public speaking, reflection, networking and more. Here's the post about the Leadership Weekend, and here's me, Luke and Mollie outside the Pav afterwards:



Also, the Laidlaw Scholars organised a couple of meetups and went to the Eat Yard and to the Science Gallery for the opening night of their LIFE ON THE EDGES exhibition, so that was cool. I also got to see Shane Bergin at Science Gallery which was great.



RESEARCH JOB: I've been working in Prof. Aoife McLysaght's lab in Trinity doing computational genetics (bioinformatics) research! It's super cool and they're great there. I've done two weeks so far.

EXAM RESULTS: Exam results were a big focus of this month (of my sleepless nights anyway!) and I got them on the 15th of June and am delighted to say I got 86% overall, a first in all 11 modules, a first in all 11 exams, and 100% in my Multivariable Calculus exam. Here's the results post. I had been sooo worried but I did it !!!







CODE: I've been doing a lot of R, mostly for my job but also practising using ggplot2 to make cool data visualisations so I was ready for the job when I started.







I also did the whole Python course on Rosalind in two days! I'm glad I chose Rosalind over Codecademy as it was quicker but more challenging and made sure I actually learned how to manipulate files (read in, write to, etc) rather than just playing within the sandbox like Codecademy does, so it suited me as someone who already knew how to code a bit. I had tried to learn Python on Codecademy before but it frustrated me because it forced me to go through all the exercises like 'what is a variable' and 'basic arithmetic' again when I already knew those from other languages.






PAINTING: I've taken up painting! I went to the local art shop and got some watercolours because y'know what I'm an adult and I can do that. I was a bit eek about the price (18 euro) but I think it's quite good value because it has like 10 pans of watercolour paint, several tubes of paint, three watercolour pencils and a normal pencil, a rubber, a parer, some paper and a mixing palette.

I've been really enjoying it, it's super relaxing and aesthetically pleasing and I'm not even particularly good at art. I've been doing this style where I do a set of similar items around a theme and it's fun.



Characters from Stormlight Archives.



UKULELE: I picked up my ukulele from my family when I visited them and to my horror discovered a string had snapped off. This month I went up to Everest Music & Piano Shop in Bray and they were lovely - they gave me a new string for 2 euro and put it on for free ... and actually gave me the whole thing for free in the end as it happens but anyway they were lovely. 

I've been using my ol' trick of transposing the chords of songs until they're some variant of  C G Am F Em Dm and learning a bunch of songs including Hey There Delilah by the Plain White Ts, Let Her Go by Passenger, Photograph by Ed Sheeran and How Far I'll Go from Moana.



READING: In June I completed Words of Radiance (#2 in the Stormlight Archives series) by Brandon Sanderson (review not up yet because what a book, 5 stars), Lost in Math by Sabine Hossfelder (review/recap here), Junk DNA by Nessa Carey (review/recap here), Inferior by Angela D. Saini (review/recap here), and Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou (review/recap here). 

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HEATWAVE: Help. It shouldn't be in the high 20s in Ireland. Admittedly it's a lot cooler over here because we're by the sea and it's windy so I tend to actually be kinda cold during the day inside (because I'm wearing a light dress for the weather that's in it) but way too hot at night. Odd.

DATE: Leon and I went on a nice date to Mooch, which was lovely albeit too expensive. 



Review: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

This is a book about Theranos, and what the hell happened that they were able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to become valued at $9 bn, fool Silicon Valley's top investors, government officials, and major companies, 

It was fairly slow to get into, with far too many names to keep track of, like how the founder's mother's friend's husband's old buddy went to college X and high school Y with some other person, so I wasn't really enjoying it until I was about 70 pages in but after that I read the remaining 280 pages in a day. I tried to stop about 50 pages before the end but I was too scared by it to sleep so had to finish it!


My main takeaways: 


1) Elizabeth Holmes has some absolute balls. I literally gasped with outrage many times throughout this book.

2) Said balls can get you shockingly far in Silicon Valley (and possibly elsewhere).
3) The criminality! The irresponsibility!
4) Lawsuits desperately need reform and lawyers need their powers curbed drastically.
5) What a terrible work environment, christ.



1) I truly cannot believe how ballsy she was. How she just ... kept talking shit with absolutely nothing behind it. She styled herself as Steve Jobs so explicitly, with the turtlenecks and calling one of her devices the 4S.

There were so many examples of this but here are a few: 



  • constantly telling investors that the Army was using these devices in Afghanistan (so they must be good, right?) when they were doing no such thing. In fact, she had pitched the military but then when they asked for some kind of proof of what she was saying, she never wrote back and so the army did not use anything of theirs. But this idea got out to investors and they started saying it themselves too. 
  • the board once voted to remove Elizabeth as CEO because she was too young and immature - she refused to step down and convinced them to reinstate her, then became even more draconian to quash dissent.
  • insisted (to the Army) that she didn't need regulatory approval because the FDA regulated medical devices while CMS regulated labs and her new thing was intermediate between those so she didn't have to be regulated by either
  • had her #2 make up earnings projections entirely, saying they were projected a billion dollars the year after next when they got like a few million or something, if even that.
  • Saying Theranos was the most accurate blood-testing company because like 93% of lab mistakes are caused by human error and their stuff was automated so it HAD to be more accurate right? No! Not right! Bold! Never mind that their stuff was extremely inaccurate, just the idea of advertising that your testing is the most accurate because 'it doesn't do a particular error-prone thing' even though it could do all sorts of bad things! Could just be a function that prints random numbers and because it's fully automated she'd say it's more accurate at blood-testing. 
  • Say she wanted to change the world and make sure no one lost a loved one too soon using the example of her dead uncle - when she wasn't actually close to him at all.
  • Saying repeatedly at company meetings: '“The miniLab is the most important thing humanity has ever built. If you don’t believe this is the case, you should leave now,” ' Also 'Still visibly angry, Elizabeth told the gathered employees that she was building a religion. If there were any among them who didn’t believe, they should leave. Sunny put it more bluntly: anyone not prepared to show complete devotion and unmitigated loyalty to the company should “get the fuck out.”' Wat. Even if your thing did work, it's literally just combining a bunch of existing diagnostics tools and miniaturizing them. It's definitely hard engineering-wise (which is why they couldn't make it work), but surely if you're gonna say something is the most important invention it would have to at least be the original diagnostics machines?
  • Putting her name first on all the patents even though she hadn't contributed any scientific knowledge.
  • in a pitch to investors, showing them a scatterplot of the values obtained by 'her machines' vs those obtained by commercial machines to show they were very similar and thus 'her machines' were accurate - only they weren't her machines at all, they were other commerical machines. Of course they matched! They were the same type of machine!
  • When setting up a deal with Walgreens and someone tasked with sussing out the deal asked to see her much talked-up lab, just saying nope.
  • Continuously just saying nope to requests for evidence and people somehow just being like oh well okay then.
  • Just before the Walgreens (or was it Safeway?) rollout, when someone said the Edisons (her machines) still weren't working and couldn't they wait for the next edition (so it might actually work) before rolling out, she said No, when I promise, I deliver. Like ... my dude... you gotta actually deliver something that works though.
  • 'Elizabeth wanted the website and all the various marketing materials to feature bold, affirmative statements. One was that Theranos could run “over 800 tests” on a drop of blood. Another was that its technology was more accurate than traditional lab testing. She also wanted to say that Theranos test results were ready in less than thirty minutes and that its tests were “approved by FDA” and “endorsed by key medical centers” such as the Mayo Clinic and the University of California, San Francisco’s medical school, using the FDA, Mayo Clinic, and UCSF logos. ' She absolutely did not have the endorsement of those places. Just a complete bare-faced lie. What.


In fairness, one aspect was that she was mostly talking to people who weren't experienced in medicine; instead, they were tech investors. And medicine is not the same as an app. The stakes are pretty different in diagnosis vs. using an app to get your groceries delivered. When she did talk to investors who knew something about medicine, this happened: 



One morning in July 2004, Elizabeth met with MedVenture Associates, a venture capital firm that specialized in medical technology investments. Sitting across a conference room table from the firm’s five partners, she spoke quickly and in grand terms about the potential her technology had to change mankind. But when the MedVenture partners asked for more specifics about her microchip system and how it would differ from one that had already been developed and commercialized by a company called Abaxis, she got visibly flustered and the meeting grew tense. Unable to answer the partners’ probing technical questions, she got up after about an hour and left in a huff.




The big question is whether she drank her own Kool-Aid, and sadly it's not one that's answered in this book. I don't know whether she really believed she was right and was blind to the cheating and lying, whether she intended to cheat and lie all along, or whether it just sort of happened along the way. But wow. 


2) She got so far! Theranos operated for over ten years before it was exposed! That's a hell of a con.


It kinda makes me think about what unwritten rules we all go by just because we assume they're cast in stone, and that some people, like her and Trump, don't give a shit about and thus exploit. Most of us think 'if you're caught in a lie you should be embarrassed' or fess up or something. But not these people. They just let it roll off their backs - and that makes it very difficult to do anything about them.


Walgreens and Safeway believed her and spent millions of dollars setting up their stores and buying her equipment (that didn't work) even in the face of negative evidence because of FOMO, because of her hypnotic presence, and because, well, it sounded so cool how could it not be true?

There was a culture of enablement too; one board member raised his concerns with the leader of the board and was told he should resign. A former employee told his grandpa, George Shultz, that Theranos had inaccurate and faked results and his grandpa chose to believe the company over him. She had an incredible reality distortion field.


On the bright side, there was a funny moment: when that board member who was made resign for raising concerns tried to not be locked out of his shares, his lawyer said to him: knowing what you do, do you really want to own more of that company?  Must have sucked seeing them rise and rise but hopefully he was around to see their comeuppance.


3) So much criminality and lying! Holy shit! How do you live with yourself releasing incorrect medical test results to patients?!



  • 'it's okay if we don't do the tests labs are supposed to do because our products are ~so unique~'
  • When showing off the product to investors it never worked so they'd just take the investor's blood, then get the screen on the device to pretend it was working and show a result from someone else from one time it did work. Their Chief Finance Officer said he was uncomfortable with this and felt it crossed a line and was told he's not a team player and fired. 
  • They manipulated the devices so that instead of showing an error they'd just pretend to have slowed down and they'd tell the investors to come back later when it had finished processing, blaming slow wifi or an earthquake in Japan (yes, really).
  • Because their machines didn't work, they did most patient tests on some Siemens machines they'd bought (very fraudulent because their whole thing was that they had their own special machines and that was their product, but now they were just using ordinary commerical machines) and worse, jury-rigged so that they would work with diluted samples because Elizabeth absolutely insisted that the samples be small for her ~vision~. Never mind that diluting them took them below the concentration limit that the Siemens machines could accurately perform tests at and they got super inaccurate results. Also that running tests on small samples and in general getting small samples of blood to behave was an entire branch of bioengineering and people were not close to solving it.
  • Outright faking validation tests like covariance tests, throwing out outliers with a very very liberal definition of outlier that they just gamed, etc. Straight-up unmistakeable scientific fraud, ranging from setting up your parameters like outlier detection to allow you to throw out any incorrect results to literally just making up numbers.
    • 'One type of experiment he and Erika were tasked with doing involved retesting blood samples on the Edisons over and over to measure how much their results varied. The data collected were used to calculate each Edison blood test’s coefficient of variation, or CV. A test is generally considered precise if its CV is less than 10 percent. To Tyler’s dismay, data runs that didn’t achieve low enough CVs were simply discarded and the experiments repeated until the desired number was reached. It was as if you flipped a coin enough times to get ten heads in a row and then declared that the coin always returned heads. Even within the “good” data runs, Tyler and Erika noticed that some values were deemed outliers and deleted. When Erika asked the group’s more senior scientists how they defined an outlier, no one could give her a straight answer'
  • so much more oh boy


4) Horrible lawyers and horrible lawsuit culture

I am honestly so upset about the litigious culture that exists in America, and about what's considered acceptable by lawyers. A lot of them seem to just take on cases regardless of morals, and you can get the best lawyers not because you have the most deserving case, but because you have the most money. 

Theranos hired arguably the top law firm in the country, who had previously argued against California's Prop 8 and Microsoft and for Al Gore, and then used them to viciously pursue, intimidate and spy on (using a P.I.) innocent whistleblowers and the journalist who wrote this book. It makes me so angry honestly - there were people who just capitulated with not whistleblowing after they resigned as employees because Theranos threatened them and even though they were right they'd never win their case against these amazing lawyers who literally threatened to ruin their lives. And so they had to just drop it and agree to whatever Theranos wanted. I don't understand how a system so unfair is allowed to exist. 

5) What a terrible work environment



  • So much pressure on employees and refusing to listen to any concerns - people were either ignored or fired if they raised concerns about the technology not working, and yes-men got ahead quickly.

  • Tim was a yes-man who never leveled with Elizabeth about what was feasible and what wasn’t. For instance, he’d contradicted Justin and assured her they could write the Edison software’s user interface faster in Flash than in JavaScript. The very next morning, Justin had spotted a Learn Flash book on his desk.

  • They had to work crazy long hours and weren't given a choice about it; the #2 reviewed the security tapes frequently and confronted someone over 'only' working 8 hours a day. Dinner was provided but would only be ordered in to arrive around 9 or 10 pm (if I recall correctly) so people had to stay really late or waste the food.

    • 'In the months after Greg left, the revolving door at Theranos continued to swing at a furious pace. One of the more surreal incidents involved a burly software engineer named Del Barnwell. Big Del, as people called him, was a former Marine helicopter pilot. Sunny was on his case about not working long-enough hours. He’d gone as far as to review security footage to track Big Del’s comings and goings and confronted him in a meeting in his office, claiming the tapes showed he worked only eight hours a day. “I’m going to fix you,” Sunny told him, as if Del were a broken toy. But Big Del didn’t want to be fixed. Shortly after the meeting, he emailed his resignation notice to Elizabeth’s assistant. He heard nothing back and dutifully worked the last two weeks of his notice period. Then, at four p.m. on a Friday, Big Del picked up his belongings and walked toward the building’s exit. Sunny and Elizabeth suddenly came running down the stairs behind him. He couldn’t leave without signing a nondisclosure agreement, they said. Big Del refused. He’d already signed a confidentiality agreement when he was hired and, besides, they’d had two weeks to schedule an exit interview with him. Now he was free to go as he pleased and he damn well intended to. As he pulled out of the parking lot in his yellow Toyota FJ Cruiser, Sunny sent a security guard after him to try to stop him. Big Del ignored the guard and drove off. Sunny called the cops. Twenty minutes later, a police cruiser quietly pulled up to the building with its lights off. A highly agitated Sunny told the officer that an employee had quit and departed with company property. When the officer asked what he’d taken, Sunny blurted out in his accented English, “He stole property in his mind.”'
  • She drove chemist Ian Gibbons to suicide! I was so sad at this part, made all the worse by the fact that it's a true story.
    • 'Gibbons was a legitimate scientist and ... like most scientists, he was an honest person' - knew I was going to like him already

    • 'Ian refused to give an inch and became furious when he felt he was being asked to lower his standards. Paul spent numerous evenings on the phone with him trying to calm him down. During these discussions, Ian told Paul to stand by his convictions and never to lose sight of his concern for the patient. “Paul, it has to be done right,” Ian would say' - you go Ian! If only you weren't dead :(
  • Employees were in siloed departments; the chemists couldn't take to the engineers (on a bioengineering project!) so they couldn't tell which side the error was on, and this was done on purpose so that no one would have the full picture of the product except Elizabeth and her #2.
  • The bosses, especially her #2 Balwani, were straight up abusive even on top of all the firings and long hours. 
  • That Chief Finance Officer who'd been fired for voicing his discomfort with lying to investors? Rumours were spread that he'd been embezzling money. Theranos didn't in general allow people to say goodbye to anyone after they were fired or even collect their stuff - they had to leave immediately so that the bosses could control the narrative of their departure. And wow there sure were a lot of firings. 

Look how horrible she is:



One aspect of Matt’s job had become increasingly distasteful to him. Elizabeth demanded absolute loyalty from her employees and if she sensed that she no longer had it from someone, she could turn on them in a flash. In Matt’s two and a half years at Theranos, he had seen her fire some thirty people, not counting the twenty or so employees who lost their jobs at the same time as Ed Ku when the microfluidic platform was abandoned. Every time Elizabeth fired someone, Matt had to assist with terminating the employee. Sometimes, that meant more than just revoking the departing employee’s access to the corporate network and escorting him or her out of the building. In some instances, she asked him to build a dossier on the person that she could use for leverage. There was one case in particular that Matt regretted helping her with: that of Henry Mosley, the former chief financial officer. After Elizabeth fired Mosley, Matt had stumbled across inappropriate sexual material on his work laptop as he was transferring its files to a central server for safekeeping. When Elizabeth found out about it, she used it to claim it was the cause of Mosley’s termination and to deny him stock options.


Man am I glad to see her get her comeuppance.

Miscellaneous

Something particularly creepy about it is the similarities between myself and Holmes. My big research was into diagnostics. I wanted to make diagnostics easier and better and less invasive, and have multiplexed sensors. I was also a #womaninSTEM and a smart kid. Could that have been me? I highly doubt it, as one of the biggest differences between us is that I actually have a serious respect for truth and a sense of shame, and many many other differences in our philosophies, approaches to life, you name it.  Also, she apparently once said 'I’m not interested in getting a Ph.D., I want to make money.” ' which is very not me. But it was a weird realisation that we shared some interests. 

I was pleasantly surprised by some disliked people in the book. General Mattis, who is now (or has he been fired/resigned yet?) in Trump's administration, who believed his army subordinates when they said don't use Theranos tech in the army, and Rupert Murdoch who refused to pressure the WSJ (which he owns) not to publish the expose of Theranos. Unfortunately Mattis still joined the board and very much misjudged her but y'know: 'Mattis went out of his way to praise her integrity. “She has probably one of the most mature and well-honed sense of ethics—personal ethics, managerial ethics, business ethics, medical ethics that I’ve ever heard articulated,” the retired general gushed.'
_________

In summary: Bit boring for the first quarter or so but after that reads like a thriller (one that'll make your blood boil). 4 stars.