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A tale of two wunderkinds

AP Photo/Craig Ruttle (L) and Jeff Christensen (R)
Martin Shkreli (left), on his arrest this week; George Hotz (right), in 2007, upon jailbreaking the iPhone.
By Gideon Lichfield
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This is a story about two guys, both unnervingly young, insanely clever, frighteningly resourceful, and wildly ambitious. One is a “good guy” and one is a “bad guy.”

The bad guy is Martin Shkreli, a hedge-fund whiz kid-turned-pharma CEO. Before this week, he was already widely reviled for acquiring an old drug and then jacking up its price by 5,000% (though others have done the same), as well as for being just generally obnoxious. On Dec. 17, the FBI arrested Shkreli, now 32, for securities fraud—a fraud that, if the charges are true, showed extraordinary daring and brilliance.

The good guy is George Hotz, a hacker-turned inventor. He was already widely lauded for being the first person to jailbreak Apple’s iPhone and for hacking Sony’s Playstation 3 (which led to a lawsuit), as well as for being just adorably brash. This week, Bloomberg profiled Hotz, now 26, for rigging up some kit in his garage that he claims can turn any car into a self-driving one—a claim that, if true, is an extraordinary poke in the eye to the Googles and Teslas of this world. (“I think a lot of companies today are just doing a really poor job,” Hotz shrugs.)

It’s easy to see Shkreli and Hotz as utterly different, but their similarities are more interesting. That combination of intelligence, arrogance, and contempt for the establishment led one to become an opportunistic price-gouger and the other to be (perhaps) a creative genius. And it might not have taken much—a slight difference in character, a chance encounter with right or wrong person—to switch their roles of hero and villain. It’s not their achievements, bad or good, that make both Hotz and Shkreli fascinating, so much as their youthful brilliance—something our society worships and fears in equal measure.

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