Book Review: Bad Blood, Fantasyland, (and Blockchains)

I recently read Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. I could not put it down. Not surprising since it has been on the NYTimes best seller list for months and its the only book I have noticed on Amazon with a full five star rating – with currently just over two-thousand reviews. But for me it was more than that.  It brought back memories of a good portion of my career in the eighties and nineties, along with my last fifteen years concerned with electronic voting.

It details the creation, life, and death of Silicon Valley startup Theranos. Theranos was started by Stamford drop-out Elizabeth Holmes. She had an idea for a blood test that would take only a drop of blood and quickly provide an analysis that conventionally took much more blood and much more time. It was a great idea, yet science said it was impossible and she never was able to develop a solution. What she did develop was a large following of famous board members a huge kitty of venture capitol, two large losing customers. A large, harmful group-delusion. Along the way she created a phony test that likely killed people. All reminiscent of Kurt Andersen’s book: Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. To me, just like the California Gold Rush, minus the gold.

The read brought back memories. As I said earlier this year in testimony on a bill in the Connecticut General Assembly to propose a Task Force to study blockchains to solve an undefined problem with our voter registration system:

I have a 35-year career building, evaluating, purchasing and implementing computer systems and new technology.For 9of those years I was a Director of Strategic Planning for the Travelers Computer Science Division and for 8 years worked for two start-ups, designing, developing, and marketing data communications software to large enterprises and government agencies.I keep up with election technology and security issues, daily exchanging ideas with nationally recognized experts in computer science and computer security.

This is bill represents a classic mistake – a “hot” technology solution in search of an undefined problem. This proposal defines no problem and limits the solution to one over-hyped technology. Better to have the problem clearly defined and then solicit proposals to solve the problem – solutions technical and otherwise.

The way to solve problems is to define the problem, create a team of experts on the subject matter, with technical problem solvers, and experts who have solved similar problems for other states and nations – then let them brainstorm, evaluate and propose effective solutions.

If there is a problem to be solved, it is likely there is a solution – if so, it almost certainly does not depend on blockchains, and likely does not need any “hot” technology.

The amazing thing is people, smart people, keep falling for the same old things. As Carreyrou points out many smart people hired by Theranos had questions from the start. Many quit along the way. Some paid a high price for exposing the company, others dared not take the risk. At least initially Holmes was likely deluded herself.

I worked for a similar, much smaller, startup in 1997. A product that hardly worked – likely all but impossible to create – impossible with the minimal skills of those developing it. I had some doubts the day I walked in the door – I was an expert in the problem and its value, yet I said “maybe they know something I don’t.” I needed a job.  Most, if not all of the rest of the fifty or so employees were not so knowledgeable. The founder was as he described it a “serial entrepreneur”. His actual M.O. was taking venture capitol, failing, and saying in the ashes he had discovered a better idea and attracted more venture capitol. I left after eleven sad, ridiculous months. Sad because so many in the company were hurt – fortunately no customers lost much. The boss, said lack of sales was our fault as we needed to find more sophisticated customers who would appreciate the value of our cumbersome product.

Believe me Blockchains are another over-hyped technology with little if any value. Scientists I trust say that <read>. I have studied it enough to agree with them. And based on all my experience the hype smells just like many things I have seen before. The bill is still alive in the General Assembly, lets hope it dies or at least the Task Force sees through the hype.

Its all the same as that Theranos Bad Blood. Just another journey in Fantasyland. Both good reads and cautionary tales.

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