Theranos: How a broken patent system sustained its decade-long deception

From ARS Technica, a jaw-dropping indictment of the US patent system:

But Holmes’ 2003 application was not a “real” invention in any meaningful sense. We know that Theranos spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars trying to develop working diagnostic devices. The tabletop machines Theranos focused on were much less ambitious than Holmes’ original vision of a patch. Indeed, it’s fair to say that Holmes’ first patent application was little more than aspirational science fiction written by an eager undergraduate.

So how did Holmes’ unrealistic application lead to real patents, like US Patent No. 7,291,497? If you look through that patent’s application history, you can see that the examiner did review it closely. The examiner made two non-final rejections and two final rejections before eventually allowing the claims. (At the USPTO, a “final” rejection is not really final). The rejections were based on prior art and other technical grounds. What the examiner did not do, however, was ask whether Holmes’ “invention” actually worked.

Two legal doctrines are relevant here. The “utility” requirement of patent law requires that the invention work. And the “enablement” requirement means that the application has to describe the invention with enough detail to allow a person in the relevant field to build and use it. If the applicant herself can’t build the invention with nearly unlimited time and money, it does not seem like the enablement requirement could possibly be satisfied.

The USPTO generally does a terrible job of ensuring that applications meet the utility and enablement standards. In practice, unless an application claims an obviously impossible device (like a perpetual motion machine), the examiner will not question whether it works. To some extent, this is understandable. Examiners only have a few hours to review each application, and they can hardly be expected to run complex experiments to check the applicants’ claims. But this practice can lead to serious errors.

In early 2014, around the same time that Theranos was beginning to grow its profile, the USPTO was criticized for awarding a patent to a Korean researcher for work that was already known to be fraudulent. The applicant had even been convicted for falsifying the relevant results. A USPTO spokesperson told The New York Times that the agency “operates on an honor code and that patent examiners cannot independently verify claims.” In response, Professor James Grimmelmann commented: “The USPTO is an armory handing out legal howitzers on the honor system. What could possibly go wrong?”

To answer Professor Grimmelmann’s rhetorical question—Theranos is what could go wrong. Holmes’ original patent application became a key part of the company’s mythology. For example, an infamous Fortune article from 2014 reverently tells the story of Holmes staying up late to write her application and suggests that Theranos was founded on that original vision. And if you had visited Theranos’ website in 2014, you would have found an “Our Mission” page that said Holmes left Stanford to “build Theranos around her patents and vision for healthcare.”

The UK can’t accept backward US food standards – or chlorinated chicken

George Eustice MP (Conservative agriculture minister from 2015 to February 2019) in The Guardian:

The Conservative party had a manifesto commitment to promote British values on animal welfare through any future trade deals we might strike. A modern trade deal is not simply about commerce, it is also about values. There is currently a cross-party consensus that we should enshrine the recognition of animal sentience in statute to underpin all our existing policies and inform new ones. One option might be to suggest that the US introduce a similar piece of legislation at federal level to drive the modernisation of its own laws. We could even send British advisers to Washington to help them do it as part of our trade negotiations.

The international trade secretary, Liam Fox, understandably wants to talk about opportunities for new industries such as services or digital but, in the court of public opinion, if the choice is between the commercial interests of banks or the welfare of chickens, the chickens will win every time. The sound of clucking chickens will never be far from the negotiating table, tugging at our consciences so we might as well get used to it. Unless we deliver on our manifesto commitment, we will give free trade a bad name. We should use the power of the UK to project British values of kindness and compassion in any future trade deals.

My emphasis.   Eustice is a brexiter.  He wants to leave the EU and sign independent trade agreements.  Does he seriously think the prospect of signing a trade deal with the UK will move the US to overturn decades of agricultural lobbying and implement decent animal welfare regulations?

New York Times (in)consistency

New York Times:

Kamala Harris Is Accused of Lying About Listening to Tupac. Here’s What Happened.

The New York Times has avoided using Lying in a headline about Trump.  And yet it can manage it in a story about a female Democratic senator’s music tastes.

But then they are the paper that couldn’t bring itself to describe the Bush Govt’s actions as torture because that’s something other countries do.

EU laws imposed on the UK


Brace for mega thread on “ALL THEM RULES INNIT” There is a type of of brexiter who is motivated not by xenophobia, or Empire nostalgia, or buccaneering trade fantasies, but instead by “all them EU rules”. Sadly they can never name a single one. So I have done some research…


BBC’s perception of referendum wrongdoing

Carole Cadwalladr tweets:

No Fiona Bruce!! She just intervened after a woman referred to Leave’s “dirty campaign” & said there are “questions about both sides in the referendum”. Totally untrue. There are multiple legal investigations into Vote Leave, BeLeave, LeaveEU and Arron Banks. And none into Remain

Fiona Bruce’s approach makes #bbcqt so much more watchable than before…so it’s just incredibly sad that one of the @BBC’s top political presenters has zero idea about any of the referendum illegality. A bleak reflection presumably of @bbc’s wholly inadequate coverage of it

Who is in charge of the BBC guidelines?

Fox News Debuts Premium Channel For 24-Hour Coverage Of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The Onion:

NEW YORK—As part of its effort to provide the most comprehensive reporting possible on the freshman congresswoman, Fox News announced Wednesday the debut of a new premium television channel that will offer continuous, around-the-clock updates on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). “For an extra $8.99 per month, you’ll have an all-access pass to the AOC Zone, which features wall-to-wall coverage of every word Ocasio-Cortez utters, as well as in-depth analysis of her wardrobe and any videos we’re able to dig up from her college days,” said Fox spokesperson Avery Mattison, adding that the new channel will include uninterrupted live footage of the 29-year-old representative every time she appears in public, along with nonstop commentary from a 12-person panel of experts. “We know our viewers will come to depend on this outlet for 24-hour coverage of AOC, which is why her tweets, Instagram posts, and her latest wacky policy proposals will appear in a ticker at the bottom of the screen. We’re particularly excited for the premiere of the channel’s flagship program, AOC Tonight With Tucker Carlson.” Minutes after AOC Zone began broadcasting, sources confirmed its ratings had already surpassed those of Fox News.

How did we get here?

Richard Cable has a tweet thread on the horrible set of co-incidences that brought us to the current situation.

This Brexit business is a marvel. Genuinely. It’s borderline miraculous. Bear with me. 1/

As a culture, we focus on those finely balanced moments when, against all odds, the stars align perfectly and great things are achieved. You know, Miracle on the Hudson type stuff. 2/

We tend to ignore those equally rare moments when it goes completely the other way and events and people conspire perfectly to turn everything to utter shit. 3/

The conspiracy of circumstances that has led us to this moment is just so wildly improbable, you could probably live multiple lifetimes and never see something like it again. It’s a unicorn riding through a blue moon on Halley’s comet. 4/

The whole show is kicked off by a Conservative PM doing what Conservative PMs never do – take wild gambles. Clue is in the title. 5/

Followed by an exercise in direct democracy, which we hardly ever do, in which a nation collectively overcomes the insanely powerful status quo bias to vote leave. 6/

With a technically decisive margin of victory that is just small enough to be psychologically and emotionally anything but decisive. 7/

The person chosen to implement the deal didn’t actually vote for it. Instead, we get a deeply weird politician whose truncated imagination is only matched by her utter intransigence. When history called for a great conciliator it gave us Theresa May. 8/

Who then did what, until recently, Conservative PMs never do – took a wild gamble and threw away her majority, placing the whole nation in hock to the most reactionary, one-eyed, uncompromising headbangers in British politics, the DUP. 9/

Which simultaneously created an intractable problem over the Irish border that a British govt with a healthy majority would have breezed past, in that typically high-handed and dismissive way the English have always dealt with the Irish. I’m not saying this is a good thing. 10/

Meanwhile, across the chamber you have Corbyn, a leader of the opposition who refuses to lead the opposition, but can’t be removed because last time they tried they botched it so badly, they basically made him leader for life. 11/

As all this unfolds, the EU plays its hand with the same uncompromising, dead-eyed rigidity that helped precipitate Brexit in the first place. A classic and unequal clash of homegrown pragmatism and continental ideology. There’s a reason we don’t do written constitutions. 12/

As a sidebar, this simultaneously delegitimises any and all valid criticism of the EU, kicking any chance of desperately needed reform into the longest of long grass. Don’t worry, I’m sure this won’t come back to haunt us. 13/

So an isolated rump govt negotiates a deal that cannot pass and cannot be renegotiated, in the knowledge that they cannot be replaced because the only thing worse than the current calamity is Corbyn as PM 14/

And with Parliament almost perfectly deadlocked, we’ve blundered into a situation where we’re barrelling towards a choice between civil war, economic disaster and all points in between 15/

The upshot is that we have with two party leaders who command nobody’s confidence but can’t be removed, fighting over a deal that nobody wants but has to be made, against a deadline that nobody can meet but everyone is insisting upon. Like I said, it’s a bloody marvel. 16/

Equality of opportunity

An inspiring Twitter thread from Mekka Okereke:

Everyone loves SpaceX, and thinks of Elon as the genius founder that invents new types of rockets that are cheaper, faster, more efficient. It’s fun to think of it as SpaceX versus NASA, or Silicon Valley vs Aerospace. But let’s talk about D&I, and logs. Logs as in timber.

If you’ve seen my talk on D&I, then you are familiar with under-matching: a phenomenon where bright kids from rural areas don’t pursue intellectually rigorous careers. Talent is everywhere. Opportunity is not. Under-matching affects white folk too.

A specific example of why I believe what I do.