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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit: Who's to Blame?

It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.

You may have missed it, but last Thursday the UK voted in a referendum and the people have said, 52/48, that they want to leave the European Union. EU membership has been a contentious issue in the UK for decades, and following economic crises and a large influx of immigrants over the last decade, there have been calls to leave, mostly from within the Conservative Party. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, had to promise a referendum to keep his revolting party in check.

The 'Remain' camp focused on the benefits of the EU, logically pointing to the studies showing the net positive effect on GDP, jobs, trade, freedom of travel. Their numbers, when presented, were generally considered to be accurate and a fair representation of the costs and benefits of membership. The overall net cost of around 15 billion pounds out of a 1.9 trillion pound economy, or around 0.75% of GDP. Access to a single market of 500 million people, and freedom of movement and working rights in 28 countries was guaranteed as part of this.

While there are real arguments to be made regarding the benefits of the UK leaving the EU, the 'Leave' campaign ignored them concentrated on four main topics:

1) Unelected EU bureaucrats determining UK policy
2) The membership fees can be used for other things in the UK like the National Health Service
3) Immigration was out of control and needed to be stopped
4) The UK economy will be stronger out compared to in

Generally the numbers presented by the Leave camp were derided as fantasy and plain lies, and sure enough following the vote their key figures admitted that the NHS wouldn't be receiving 350 million pounds more a week, nor would immigration fall as a result of leaving the EU, and that a recession is now likely in the UK if not much of the rest of the world.

Their entire campaign was based on lies and an emotive call for the UK to 'take control' and to have its own "Independence Day". There was nothing of actual substance, no plans, no specifics, just promises that everything would be better if we can just get away from the nasty foreigners. To quote Tony Blair's take:

“There are two odd things. One is the desire to shake up the system, even if when you ask what shaking up the system means people aren’t clear; so there’s this populist tide left and right which says ‘the system is broken, and I’m gonna fix it’, and when you say how, they say ‘this country is gonna be so great’.”

There is a laugh in the room. “That is literally what the Brexit case was, by the way,” Blair adds.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove led the 'Leave' campaign, and you can see following their victory that they couldn't possibly be happier about the result.
Or, rather, they look like two men who thought that they could jump on the bandwagon, make political points with the Leave constituency, while knowing that the 'Remain' campaign will win and they'd never have to actually deliver on their promises. Promises they themselves didn't believe in. They're having to face up to the facts that all those 'experts' that Gove dismissed were actually right and 'Project Fear' was not scaremongering but an accurate portrayal of the consequences of Leave.

Come the 'Leave' vote win on Friday, and what does Johnson say? "No need for haste. We cannot turn our backs on Europe. We are part of Europe." regarding invoking Article 50 and starting the exit. They don't just look glum because they know the horrendous problems they've just caused for the UK, the EU, and the world - but because Prime Minister David Cameron resigned, reportedly saying to aides "Why should I do all the hard shit?", and placed the problem of their creation squarely in their laps. It's the one thing in the last few years David Cameron has done that I agree with - Leave need to deal with the consequences of their actions and there's no avoiding it.

Here's the problem with that - there is no plan. They had no idea they would actually have to do the work, that it would happen. Perhaps the single biggest event of the last 60 years for the UK, and no one had a plan. Nothing.

IT WAS a troubling exchange. On live television Faisal Islam, the political editor of SkyNews, was recounting a conversation with a pro-Brexit Conservative MP. “I said to him: ‘Where’s the plan? Can we see the Brexit plan now?’ [The MP replied:] ‘There is no plan. The Leave campaign don’t have a post-Brexit plan…Number 10 should have had a plan.’” The camera cut to Anna Botting, the anchor, horror chasing across her face. For a couple of seconds they were both silent, as the point sunk in. “Don’t know what to say to that, actually,” she replied, looking down at the desk. Then she cut to a commercial break.

So now the country has a lame duck soon to be ex-Prime Minister and a looming leadership election within the Conservative party, with Boris Johnson touted as a favorite. I'm not quite sure why anyone thinks that, as he will be utterly despised by 48% of the electorate, minimum. George Osborne, the pro-Remain Chancellor disappeared from Thursday until Monday, when he made a rather weak speech on Monday to calm the markets, but also ruled himself out of the running for leadership and Prime Minister. Sensible man, it's a poisoned chalice after all.

The mechanism for choosing the new Prime Minister is wholly from within the Conservative Party itself, so the amusing thing is that while "imposition of leaders and laws" from the EU was a big point for the Leave side, the UK will now likely get a Prime Minister it never elected into office.

On the opposition side, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, is now under attack from his own party. Just as leadership from him was needed, his own shadow cabinet mounted a campaign against him - as of now 23 of the 31 cabinet members have left, and there is a move to unseat him as leader of the party. Perhaps the Labour party sense an impending election, and want a different leader, one they feel is more electable - but regardless, at this time of crisis they have made themselves irrelevant as leaders.

Of all the national politicians in the UK, I've seen just one that has acted as a leader and a statesman, and that's Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish Nationalist Party, First Minister of Scotland. She has remained absolutely calm (or at least appeared to), issued clear statements about the situation, reassured the public that while things are uncertain Scotland would continue to be governed well, and that people from the EU are welcome in Scotland. Her statement last Friday seemed to indicate that she knew the impending vacuum of leadership that would exist in the UK.

"The final point I want to make this morning is this one. The Scottish government will be working hard to protect Scotland's interests in the period ahead and in the wake of the referendum result.

"But as we do this, we will not be taking our eye off the ball of the day to day business of government. As Westminster is engulfed in political turmoil and as a vacuum of leadership develops, I want to make clear that Scotland is led by a stable and effective government.

"We are focused on making sure that Scotland's interests are protected but we are also determined to continue our work and further improve our schools, our hospitals and our economy.

"As First Minister, I am focused entirely on governing this country in the interests of all of the people of Scotland. That is my overarching priority."

As good a job as she is doing, the First Minister can only speak for Scotland. It's clear that England has no effective leaders (with the exception of Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, who appears to be fighting hard for his city), no-one with plans, no-one with both authority and the desire to take control and move things forward. It's no easy task - there are no good choices, no 'win-win' solutions. It's a terrible set of choices, all of which have major consequences for the UK. And there should be consequences - multiple governments allowed this situation to arise, multiple warnings were ignored. Something of this magnitude can't be allowed to occur without cost as a warning to future generations that everyone in your country matters, that voting matters.

So, at this time of the greatest crisis the UK has faced since WWII, who is in charge for the UK? The answer is "no one", and that lack of leadership is not so much the effect of the Brexit vote as it is the cause. We're in a world where things have been 'easy' for decades, where stances can be taken not on principal or because they are right or best, but because they advance a politician's career. It's a game to be played, and the consequences are minimal - until they're not.

We need not just a change in leadership, but how we as voters demand accountability from our politicians. I actually believe that most politicians are there trying to do their best for their constituents - they may not be very good, they may hold differing views, but they are trying to do what's right. And then you have the Johnsons and the Goves, who risked national and global economic meltdown to advance their careers. We have to learn to see which of these is which, and swiftly remove those who are disingenuous while supporting those who work for their communities.

We simply cannot afford to tar all politicians with the same brush, to ignore them, and to leave no-one in charge. Someone has to negotiate, to make the laws, to speak for the people. We need them, and it's our responsibility as voters to make sure they are the best we can get, that we research their claims, we understand the reality and if they lie to us, then vote the bastards out.

So to answer the question - "Who's to Blame?":

We all are.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Brexit - What the UK Vote on Leaving the EU is Really All About

It's hard to have missed in the news the recent discussions on 'Brexit' (British and Exit) - the referendum on the 23rd June by the UK population on whether the country should Remain in or Leave the European Union. This is a major issue determining the future of not just the UK, but potentially the EU itself as a British exit could start the same process in multiple other European countries. There are many factors that are driving this, and the ones that get highlighted most often are the "self determination" and "economic control", but what rarely is covered is the reality of why this is happening. In the end it comes down to the same old thing - money and power of the privileged few using the cry of "for the people" to line their own pockets.

First some background - skip down to 'The mechanism to make Brexit happen' if you're familiar with the history of the EU. The European Union was birthed in 1957, with West Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Belgium creating the European Economic Community (EEC) for the purpose of some economic integration. In 1961 the UK, Denmark, Norway, and Ireland applied to join, however France vetoed their entry nominally on the concern that they would increase US influence on the EC, but was suspected to simply be that France didn't want to be supplanted in importance in the organisation by the UK. Those countries joined in 1973, to be joined in the 1980's by Greece, Spain, and Portugal.

In 1993 the EEC became the European Union (EU) and the political and economic ties between the countries strengthened, with the member countries being subject to some amount of EU law, but also a large reduction in trade barriers and importantly was the right of all citizens of the EU to free travel - that is any EU citizen can travel, live, and work in any other EU country with no legal restrictions. This alone was a huge benefit to the citizens - normally capital is free to move across national boundaries, but labor is not, and this was a huge leveling of the playing field for the average citizen who suddenly had a much larger market in which to apply for work.

There was also monetary union for many of the member states, and in the early 2000's the Euro became available. This was a single currency for all the member states, and tied the interest rates of those countries to the European Central Bank rather than their own central banks. The UK elected not to join the single currency and kept the pound, as the UK's economy was more service oriented and didn't match the economic cycles of the rest of the EU, and to surrender interest rate policy would not be financially prudent. In 1992 there had also been a run on the pound and the UK had been forced to remove the pound from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), and this was still in the minds of most politicians.

The last major expansions of the EU in 2004 and 2007 added many eastern European countries to the membership, and Hungary, Romania, Poland, and others gained all the benefits of membership, including the right of their citizens to travel and work in the EU. These were definitively poorer countries and there was a large migration of their workers to the richer EU countries, and the UK took a large share of them. Many of the lower paid jobs such as shop work, manual labor, cleaning services and so on were taken by these groups, as well as an influx of skilled trades such as joiners and plumbers. Like many immigrants, they would work harder, for less pay, and in worse living conditions that the natives and suddenly there was competition for these positions. Poorer locations in the UK started to become eastern European areas, and this change raised further ire among natives especially in times of recession and high unemployment. Basically, just what you see the world over when there's a large sudden immigration, such as when Italians or Irish emigrated to the USA.

The post 2007 financial crisis then highlighted flaws in the EU monetary union system - some of the countries that had been allowed to join the EU had done so when they weren't truly ready to do so, and when the crisis hit places such as Greece and Ireland, they had no way to control interest rates to benefit their population. Instead, they had to deal with policies essentially set by the larger countries of France and Germany who had no incentive to help at the expense of their own people. This led to severe austerity in these countries, and stressed relationships as it became clear that it was still far from a unified Europe when things got difficult. It's also worth noting that banks such as Goldman Sachs were behind the scenes, helping cook the books and in the end making things far worse for the ordinary citizen.

The UK had never been as committed to the EU as France or Germany, and in particular the Conservative party under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980's made it clear they weren't going to play nice. Over the years there has been some resentment between the UK and continental Europe, in part because the UK still acts in many ways like it runs an empire as in the pre-WWII days, partly because as one of the larger economies they contribute more in direct payments than they receive back, and that France in particular manipulates the system to benefit itself (as should any country, but there's just a certain animosity between the two). Much of it though was based on the populist press in the UK, the "Red Tops" like The Sun, who realised that headlines that enrage their readership always result in more sales. Unlike the US, these papers in the UK had great sway over the public, and their blessing could win elections for parties, or destroy politicians they disliked. 

The Conservative party have never been truly united on being in Europe, and have always had a wing of the party pushing for separation. The current Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, needed to placate his anti-Europe wing and called for a referendum as part of his manifesto last election cycle. Hence the vote.

Here endeth the history lesson...

The mechanism to make Brexit happen

So what fuels the real pressure for the Brexit vote? The mechanism by which it will happen is the voting public and the ballot box, and first we should look at the conditions that drive around 50% of the public to vote for leaving. First has been the diet of "faceless EU bureaucrats dictating your lives" stories in the press, but that has been going on for decades and is just a different faceless bureaucrat from one in London. What is really different now for most voters comes down to three things - globalization whereby jobs can be shipped offshore and productivity gains of those still working go to the already rich and not them, a growing distrust of major institutions and "politics as usual" (something seen the world over), and a sudden increase in immigration from poorer nations. These are perfect conditions for the rise of nationalism, and parties such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) gain votes on thinly disguised xenophobia, while groups such as Britain First use the guise of "Taking Our Country Back" to cover their racism. They have good marketing departments, but these are essentially the modern version of the National Front, led by small people who take great pleasure in being able to manipulate the anger and resentment of others, but pretending to do it for the benefit of others. Sadly, as with Donald Trump's manipulation of a similar type of abandoned voter in the US, it can lead to aggression and violence, as was tragically seen in last Thursday's murder of a Member of Parliament, Jo Cox. These people are angry about the takeover of their country by certain groups, and are looking for someone 'to do something about it'. The best description of this I have heard is:

The UK is being brought down by an evil conspiracy of single mothers, poor people, and immigrants, trying to subvert her sovereignty. Fortunately the country can be saved by a plucky group of ex-Eton schoolboys, billionaires, and media moguls who are valiantly resisting them.

Any time the poor and powerless are being blamed for major issues, you know someone is trying to distract you - and so we turn our attention to the real cause of Brexit - the billionaires and media moguls.

The real causes of the Brexit referendum

As mentioned earlier, the UK is heavily influenced by the newspapers, in particular the Red Tops like The Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch. He's used to having access to the highest levels of the UK government, acting as Kingmaker in elections, and influencing policy in his favour. He has little such access, however, across the rest of Europe, and fears that further integration in the EU will limit his influence. He has been quoted to have said

When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.

And that, in a sentence, is why one of the most powerful media moguls in the world is pushing for a reduced role of the EU in the UK. Not for the betterment of the UK, or for its people, or because of an injustice - it's power, influence, and the associated money, plain and simple. 

This also applies to many of the characters leading the Brexit 'Leave' campaign side such as Boris Johnson (ex-Eton schoolboy, former London Mayor, and leader of the Leave side) and Nigel Farage - men who are known and are of some importance in the UK, but somewhat meaningless in Europe. Too small to play on the big stage, these small fish would rather ensure the entirety of the UK remain in a small pond for their benefit. Perhaps they even believe their own publicity, but Martin Fletcher of The Times newspaper summarises Boris Johnson's history with the EU here, and points out his pettiness, willingness to fabricate negative stories of the EU, and his pleasure in the attention such lies brought him.

Johnson later confessed: “Everything I wrote from Brussels, I found was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England as everything I wrote from Brussels was having this amazing, explosive effect on the Tory party, and it really gave me this I suppose rather weird sense of power."

Quite simply Boris Johnson is continuing the power trip he started nearly 30 years ago, but this time gambling with the future of a continent and even the world economy. It has led to a remarkable attack from former UK Prime Minister calling Johnson 'dishonest' and the Leave campaign 'deceitful'.

Finally we come to the billionaires. The UK has an outsized financial sector, contributing a large % of the overall economy, and dominating industry especially in the capital - Financial Services contributed around 12% of taxes in the UK in 2012. London is the financial capital of Europe, rivaling New York and in some ways exceeding it, with differing and some would say laxer regulations on what can go on. For many years it has been the recipient of money coming from all over the world, particularly from Russia and the middle east, with suspicions as to the legality of the source of much of it. As with all major financial centers, there is plenty of fraud going on - and the EU is more likely to place legal restrictions on this. Money hates feeling it is restricted, and regardless of the costs to others, believes that the influence it has on London and UK politics far outweighs what it can achieve in Europe as a whole. By ensuring a British exit from the EU, parts of the finance industry in London wants to make certain it can continue without restrictions it fears.

Interestingly, this desire to leave is not universal in the financial sector - many of the larger banks and financial institutions fear reduced access to EU markets and a diminished role in time. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan warns of 'massive dislocation' should Brexit occur. The split in opinion seems, similar to the differences with the political characters, to be between the small and the large. To quote the Financial Times:

Smaller groups and the people who have spent their lives working in them are much more likely to want to leave; bigger, international institutions overwhelmingly favour remaining in the bloc.

It's not often I find myself agreeing with the large banks, often I use that as a warning sign, but in this case I agree with them. 

So to summarise - while you may hear the Brexit is all about self-determination, controlling immigration, or economic freedom for average citizens, remember that is simply the smoke screen and justification for the real agenda. It's for the oldest possible reasons - money, power, and ego.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

And now Twitter

I've started my "Lies and Startup PR" Twitter account - you can check it out here. It's "LiesNStartupPR", I had to abbreviate the 'and' to 'N' due to the 15 character name limit.

I'll be Tweeting when I have a new blog post, and other stories of interest.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Not Everyone is "The Next Theranos"

I've written a lot about Theranos in previous posts, principally because they are the poster child (in my opinion) of pretty much everything that's wrong with the startup/tech press/VC ecosystem. I'm not alone in the press for doing so, as "apparently falsifying health tests in order to boost company value" is fairly straightforward to understand. It's such a compelling story that there will reportedly be a Hollywood movie about it, starring Jennifer Lawrence as Elizabeth Holmes. Given who the director is, I'm thinking it will not be too flattering to Ms. Holmes. 

It seems everyone wants to write about 'The Next Theranos' and the phrase is bandied around without much consideration for the flaws of that company. To me, Theranos need to be highlighted for a number of reasons:

  • Company defining the press narrative - a 'story' company
  • Hagiography of the Founder/CEO, with an exaggeration of their technical talents
  • Technical claims bordering on the impossible
  • Claims that all the technical hurdles are solved, and productization is here or 'imminent'
  • An apparent disregard for ethics, regulation, law, and safety
  • A software like "ship it then fix it later" mentality
  • Reported legal intimidation of critics and former employees
  • Apparently being less than 100% truthful with investors

Theranos are a particularly egregious example of the "boost valuation by any means until you sell to a greater fool" mentality prevalent in Silicon Valley as it directly affects people's health. Their methods are what exist in other Silicon Valley companies, they just took it to the extremes and made it obvious to all. Many of these points, taken on their own, are reasonable for a company to do. It wants good press, and it can't be expected to speak negatively of their own products in public, and it has to do what it can to raise money as bills need paid - however they are expected to remain inside the bounds of the law, to not fabricate results, or to lie to investors and customers. That last part is what's going to cause the biggest issue for Theranos and its officers, as the Justice Department, FDA, and SEC investigations look likely to be turning up some damning evidence, and their only commercial outlet, Walgreens, ending its contract with them.

Beyond the legal and safety activities of Theranos, my frustration with them is that not only did they deny the funding they got to other, potentially useful, technologies but they have "poisoned the well" for future investment in blood testing, biotech, and made it harder for legitimate technical companies to make headway (especially those led by a younger female founder) with investors and customers.

On the positive side, it has highlighted many of the excesses and problems in the startup world, hopefully causing the tech press to be somewhat more skeptical and less willing to publish a company press release as fact, for investors to be more careful and demanding in their due diligence, and for companies to be more restrained in their claims.

So when I see stories talking about "The Next Theranos", I look for the hallmarks of what I list above, and that's why stories like Vanity Fair's "Is Google's Biotech Division the Next Theranos" had me spending some time investigating to see if there was anything to that claim.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Verily is Google's biotech division, now under their Alphabet company. It was spun out from Google X, the company's research division whose goal is to "Tackle Big Problems", and aims to transform life science. Wikipedia lists some key projects as:
  • Contact lenses that allow people with diabetes to continually check their glucose levels using a non-intrusive method
  • A spoon for people with tremors
  • The Baseline Study, a project to collect genetic and molecular information from enough people to create a picture of what a healthy human should be
  • A disease-detecting nanoparticle platform
  • A health-tracking wristband
  • Advancements in surgical robotics, in partnership with Johnson & Johnson
This seems to be a fair mix of short, medium, and very (very) long term projects, with items like the tremor reducing spoon already available, health-tracking wristbands being a staple of the wearables market, and examples of surgical robots in actual use today. The Baseline Study seems to be technically possible but a Herculean task, though more importantly there have been questions raised over the ethics of this data collection and its actual practicality. The nanoparticle disease detection and contact lens efforts are on the verge of science fiction and what draw the greatest concern in the press.

The nanoparticle disease detection was hailed as the equivalent of Star Trek's Tricorder, and the details of it are explained here by Andrew Conrad, the CEO. To summarise, magnetic nanoparticles are injected into the body, and float around picking up information on what's going on, and as they pass the wristband (or collected there magnetically) then the information is uploaded and analysed. One of those "simple in concept, hideously hard in practice" things, and questioned by experts in how it can be readily productized, but not lacking in grand vision or societal value should it be made to work. Further, from what is reported in the press, and from what I hear from colleagues in the business, there is an impressive team of scientists and engineers behind it all.

While some find Conrad's statements to be too bold, I found his statements in the above YouTube link, and other sources, pretty reasonable for a CEO and not over selling. The company itself states the project to be:

a "very early-stage” project, “ambitious and difficult,” with “unsolved technical challenges. It’s our aspiration, with our partners, to solve these challenges, even if it takes years.”

Similar questions are raised about the contact lens project, aimed at monitoring glucose levels through tears with many pointing to the science showing the superiority of blood testing, but Novartis, their partner describe it as "in the research phase." Their Chief Medical Officer, Jessica Mega, goes further and says

Verily is not a products company... But it’s a company really focused on trying to shift the needle when it comes to health and disease.

Overall, Verily don't seem to be ticking off too many issues from my list, and the company and their partners seem to be aware of the realities of the work they are doing. They are not providing test results to doctors with which healthcare decision are made for patients, they are not passing off another company's tests as their own, have a range of products and research that by their own admission is challenging. While they do need to be watched to ensure that they treat the information they gather legally and ethically, the fact that they are taking on huge problems is overall a great thing. It's been a long time since industry invested so heavily in blue sky research, with the likes of Bell Labs producing key technological developments much of our modern world is based on. That a private company, with their own money - not a pension fund, not crowdfunding, but their own money - should be encouraged.

Too often a company has to be focused on the next quarter and puts aside long term development, leaving that to national level funding such as from the NIH or NSF, and if they maintain honesty with the public and their management about difficulties, timelines, and realistic expectations, then grand goals are to be encouraged. Just this month, Elon Musk spoke of sending a human to Mars in less than 10 years, and has received applause for his grand vision, and I don't see anything different here.

So to summarize:
  • The CEO talks about the company mission - Tackling Big Problems - not himself
  • They make technical claims ranging from the straightforward to extremely hard
  • Make clear that these challenges may take years to solve to both the public and partners
  • So far have not been accused of bypassing regulations or breaking the law
  • Products shipped appear to work, and are not life threatening if they break
  • Have not intimidated those who speak negatively of them, including former employees
  • Are using their own money, not that of investors
I'm not seeing a problem here. Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater, not every company is the next Theranos. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

TED Talks

I could write a post on the deficiencies of TED talks and how they're giving the appearance of detailed scientific education for the masses while simply allowing poorly thought through ideas to be propagated to the public, causing legitimate and well conducted research to be sidelined, but instead I give you John Oliver, and TODD Talks. 

The TODD talks starts at 15:48, however just watch the whole thing. As with pretty much every topic he covers, he just nails it.

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Safety Mindset

In the startup world there is the extensive use of the word "Disrupted" when it comes to describing your company. It's hard to be heard unless it's somewhere in your pitch, and there are even books on startups using it for their title. "Disrupting" implies shaking up the status-quo, bringing the white heat of technology to an old inefficient market and turning it upside down, reaping huge financial rewards in doing so. A good example of this is Amazon.com, starting as an online seller of books disrupting the traditional book selling market, and within 20 years of founding is now both a bigger retailer than Walmart, and the world's largest supplier of cloud computing. It really has disrupted multiple industries, and created entirely new ones as it has done so.

Another disrupter is Uber - the "ride sharing" service that tries to pretend it's everything but what it actually is, a taxi service. Taxis in most US cities are heavily regulated, with medallions (licenses) sold by the city for sometimes exorbitant sums - a New York city medallion used to fetch $1,320,000, but is now dropping to $750,000 and below with no end in sight thanks to Uber - and when money like that is to be made, it's tightly controlled. This high medallion price, however, was no guarantee of good service and in most locations in the US taxis were regarded as transport of last choice. Uber bypasses the purchase of a medallion, and introduced a simple to use phone app that worked for calling the taxi, seeing its location when en-route, and seamless paying regardless of what city you were in. Suddenly, a taxi was actually reliable, clean, and affordable, and this was a fantastic thing. Offer customers a service they want at a price they are willing to pay, and you grow quickly, and Uber have grown to a near $63 billion valuation in just 7 years.

But let's be clear - they did this by breaking the law. Calling it "ride sharing" or any other term is just marketing, and it's a taxi service that bypasses all local taxi laws. There are legal battles all over the US, and other parts of the world, with Uber spending huge amounts of money in trying to overturn local taxi laws, and seeming to win more than they lose. The taxi services in the US really needed disrupting, and most people cheer them on because they provide a service we want, and we all know that the whole "medallion" system was just about rich people charging rent for them and not really about public safety. Personally, I love Uber as a service, and love that they are breaking up the old taxi business, but I do have concerns over their ethics and concern for privacy, the dangers of the "gig economy", and ignoring other laws such as those for the disabled, but equally importantly for the example it is setting to other companies regarding "break the law and fix it later" mentality.

Companies in the new tech area tend to be a little lax when it comes to doing things carefully - Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, tells us all to "Move fast and break things", which I have to agree is a great way to innovate and learn when your product does nothing of actual importance at all. It doesn't matter if you don't get your silly cat videos, or can't post pictures of your holidays, because your business payroll doesn't run on it, your medication isn't delivered by it, nor is your aircraft navigation based on it. Real consequences of a Facebook blackout are near zero.

Much of the software boom of the last few years has been in companies like Pinterest, Snapchat, Twitter, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, and Facebook which have concentrated on connecting people, creating communities, sharing pictures and text, but nothing truly vital to health or financial well-being. There is a mentality of "minimum viable product" (which to repeat is a good approach in such unimportant areas) that has taken hold and has been rewarded. The incentives have been to companies that released quickly and did their alpha testing on customers, those who took the time to get it right before release sank into obscurity.

So is it any wonder that eventually a company like Theranos would appear, promising to disrupt the boring world of blood testing by using only a finger prick and small "nanotainers" for a battery of tests, yet releasing a minimum viable product quickly and doing testing on the patients? After all, it's just a blood test, that can't have consequences! Except it does, and when around 1.6 million test results are recalled, that has real effects on people's lives - treatments they had that were unnecessary, or necessary treatment that was never performed. I'm sure we'll be hearing in the coming months, through the various civil and criminal lawsuits Theranos will face, about the employees who tried to raise the alarm and were ignored, intimidated, silenced, by those who had the "move fast and break things" mentality and faced no consequences to a lack of care about safety and efficacy. That thinking has been so heavily rewarded, for so many years, that it seems now to be the default, even in industries that should put safety first.

It's been bizarre for me to see this thinking grow, particularly in the last 5 or so years as I worked in and consulted with a number of new tech companies, and heard stories from friends and colleagues of similar. My engineering background had at first been in manufacturing and heavy electrical motors and generators, where there was real danger of physical injury, chemical exposure, and electrocution, and the emphasis on your personal safety and those of your coworkers was intense and was an important lesson in the mentality of safety that has stuck with me throughout my career. Following that, I was heavily involved in medical ultrasound, where there are stringent tests and validation required before it's even to be allowed to be used on a small number of test subjects. (I did also work in some tech companies whose founders and staff had a history in healthcare and similar, and the difference was noticeable in the care they took, and how pro-active they were in working to ensure safety and security.)

In both these industries the mentality was "we must make sure this is safe" and the idea of reducing or skipping safety is never considered, but I do not see the same thinking in many of these tech companies. I have literally heard "what's the minimum we have to do?", "we don't have proof it's a risk", "that sounds time-consuming and expensive. We should do <pointless but fast/cheap thing> instead", and "well if it goes to court our lawyers say they have good arguments". The people running many tech companies have simply never operated in a safety conscious, or heavily regulated, environment. The consequences of their lack of care is not a coworker losing fingers in a press or being electrocuted in front of them, but is remote in both time and space, easy to put out of mind.

The safety rules in factories we enjoy now came only after horrific accidents from the time of the industrial revolution on. Medical treatments and drugs were previously unregulated, but even though regulation is not perfect, are now much safer than they once were. These improvements came at a great cost to many people's health and lives, as we developed laws and regulations, but a way of thinking that put safety first was developed. That thinking does not exist in many of the companies that used to send funny home movies over your phone, but are now accessing your healthcare data, your bank account, and the online webcams monitoring your children. 

Safety is not a set of checkboxes, it is a mindset, and until there are significant consequences for those that ignore safety there will continue to be more and more Theranos-like stories.