June, 2018

Empty Essex

Empty Essex from Adam Bowie on Vimeo.

Empty Essex is the name of ride in Jack Thurston’s excellent Lost Lanes book (NB. The first one. There have been two others since, for Wales and the West Country). The route starts in Southminster in Essex, heading out to Bradwell-on-Sea and past the St Peter-on-the-Wall chapel on the Dengie coast. The route goes offroad around the northern tip of the peninsula, past the now decommissioned Bradwell Power Station (although it may be redesigned and recommissioned in the future).

The route runs along the mouth of the River Blackwater, and the area is popular with the sailing community. Then it heads south passing through Southminster before reaching the southern part of this coast at Burnham-on-Crouch. From there, it was the train back.

This video was shot with a combination of my DJI Mavic Pro drone, and my Garmin Virb Ultra 30 camera mounted on my bike.

Note that there is an off-road part of this ride, meaning that thoroughbred racing bikes are not suitable. Something like a cyclo-cross bike, mountain bike, touring bike or hybrid will be much better. It’s a fairly flat route since, as the video and photos show, it’s a flat part of the world. On the other hand, you do have to face wind. It’s not for nothing that there are on-shore and off-shore windfarms all over the place.

As well as the photos below, there are more over on Flickr.

Google Podcasts

Without an enormous amount of fanfare, Google yesterday launched Google Podcasts for Android yesterday, with the possibility of being game changing. I’ve long argued that for the Android/iOS podcasting gap to be closed, Google needed to get involved and create a generic app.

Apple Podcasts is a pre-installed app on every iPhone sold, and with strong backing of podcasts from the outset via the iTunes store, Apple users have consumed podcasts at a far greater rate than Android. Even today, with iOS share slipping slightly, the proportion of podcasts consumed by iOS devices is massively out of kilter with smartphone ownership. In most countries in the world, there is a higher Android user base than iOS.

All of this means that, unless we somehow infer that your choice of smartphone is a strong indicator for how you listen to audio, then there is a massive untapped Android market out there.

Previously Google has only played a little in the podcast arena. They added podcasts to Google Play Music. But only in the US. And podcasters themselves had to add their podcasts into Google Play Music themselves. A combination of those two things meant that that ex-US podcasters who wanted to list their podcast with Google had to go out of their way to employ VPNs to even get their podcast registered. Furthermore, Google Play Music cached audio meaning that podcasters couldn’t see a comprehensive picture of their podcasts’ performance across a range of platforms. Furthermore, newer technologies like dynamic advertising wasn’t possible. The advert baked into the podcast when it was captured by Google remained there in perpetuity.

Google just wasn’t taking podcasts seriously. But that was obviously changing and when Pacific Content published their series of articles on Google’s new podcasting drive earlier this year, things Google had been doing began to come to light. Although the scale of podcasting continues to grow, with more people and organisations releasing more podcasts, and more revenues being derived from them, it was perhaps the growing importance of audio to Google itself that has really pushed things along. Google’s Home and Home Mini devices have been massive sellers, with the company locked in a battle with Amazon’s Echo for grabbing market share in Voice (Despite Apple’s Siri being first to market, Apple is playing a massive catch-up game in this market).

Voice control has come to be an important way we interact with technology with both our phones and our devices in our smart homes. Machine learning has meant that voice comprehension and contextual analysis has rapidly improved. And from there music and speech are perhaps growing in importance. So podcasts fit in neatly.

All of this explains why Google’s new podcast app, isn’t actually an app at all. It’s really a view of Google Assistant. For quite a while now, you’ve been able to ask your Google Home device or your phone to play a podcast. This “app” therefore just makes this a little cleaner.

In fact the app is actually pretty basic. The average podcast app you can download on the Play store is likelier to be much better featured than Google Podcasts. Even something as basic as downloading podcasts for offline listening – the absolute bare minimum you need for any podcast app – requires you to change permissions in a truly bizarre way. Instead of getting a pop up permissions dialog box as you’d expect from recent Android iterations, you’re taken to a user-unfriendly App info page where you have to choose Permissions and then turn on Storage. It really isn’t very obvious, and I suspect many will fall at the first hurdle.

The rest of the app is very basic. The “Top Podcasts” are all very obvious and popular US ones: This American Life, Serial etc. And then all the usual suspects are in each of the category selections. The only two non-US podcasts I saw were the BBC’s World Cup Daily and The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast. There was a Five Live section for me, which may have been because I subscribed to a Five Live podcast through the app in testing.

Now to be fair, this isn’t necessarily a terrible idea to highlight the podcasting big hitters. If you’re just discovering podcasts, then you probably want to listen to all the favourites. And equally, I don’t really know of any app that is very smart at selecting podcasts for you. Indeed, for all it’s revered elsewhere, I find even Netflix misses much more than it hits with selections for me.

Obviously a key benefit that Google Podcasts does have is that if you start listening on, say, your Google Home Mini and then leave your house and listen via your phone, you can carry on where you left off. But in the time I’ve tried the app, I’m unlikely to leave PocketCasts as my podcasting app of choice, which also lets me move between phone and its desktop web app. For smart speakers, I tend to use Cast to keep things in sync and stay on top of which episodes of which podcasts I’ve listened to. It has other much deeper functionality that Google’s offering lacks. This is probably purposeful on Google’s part, and other app developers will probably be relieved.

None of this is to say that Google Podcasts isn’t very important. Any podcast creators should build links to Google Podcasts as soon as possible, include their badges and generally make sure they’re listed correctly. Podnews has a decent FAQ about what you need to do. At the very least, when people share a podcast socially, they can now include a Google URL as well as an iTunes one (NB. They should still really share a link to a website where a range of options are available including the podcast’s unique RSS feed).

However, I’m not sure this is going to be quite the game changer it might have beene. I don’t see the app being pre-installed on phones, and I suspect that most of those who’ve installed already are those who are already very familiar with podcasts. Yes, it’s true that the podcast functionality will be pre-installed in that it forms part of Google Assistant. But it’s not clear that Google is pushing a page as a destination, in the way you might go to the YouTube homepage to see what new videos have been published, or you would open Spotify to purposefully listen to music.

That said, podcast usage is going up – there are some good global numbers in the most recent Reuters Digital News report (Interestingly, the UK is at the lower end of the range with 18% listening to podcasts a month. In South Korea for instance, it’s 58%!), and this initiative can’t but help drive that listening upwards.

One really interesting area Google is planning to tackle is the idea of creating subtitles (or captions) for podcasts using Google’s AI. Relatively few podcasts have transcripts of their programmes, and that makes searching the content within them very hard. If Google can auto-create these, as it does for many YouTube videos, then that makes the power of its search that much better even if the original podcast doesn’t have good meta-data. Users could jump straight to relevant section within a podcast. However this does raise questions of accuracy, and perhaps more so, intellectual property in ownership of those virtual transcripts (Cf All the arguments surrounding Google’s book-scanning initiatives). That all said, I’m unaware of anyone raising those issue with YouTube videos.

In summary then, a good first proper move by Google. They’re going to treat podcasts as essentially search assets, but using their Assistant to ensure that you keep track of what you have and haven’t listened to. However, I wouldn’t expect a significant overnight increase in the number of podcasts served. But podcasting overall continues to see steady growth, and this will undoubtedly help.

Televising The World Cup Around the World

Two media stories which have interested me a lot about the World Cup so far.

In the UK, we’re fortunate to still have Ofcom’s Listed Events. This is a list of sports events that are considered national events, and must be available to audiences free-to-air. Despite various attempts to either redefine the list, or scrap it altogether, the list is still in place.

What that means is that if a broadcaster wants to buy the rights to the World Cup, they have to make it available to everyone. That essentially prevents Sky or BT from buying them – at least unless they also used Freeview space to broadcast the games. Hence the BBC and ITV share the rights to big tournaments such as these.

But while Listed Events are common in Europe, elsewhere in the world they are less common. Here are two stories about markets where there have been problems as a result.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Arabian national team may not have covered themselves in glory during their 5-0 defeat in the opening game in Moscow, but of course there remains high interest in the team and the tournament as a whole back in Saudi Arabia. This is the first appearance for the country since 2006.

However, across the Middle East and North Africa, BeIN Sports has the rights to the tournament. BeIN is the Qatar-based sports broadcaster that has been growing in size in recent years both in the Middle East and beyond. And this time around there are no fewer than four North African teams in the tournament: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

This is where politics gets involved. As you may be aware, Qatar is currently facing a blockade from some of its Arab neighbours. Notably these countries cutting off diplomatic relations with Qatar include Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

I’ll let others get into the whys and wherefores of this dispute, only to point out that it’s now been going on for a year. But of relevance to football, this affects access to BeIN in some of those countries.

Egypt had been demanding access to at least some of the games, arguing that the fees that BeIN was charging were beyond many Egyptian’s means (US$90 for the tournament plus an $89 decoder if they don’t already have one). BeIN did eventually agree to make 22 games free to air.

Meanwhile, a new station has appeared on satellite – BeoutQ. It’s essentially taking a pirate feed of BeIN Sports and rebroadcasting it on satellite TV, even going so far as to put its own logo over the top of BeIN Sports pictures:

FIFA is obviously upset about this.

The problem is that the Qatar blockade has prevented the import of BeIN decoder boxes into states like Saudi Arabia, and essentially the population is prevented from subscribing to the channel. The same has been true in the UAE, although the difficulties may have been eased a little of late with existing subscribers being allowed to continue. That doesn’t help new subscribers however.

I’ve no doubt that if you know who to talk to, there are ways and means around this, but for the average viewer, watching the World Cup has suddenly become a lot harder.

You might think that operating a pirate satellite channel isn’t that easy. It’s not as though you can put dodgy gear on the rooftop of a high-rise. You need to up-link to the satellite from an official site. BeoutQ is carried on Arabsat, which is a Saudi company. You might infer then, that’s some kind of official support for this piracy. I couldn’t possibly say.

FIFA’s probably between a rock and a hard place, having sold the regional rights to BeIN, but I don’t have an enormous amount of sympathy for them. They sell rights for the maximum they can get, regardless of reaching as many viewers as they can. And whatever they claim, I seriously doubt that a lot of that cash is being reinvested in football around the world.

In the meantime, I’m told by colleagues that Arabic websites are full of links to VPNs and various European and global sites that offer streams of World Cup games.

Australia

In Australia, the public broadcaster SBS held the rights to the 2018 World Cup. But public broadcasters like SBS have been under financial pressure, so in 2016 they did a deal with telecoms provider Optus. Optus held the rights to English Premier League games, and would sub-licence one match per week to SBS. SBS in return sub-licenced 39 of the 64 World Cup fixtures for 2018 exclusively to Optus. SBS itself would only broadcast 25 games over the air, including all Australia’s fixtures and the final.

Optus in the meantime, sold access to their exclusive games to Australian viewers for AUS$15 a month.

Things have not gone well.

It seems as though the infrastructure that Optus is using is unable to cope with Australian demand, and subscribers have had to put up with constant buffering and other issues.

Optus have said it was, “Unprecedented demand,” that has caused the problem. Although as many have pointed out, the World Cup is the single most popular sports event in the world, so demand was probably not likely to be “Unprecented.” And it’s not as though Aussies are exactly disinterested in sport.

As a stop gap, SBS is now showing all the games in the tournament for 48 hours while Optus tries to fix their problems. Whether that’s enough time to get things right is another question. If there are fundamental technology problems, then those will take longer to fix. In the meantime, questions are being asked in the Australian parliament.

As an aside, it’s an ongoing story that big audiences and streaming always cause failures – at least first time around. If England gets through the group stage, then ITV has the first knockout stage exclusively. I hope the ITV Player is robust…

The Complications of Streaming

I was as disappointed as many fans were when SF series, The Expanse, was cancelled by SyFy in the US a couple of months ago. Outside the US, the show airs on Netflix (on a six month delay), but it was Amazon that revived the series. Non-US viewers like me were left wondering whether Netflix will continue airing a show that Jeff Bezos himself is said to be a fan of.

Today comes news that Fox show Lucifer has been saved. Fox had cancelled the show that was also shown on Hulu in the US. This time it was Netflix that has come in to save the show. Yet in the UK, Lucifer seasons 1 to 3 have aired on Amazon.

So in the UK we’re left with a Netflix show saved by Amazon, and an Amazon show saved by Netflix!

Now it’s never quite that simple, and rights will often reside with various production bodies. What’s more, Netflix and Amazon might well have done “run of life” deals with the intellectual property owners of those series. For example, when Longmire was saved from cancellation by Netflix in the US, it never reached Netflix UK. Instead, the series made by Warner Horizons, continued to air on TCM.

It’ll be interesting to see whether these saved series continue where they have been airing, appear split between streaming partners, or quietly switch sides and move to the other platform.

World Cup 2018 TV Coverage – A Few Early Thoughts

We’re only a short period into the third day of this World Cup, and we’ve already been lucky enough to see a World Cup classic in the Portugal v Spain fixture. That had it all, and although I really don’t like Diego Costa, and I really really don’t like Cristiano Ronaldo, I do recognise class when I see it. And we saw it. Danny Murphy will have to live down his line that Ronaldo couldn’t get that free kick up and down over the wall from that distance, before the man did precisely that with a spectacular free kick that gained him a Spain equaliser and his hat-trick.

But I’m not really going to talk about the football, which has been mixed thus far.

Let’s start with the worst aspect of this World Cup so far – the graphics. They are awful.

The pictures are provided by a company called Host Broadcast Services who cover the game as FIFA dictates. HBS provides the world’s TV stations with its pictures, and these come adorned with FIFA’s graphics. Those graphics during the game are limited to the lower third of the screen, allowing broadcasters to insert their own scoreboxes and logos in the top left or right hand corners.

I assume FIFA’s marketing people has dictated the font which is called Dusha (see an example at the top of this post) and was created especially for this tournament by a design agency called Brandia Central. It’s obvious been designed to convey both a Latin alphabet with design elements that convey the Cyrillic alphabet. FIFA is using it on all its marketing materials in this World Cup.

But the problem is that it’s not very legible – especially so for those with less than perfect eyesight. And FIFA is using it for many of the graphics packages in the coverage.

Choice of typeface is not my main complaint however. That’s the “Goal Scorers” information. During games, the HBS feed brings up the current score in a ‘lower third’ caption (or chyron). It appears at roughly 10 minute intervals, as well as the end of each half and after goals. The end of halves caption is fine because the action has finished and the designers seem happier to take up more screen real estate. If there are multiple goal scorers for a side, then the caption takes up more space.

But the mid-game captions, which are useful for those coming late to the game who want to see the scorers, the captions are terrible. Instead of showing all the goalscorers at once – as Sky, the BBC, ITV and BT all manage to do – they show one scorer at a time, with them slide on and off the screen. They’re too fast to easily read in a small font, and they’re on a loop. So when the score was 3-2 to Spain last night, we saw the following on the screen during the loop:

Ronaldo 4′ (P) – Costa 24′
Ronaldo 44′ – Costa 55′
Ronaldo 4′ (P) – Nacho 58′
Ronaldo 44′ – Costa ’24
Ronaldo 4′ (P) – Costa ’55

And so on until the caption disappeared.

It’s confusing and useless. How many had Ronaldo scored at that moment? I saw his name and lots of 4s.

I don’t doubt that it’s complicated to not include so much information that you fill the screen with goalscorers, and that you keep fonts at a size that works for the whole world (Graphics also have to be ‘4:3 safe’ for those watching on older non-widescreen televisions). But the solution here is a mess, and it needs to be changed immediately.

ITV’s highlights package is disappointing. I was still buzzing from the Portugal v Spain game last night, so I thought I’d catch ITV’s highlights too. They have some good pundits and it’d be nice to hear from them. And there was a highlights show at 10:45pm so I tuned in. What a waste! No studio presentation at all, and a commentator, Joe Speight, who I wasn’t familiar with. At first I thought this was a World Feed commentary (The default English language feed that any rights owner can take from HBS), but it wasn’t. I think the commentary was done ‘off-tube’ from the Broadcast Centre – an increasingly common practice for less relevant games. The commentator often has several screens to look at beyond what we see, but they’re obviously not actually in the stadium. For what it’s worth, most of the games being broadcast in the US on Fox will be done this way. Of course, Russia is a big country, so it can be a logistical nightmare trying to move people around.

However, it was less about the commentary, than hearing what Gary Neville, Lee Dixon et al thought about it. Or not, because ITV didn’t put together a full show. They will for highlights on England’s game on Monday which the BBC has live.

Other things:

  • I’n really bored of Mark Lawrenson being a professional grouch. It’s the World Cup and you’re lucky you’re there. I’m not saying you should sugar coat poor games, but let’s try not to be completely miserable from the first game. So yes, I do want to see the VAR graphics showing the ball crossed the line. Because you know what, another couple of centimetres, and it’d have been ruled offside.
  • Where is ITV’s studio? [Update: Next to the BBC’s. See more details below] They’re not in a mobile studio in Red Square like the Beeb. But it’s so nondescript that Mark Pougatch and co could be in London.
  • The BBC lets you choose the 5 Live commentary on their games (or no commentary at all), but watching via Sky at least, you’re forced to watch in SD. I want HD and the choice of audio!
  • I’m liking the fact that interviews with non-English speakers are being subtitled rather than dubbed. It feels much more modern.
[Update: I’m told that ITV’s studio is right next to the BBC’s in Red Square. Indeed, as I suspected, there’s an entire temporary structure with several nations’ studios. Fox Sports is also there.

You can see rear of the structure in a photo in this piece. So why did I wonder otherwise? It’s because ITV’s window out to the square can be turned into a “green-screen” where they project images from the ground they’re about to go to. ITV loves using this kind of technology – see the News at Ten, which is one big virtual studio. Seemingly they’ve done something clever with their windows to turn them into a green-screen when they want to. Either there’s some kind of clever reflectivity going on – or they just lower green blinds. Anyway, it’s strangely disconcerting, whatever the Radio Times thinks. And I’m not even going to get into the pseudo-dome they’ve virtually added to their studio. Still – at least it’s not Matthew Lorenzo in an underground studio in Dallas, as ITV was in 1994 for no obvious reason.]

Diversity in UK Radio

Ofcom has just published its diversity monitoring report into the radio industry. It replicates the work Ofcom did in television, and the report makes interesting reading.

The first note in the report is that the data for this is very poor. They contacted 16 broadcasters to compile the report, and while all 16 reported on gender, there was missing data from at least some on ethnicity, disability, age, religious beliefs and sexual orientation.

Some topline findings:

  • 62% of senior managers are male
  • 81% of board level managers are male
  • technical and engineering jobs are 81% male
  • 52% of programming roles are male – but in commercial radio it’s 68% male compared with the BBC’s 46% male
  • women have higher proportions of roles in marketing (70%), support (66%) and sales (63%)
  • only 6% of the workforce are from an ethnic minority compared with 14% of the population
  • of those groups that disclosed ethnicity at board level, there was no representation at all of ethnic minorities

With respect to the high proportion of men in technical and engineering jobs, Ofcom notes that there is a wider issue of encouraging women to pursue STEM subjects, with the numbers being especially bad in the UK.

The report details specific results from the BBC, Global and Bauer. Ofcom says that BBC leads the industry on diversity and inclusion, setting targets and putting initiatives in place. But this perhaps isn’t surprising since it is both a public company and recently having issues with regards to the gender pay gap.

Global has some data gaps with some ethnicity data missing and nothing on disability, age, sexual orientation or religion. It has acknowledged this and has launched a diversity strategy.

Bauer’s data is fuller, only lacking sexual orientation and religion, and has put in place initiatives to promote diversity in under-represented groups.

What Ofcom Doesn’t Measure

There is something missing from the report, and it’s something I’ve noted before since I’m certain that it impacts on many of the other measures. That’s social group or class. The social background of employees, especially within the media industry, is heavily skewed towards the upper end and this simply isn’t measured.

As I’ve said before, I believe this is down to media jobs being widely seen as glamourous, if not highly paid. Therefore, lots of people are willing to “get a foot in the door” meaning low wages. Often self-support is required, quite probably from “the bank of mum and dad.” Furthermore there is still far too much unpaid “internships” and “work experience” often lacking payment even for transport. Only those from wealthier backgrounds can afford to take up such opportunities that often require people to have accommodation in London. In so many cases, getting that foot in the door really does work, and when a job comes up, it will be those who have some experience, and perhaps are already a known quantity, who get the gigs.

I know this isn’t easy to measure, but it I wish Ofcom would attempt to do it.

Also, I’d like to know what the spread of jobs in the industry is around the country. A regional breakdown would be great. I strongly suspect that it’s heavily skewed towards London. All the major radio groups are based in London, and often have significant sales or production presences there. All this in turn means that measures like levels of ethnicity are probably are even worse, because in London the population is far more ethnically diverse than it is in the rest of the country.

London Nocturne 2018

[Scroll down for more photos – and even more over on Flickr]

I like to get along to the London Nocturne when I can – the Mr Porter London Nocturne to give it its proper title. There are a series of races across the afternoon and into the evening. Earlier in the day, before I arrived, there had been a Santander Cycles race (and prior to that, an open session around the closed roads), a penny farthing race and a folding bike race. I also saw a number of very smartly dressed people with their bikes who’d no doubt participated in the “Concours d’Elegance.”

I arrived during the Masters Criterium, and also saw both of the fixed gear races. Despite a decent bit of searching, and it being a couple of days since the race, I’ve struggled to find the results of the fixed gear crits. Based on the event’s Facebook video, I think it was Rafaela Lemieux who won.

The one person I did recognise was Keira McVitty who finished 7th. She was on her own in the last few laps neither being able to reach the group in front, nor slowing enough to be caught by the larger group behind. I mention her because she’s does a lot on YouTube (her video from the evening is here), and she also features heavily in the latest episode of The Espoir Diaries for Friends of the Cycling Podcast which is a great series for subscribers following a household of young British riders finding their way in Belgium.

In the men’s fixed gear crit Alec Briggs of Team Specialized Rocket Esspresso took the win thanks to some good teamwork.

In the women’s Elite race Louise Heywood-Mah of Les Filles Racing Team rode away from the race early on, and then managed to keep the entire chasing peleton at bay for the rest of the race. She had nearly 40 seconds on them by the end, which isn’t bad for a course that they were getting around in 90-120 seconds a lap.

In the men’s race, Rob Scott of Team Wiggins tried to do something very similar. He went away early, and held off the peleton for most of the rest of the race. However team JLT Condor were very strong, and they packed the chasing group. Rising British superstar Tom Pidcock stayed close to JLT Condor’s train, and when it came down to finishing sprint it was Ed Clancy who just managed to hold of Pidcock to take the win.

Taking photos of very fast cyclists at night is always a challenge and I’m always learning. I was using an A77 Mk II and an A77. I started with my Sigma 70-200 lens, and even tried a 2x lens converter, but I lost way too much light. This event starts in the daytime, but the Elite women’s and men’s races begin as the sun is setting and finish after it has gone down. While the organisers put up some additional lighting, you are mostly wrestling with streetlights. On Saturday, there wasn’t even that much good light during the daytime as it was overcast and there was even the occasional drizzle.

I used shot mostly with my 16-50mm lens once I’d packed away the bigger one. I tend to need two flashes as my better F58 flash will overheat after too much use. So I switch to an older less powerful flash for a while, and then switch back when it’s had a chance to cool down. One way or another, this is a type of photography that requires as much low-light capability as your camera will give you.

The blurry photos are shot using a rear curtain flash – in other words, the exposure may be as long as 1/15 second, but the flash comes at the end of the exposure. That’s still very fast, and as I’m also panning a little, you get lots of motion blur and hopefully a relatively sharp image at the end of the exposure. Lots of trial and error. I took nearly 1700 photos on Saturday!

I shot many of these images as JPGs and to be honest I should have stuck with RAW. I would normally shoot everything in RAW, but when you’re taking bursts of photos, the time between the camera emptying its buffer and writing to the SD card really matters. My cards are pretty fast, so I’m at the mercy of a camera that is a few years old now. However, thinking about it, the limitations of many flash exposures I can manage in a short period means I should have stuck with RAW. The photos mightn’t be quite as noisy if I managed that.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

As I got stuck into this astonishing story about a Silicon Valley company that was going to change medicine forever, but didn’t, I was instantly thinking, “Someone really needs to make a film about this!”

Well, it turns out they are, with Jennifer Lawrence slated to play Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of Theranos, the company this book looks at in forensic detail.

But let’s take a step back. I think lots of people will be well aware of the Theranos story, it’s rise and fall. But many more may not be. While the company’s CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, became very famous in Silicon Valley, I’m not sure that was true more widely, and certainly not beyond US shores.

Theranos was a unicorn company; a startup that quickly became valued at over $1B. Their big idea was that they had a machine that allowed people to have blood tests, using just a finger pin-prick’s worth of blood. From that, many tests – upwards of 200 – could be run. This would revolutionise medicine. People who needed to, could closely monitor their blood. Diseases would be caught early. The machine would be so portable that it be used in placed regular lab tests couldn’t, like military front lines.

The major problem was that the machine didn’t really work. Building medical kit takes lots of R&D, and lots of time. But Theranos was not willing to wait. It was rushing to market, trying to sell machines to clients before the technology was ready. Meanwhile Holmes herself became famous, adopting the traits of her hero Steve Jobs, and getting cover stories on some of the biggest magazines following Silicon Valley.

Behind the scenes, as John Carreyrou reveals in this fascinating book, things were not great. There was a massive turnover of staff in the laboratories where they were trying to make things work. If you raised problems with management, you would be considered the problem, and you’d probably get fired.

It ended up cultivating a company of yes men. Sunny Balwani, the company’s number two for many years, was a particular tyrant. He had a temper on him, and had a trigger finger when it came to firing people. More problemmatical was his lack of technical understanding of what they were trying to do. He was also in a relationship with Holmes, something they tried to keep secret.

Carreyrou, who broke the story in the Wall Street Journal, tells the story behind the story fantastically well. It’s almost like a thriller that you can’t put down. Theranos was obsessed with secrecy; partly because they didn’t want competitors to learn what they were doing, and partly because they didn’t want others to know how badly they were doing it. Employees were served with draconian non-disclosure agreements and legal threats when they left, and when it began to emerge that some people were talking to Carreyrou, Theranos hired the most aggressive lawyer they could. They intimidated those speaking out, and almost certainly putting lots of people under constant surveillance.

Meanwhile Theranos had managed to gather together an astonishingly high-profile board that included Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. Holmes seemed to have an ability to wow these people with her drive and determination. In one of the sadder aspects of the story, when Schultz’s own grandson, who did some work for the company, saw it’s true colours, he was unable to persuade his grandfather. Schultz senior was more willing to believe Holmes than he was his own kin.

Holmes even managed to get $125m out of Rupert Murdoch – his biggest single personal investment. Entertainingly, when Holmes realised that Theranos was being investigated by the Wall Street Journal (proprietor R Murdoch), she tried to persuade Murdoch to intervene. To his credit, he would not. He ended up losing all $125m.

This is a story of secrets and lies. But it’s also a story of some of the gung-ho Silicon Valley attitude being adopted in sphere where there are real world dangers. If your blood tests aren’t accurate then you run the real risk of either not having something diagnosed, or believing that you are healthier than you truly are. It’s one thing if some software like an app doesn’t work straight away – that can be fixed later, or patched. You might just end up with annoyed customers. But health is different. I do wonder sometimes, if we face similar issues with self-driving cars. It’ll be one to watch.

Highly recommended, and I can’t wait for the film!