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The Death of a Dreamer (quillette.com)
88 points by fullshark 46 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 53 comments

I have the misfortune of having cofounded Cambrian Genomics with Austen. I led all of our technical work. I have almost never spoken publicly about the experience.

Cambrian Genomics was a small team working on building a high-throughput DNA cloning and synthesis pipeline using high-throughput sequencing and laser processing tools. That’s all we ever worked on, none of this other crazy stuff. We achieved an amazing amount of technical innovations on a shoestring budget and tiny staff - internally it was an amazing experience.

In the beginning Austen was the right amount of crazy for an early startup CEO, but as we grew he never matured as a person or founder and became ever more erratic in public. In the last year of our existence and his life he oscillated in full bipolar fashion between insane manic episodes where he talked on stages and to investors about glowing cat feces, feminine microbio hygiene products, terraforming mars, etc. All in defiance of the rest of us in the company.

He was clinically unhinged, though I don’t blame the press for not knowing that. His statements made himself a target… and when the PR machines turned against him he fell apart as a person and became a ghost. I tried everything I could to fix the mess, save the company, and help him out of it, but we came in one morning to find that he had hung himself in our office as a final parting gesture.

He might have been a dreamer, but he was also a narcissist and a jerk. He destroyed everything we had set out to do with his behavior and he never thought about anyone but himself.

To the young entrepreneurs: don’t be content to be a dreamer, and don’t be content to work with “dreamers”. Find builders with the strength, character, and vision to see things through... and if you ever feel the darkness closing around you in a startup, know that you really can walk away. Seek counsel. The end of a company should not be the end of your life.

Thanks for sharing your experience - what a lesson!

One thread about this from 2016: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11077147. I feel like there were others at the time.

p.s.: if you're going to comment, please steer clear of the black hole of ideological battle. It's predictable, therefore boring, therefore off topic. Whatever is of interest is in the specific story.

The media suffers from the same problem as the people who watch it, they're inseparable as a system. The problem is that everything has to fit in to the stories you already have running in your head. Nobody hits this limitation harder than people with new ideas and the capability to do new things. In the case of this victim, the new thing was GMO diagnostic tools, and the story that was already running in everybody's heads (if you permit me the liberty of guessing) was "nerds and women are fundamentally opposed on a metaphysical level."

This has a very practical takeaway for HN: if you ever find yourself pitching or selling, the question you need to be asking is, "how has my audience already thought of this idea."

I agree. This is exemplified by the author of the original piece that started the media storm, Jeff Bercovici himself, in his sorry excuse of an apologetic article after the suicide (https://www.inc.com/jeff-bercovici/austen-heinz.html):

"I didn't know anything about Austen Heinz when I met him, except that his behavior seemed to confirm certain notions I had about the way young men in the tech industry too often behave. To wit: They're oblivious to the concerns of women, and blind to their own biases; they talk endlessly about changing the world with technology while building frivolous things; they're arrogant and lacking in tact. I had a mental box marked "Silicon Valley tech bro" and his chatter about making women's sex organs more aesthetically pleasing fit neatly into it."

I didn't know anything about about Bercovici until this post on HN but his writing seems to confirm certain notions I have about the way clueless tech media people like him cover "entrepreneurship and innovation" in the Valley (this guy is now SF bureau chef of Inc., BTW) in their trigger-happy, zero-research way. His "breezy article" not only greatly harmed Austen Heinz but also seems to have done so for Audrey Hutchinson, the founder of Sweet Peach, who, after 4 years is now a manager in a NYC art gallery. I hope the clicks Inc. and other media outlets got out of this thread were worth it.

And so the bias wars continue to take their toll.

> Jeff Bercovici himself

so this guy and his followers didn't like suggestion of peach odor. Yet i don't see any outrage from him and the likes about "tropical rain" or french vanilla for example:


googling "vaginal deodorant" brings a lot, including various vaginal yogurts/probiotics, aromatized and not, intended to fight the bacteria and yeast infections and the resulting bad odor.

So, what was the original noise about beyond the peach odor?

It seems that the Sweet Peach company was doing something that had nothing to do with scents or deodorants, but instead were doing something with microbiome analysis and personalized health products. Then it was misrepresented by investors (to the surprise of Sweet Peach's founder), which was then blindly parroted by Bercovici.

Was he being sexist? Or was his detractors being ableist? I can't be sure whether Heinz lives on the autistic spectrum, but so many gifted intellectuals do, and have real struggles with reading other people (let alone the crowd). It's ironic when loudmouths come out of the woodwork and call a socially-awkward ASD as 'tone-deaf', or just go ahead and use 'autistic' in the pejorative, often by 'well-intentioned' people fighting for some other brand of identity politics. It's hard to gauge whether the vitriol would be tempered if they knew they might be driving someone of great sensitivity to suicide, or if there truly is blood-lust driving this kind of collective outrage. In hindsight, it's pretty obvious he should not have been the public face of his own enterprise, but I hope one day we all learn to cut people a little slack.

>Was he being sexist? Or was his detractors being ableist?

Or option three, the entire thing was based on a mis-portrayal of an idea that might not have been that great to start with, but wasn't really wrong in a "we must bring justice" sense. This article, at least, makes the initial coverage seem pretty unfair. Most people in this thread, myself included, are tending to make this a discussion about spectrum disorders, but it's also worth remembering that this could happen to you or I if we ever end up in an unlucky combination of being off the well-beaten path, in violation of a social norm that is one of newly invented, not universal or applied retroactively, and receiving an uncharitable interpretation from the first person to write about us. The Public Death Squad can be called down on anyone, and having a natural propensity towards saying the wrong things only makes it more likely. It could also happen if you ever find yourself knowingly going against social norms because your goal is to change them.

Furthermore, it's not like products that alter the smell of any body part are unheard of. So I'm definitely leaning towards a misportrayal. Outrage culture is dangerous and the people wielding this to do harm need to have some accountability.

The general gist of what I was trying to say, is that at the extremes, identity politics can easily come into conflict with itself, and somehow the humanity ends up caught in the cross fire. I also agree that there are much broader trends driving the issues.

> Was he being sexist? Or was his detractors being ableist?

No and no. He was just trying to describe pieces of his grand and overwhelming vision. The outrage generation machine that is the 99% of the press now seized on one of his comments, twisted in into something that can feed the outrage and run with it. Due to Heinz being particularly vulnerable, it had fatal consequences, which the outrage machine probably did not intend, but they definitely intend harm.

It's like punching somebody - if situation turns unlucky, it may have fatal results, though usually it doesn't. But whatever is the result, the intent for harm is clear and inherent in the act of punching. Heinz was not targeted because of his vulnerability - he was targeted because he exists and that's what the outrage machine does - targeting people. Because of Heinz's vulnerability the consequences were more severe. But the outrage machine can target anybody.

And the solution is not to figure out who is more vulnerable and dial down the outrage a little so that they don't kill themselves - the only solution is to dismantle the outrage machine.

>Was he being sexist? Or were his detractors being ableist?

Blame games won't help us understand what happened and how to prevent it.

I think the shortest version of what happened is the linked article. You can't accurately summarize the issue into "sexism" or "ableism".

I see a couple take-aways here. The first is that it hardly matters what the "real story" is (about an endeavor/person/etc), it's what the media reports the story as being --- and that's the story that is going to cause the most outrage/grief, and sell the most advertisements. So if the story is outrageous on the face of it, that story is most likely not the "real story".

The other is that if you're going to say/do anything substantial (these days/online), you're going to need very thick skin to withstand the barrage of verbal and textual hate that will be directed at you by "the internet".

>and that's the story that is going to cause the most outrage/grief, and sell the most advertisements.

I'm not sure if it's that calculated. What it looks like to me is that one journalist writes a poorly thought through hot take, and then everyone else copies the article without really thinking about it themselves either. There's a bias towards mainstream storytelling because the journalist that writes the original hot take is usually immersed in the mainstream.

It is calculated. Publications like the Daily Mail are famous for trying to come up with the most outrageous headline (however distorted in meaning) about anything - and admittedly, they‘ve become really good at it.

I've often said that the real bias of media isn't so much left or right but towards sensationalism. If it bleeds it leads is a a cliche for a reason.

It is also true that if people didn't buy it/click on it then the media would publish fewer sensationalist stories.

Just remember that Howard Dean's presidential campaign was killed just by him yelling "yeah" on TV[1] . My takeaway is that most journalists are unethical vultures that will kill you and pick apart your corpse for the tiniest shred of views. I would not really blame the current year fashion of SJWism, except in so far as I disagree with their censorious attitude and virtue signalling.

1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwkNnMrsx7Q

The only outrage I ever see on HN is how outrageously bad/sensationalizing/incompetent/dishonest “the media”/journalists/“SJWs”/women/government are.

> Most of the news outlets now attacking Heinz and Gome were quintessential products of the internet age, relying for much of their survival on the sowing and harvesting of moral outrage.

"Sowing and harvesting of moral outrage" is a great metaphor.

And yet, this article is also just profiting from moral outrage, as exemplified by the near-universal blanket disparagement of journalism and “the media” in this thread.

Moral outrage all the way down, I guess. The irony.

The question is which side is telling the truth.

This is my first time reading about Cambrian Genomics and the story of Austen Heinz. I am extremely impressed by the ingenuity in such a neatly coupling of ambition and execution - it was as if at the age of 27 Austen had managed to secure almost all the right puzzle pieces to co-found a high-impact start-up that will change the world - and of course tremendously startled by what happened after the DEMO Labs incident which led to his death. It was so wrong on many levels.

There is a surrealistic irony about the nature of Austin's synthetic dream which does not quite entertain the idea of messy nature and the notion of fault tolerance and, that, in my humble opinion, is the fundamental trait which would enable one to realise the greatest dreams such as that of Austin's. On the contrary the synthetic dream puts a great emphasis on purpose-orientated design and doesn't appear to care about the process of evolution, least fault tolerance, and that, in my humble opinion again, is often what people need the most when they are depressed (it will be nice to see more cognitive research done on the development of this trait and its interplay with the depressive state of mind).

Rest in peace, Austen Heinz. Your accomplishments are very inspiring and it was very sad that things turned out this way. There are so much we can learn from the mad unfolding of chaos and this tragedy of yours would continue to serve as a post-mortem precautionary tale for the future generations of aspiring young entrepreneurs.

1) yes, the big spotlight was a ridicule fest

2) but, essentially that which was ridiculed was the person's actual inability to read / estimate / understand the market demand: the facts are that he did repeatedly try to convince the Sweet Peach founder to have the product express a peach scent. It seems like this person was highly skilled in the technology, but incorrectly believed the rest of the world was more superficial than it was, and he seemed to genuinely believe people would want this feature (i.e. a nerd trying to serve an imaginary set of users, who are not representative of the intended users, a kind of bias or prejudice of nerds towards the rest of society)

3) As an investor, it probably is discomforting to realize that the person who runs a company can be so substantially out of touch with the intended consumer. I genuinely believe he could have easily regained their trust by taking on a different role, or by having a more capable person lead the determination of the product goals and requirements.

The point is that hovering over every nerd in a position of power is the potential to accidentally turn yourself into a universally despised social pariah overnight; and when that happens the flames will be stoked professionally by the media. Nobody thinks for a second that nerds don't say stuff that's "kind of weird" regularly, that's what makes them nerds. The real discussion here is, do we want to hound people to death for that? Recent memory is littered with similar examples, although they are usually heavily politicized so I won't link them for fear of degrading the discussion.

The recipe for death is, 1. be on the spectrum or have a bad day, 2. speak in public, and 3. get unlucky. To put it as viscerally as possible, the only flaw that guarantees you'll never be assigned any power isn't incompetence, it's autism. This all leads to a very clear implication for leaders in tech: if you don't want to be surrounded by empty smooth talkers, you need to dial your sensitivity to "kind of weird" versus "seems like a great guy" way down, because the factory default hands the keys to the kingdom to whoever asks for them most nicely.

Considering the insanity that is the perfume market, I guarantee you that if a product that could make a body part smell differently worked properly, there would be a market for it. But a "journalist" wanted to be outraged so that's what they did. They kicked up a nice outrage mob to score some more clicks and the result was that he became radioactive. Nobody wants to be associated with him in the tech world because they don't want to be accused of the same things.

This is the way outrage culture works. You convince a mob that somebody is wrong and that the moral thing to do is to stone (attack) them. It worked for religion and it works today on social media.

First time I read about this, but I was involved in a related project and ideas. What freaks me a bit is that I wrote a short fiction story about that project and from all the possible names I picked "Internet of Smells". Is here [1] or archived [2].

[1] https://telegra.ph/Internet-of-Smells-04-26

[2] https://archive.is/Ir9GG

I come back with an update because the link [2] appears to be blocked due to a request from EU IRU. As that is a fiction around a project which is fully OA and OS and moreover my name is not hidden in that page, I have no idea what happens and I want to understand why.

Problem solved, I can't edit the last post. Everything OK.

While I thought part of the solution would be to cite the individual journalists who made these claims against him, but having written professionally, often even the writers do not have copy approval on their stories before publication.

There are some terrible people writing these days, but a relatively anonymous editor slipping in something awful, ideological, or vicious under someones byline is quite common. If you don't play ball, you don't work again.

The way Heintz is described, I've encountered similar personalities among people we might describe as super high IQ (a kind of narrow dimension intelligence) where it's like you're a millionaire in a currency almost nobody accepts, and the meta-problem of how to apply and deploy that wealth leads to recklessness, paranoia, and seeking out self destruction.

This was a sad story about a clear trajectory of decline, but one facilitated and enabled by journalists.

> The irony of the new digital world that’s enabled the rise of these kinds of incidents is that it relies for its success on some of our most ancient characteristics. We’re tribal, and we’re wired to want to punish, sometimes savagely, those who transgress the codes of our in-group.

There is something interesting there. It lines up with what I observed as well. There is a pleasure in publicly taking down an opponent. There are two things going on there - one is simply defeating the "enemy" so one less problematic person to worry about. The other, more sinister pleasure is getting approval and adoration from "friends". Remove the audience, and it's just not as fun anymore.

The other problem is the audience is not just the local village, but basically everyone on the internet today and the future potentially. Everyone is watching, commenting, liking, up-voting and so on. Pleasing them all is very a nice high. And well you also have to be first. No waiting around or somebody "braver" and quicker will jump in front. Even better, you can do it wearing pajamas too. No need to go out in the cold, sharpen the pitchfork, look for the torch in the barn and so on.

If the enemy is not there, no big deal, there are usually ideological frameworks already built to generate easy "targets". Here the stupid comment meant that he hates all women, and is sexist, and is a tech-bro and deserves to be eliminated. Other such frameworks from the past were about communists, anti-communists (in ex-Soviet union), witches, terrorists and many others. If you hated your neighbor's haircut for example, you could write a letter to the police saying they engaged in anti-state propaganda and there was a good chance their life would be ruined forever. There is a similar mechanism at play here as well. There was another recent example with red hat wearing teenagers and the media and Twitter mess that followed. It's just becoming the norm and it's disappointing to see.

> The other problem is the audience is not just the local village, but basically everyone on the internet today and the future potentially. Everyone is watching, commenting, liking, up-voting and so on

One can blame the Internet for many things, but in this case, it didn’t contribute anything new. Many famous people who had fallen out of favor with the general public decades or even centuries ago suffered and sometimes died in poverty. Perhaps bad news travels faster now, but it’s not less accurate than before the digital age and while it spreads more efficiently, it also has to fight more for attention with all the utterly pointless bits of information the media disseminate (e.g. last week: „Matt Damon lost his luggage and had to borrow a suit“ - in the headlines all over the world).

God I thought that Matt Damon headline was not real, turns out I was wrong, just googled it's very real.

If he had only said he was going to make semen taste like ice cream.

Yet another triumph for Buzzfeednews, Gawker, HuffPost, Salon, the Daily Mail and Business Insider. This kind of yellow "journalism" makes me sick.

Please don't post denunciatory rants to HN, regardless of how provocative some material is. It makes it harder for the community to function the way it's supposed to.


What would you have us say instead? The story in the article describes behavior that's nothing short of reprehensible, with a tragic, absolutely unnecessary outcome.

A man was literally hounded to death for politically slanted clickbait.

Anything other than denunciation isn't really called for, here. Is commiseration really so wrong?

I'd say denunciation doesn't really go with commiseration. Denunciation shuts down the heart and commiseration comes from it.

Since you asked what to do instead, here's my take. When a hot, provocative topic flares up, most of us experience rapid reflexive reactions. Those are determined by how we already feel about the topic, i.e. which side we identify with. Discussion at this stage can't be anything new, because there isn't enough time for anything new to develop. All we can do is lash out, or ward off a perceived attack. This is predictable because fight-or-flight isn't about learning anything, it's about quickly dealing with threats. Any creativity at this stage goes into devising ways to hurt or block the other side.

What you can do instead is track those reflexive reactions in yourself and wait until they subside. Once they've subsided, it becomes possible to reflect, i.e. to take in new information, process it, and generate new responses. This is necessary for discussion that isn't predictable. It doesn't mean that you abandon your position, but it puts you in a more flexible place, better able to respond to the specifics of a story—i.e. things you haven't heard before—and better able to take in other views.

If you wait out the reflexive phase and get to the reflective phase, I think you'll find that your feelings get softer and your thoughts subtler. That's better for community. One can still disagree, but in a richer way and without feeling surrounded by enemies. When we do this, we exchange a lot more information, making discussion more interesting.

I've written a bunch about this in the past if anyone wants more: https://hn.algolia.com/?query=by:dang%20reflexive%20reflecti...

Have you considered that what this essentially leads to is the only acceptable emotional response being either classic nerd commiseration or over-intellectualizing yourself out of any position that risks any sort of conflict. Essentially, a website of mostly socially stunted nerds with a set of rules to reinforce their unfit social behavior.

You bet—I've considered that, or similar objections to that. The thing is, it doesn't work out that way in practice.

The opposite is true as well. That is, while one might think that full-out conflict would lead to more honest, explicit communication, in practice it doesn't work that way. What happens is that people's range becomes narrower. There's a lot of energy in it, and a lot of anger, but not much information. That makes such discussions repetitive: mostly people repeat the same hostile points in ever more intense ways. Repetitive discussions can be agitating, but they're not intellectually interesting, so they're the thing we're trying to avoid here.


Cool, thanks for the consideration

Speaking of pausing a beat, rereading, and reflecting before posting...

That comment is not denunciation. It's some sarcasm followed by me saying this drive-by denunciative journalism makes me sick. I see this as different from "they should be silenced!" or even "boycott all of their advertisers!", let alone "break out the torches and pitchforks!".

I enumerated these, uh, "content providers" because not everyone will read the article in depth and recognize the breadth of sites who jumped on this bandwagon. I also wanted to make sure that people recognized that BuzzFeedNews, not BuzzFeed, was the offender in this case (you have to examine the quoted link to see that, as they are just referred to as "BuzzFeed" in the text). The distinction is important given the routine HN brigading in defense of the former in contrast to the latter.

I'm sorry that the word denunciation didn't accurately reflect what you were intending. I was referring to the angry sarcasm in your comment. That's enough to worsen the issues we're talking about.

Dude shoulda got some help. Everyone around him was offering it to him, but he wouldn't take it.

I know that using the phrase "toxic masculinity" is gonna offend anyone who thinks that SJWs are real, but for real, you can't solve the crisis of men's mental health without fixing the problems that keep men from getting professional help, whether that is therapy, medication, or whatever.

In the article, it's said that he kept in close touch with family members, regularly told them about his feelings, and received professional help.

Please don't shoehorn in a narrative that doesn't match the facts of the article.

That sounds uncomfortably close to blaming the victim.


Please don't up the ante like that, even if another comment was provocative. It just leads to war, which we want to avoid.

fair enough, apologies

what do you mean by "anyone who thinks that SJWs are real"? are you suggesting that "SJWs don't exist"?

If you think SJW outrage is harmless, you need to read this.

This is not about SJ, it's about how misunderstanding of an idea and deliberately falsifying the goals of this "dreamer" attracted negative feedback. Ill people that can't deal with this kind of harassment could kill them selves.

Indeed, SJWs could not care less about social justice, and greatly harm those causes by their self-righteous pretendings.

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