The Mythical And Almost Certainly Made Up 'Legend' Of Walter O'Brien Continues To Grow

from the make-it-stop-already dept

A few weeks ago, we wrote about "Walter O'Brien," the guy who is supposed to be the basis of the CBS TV show Scorpion. The problem we had was that O'Brien made a ton of absolutely fantastical claims and, after doing a little fact checking, none of them seemed to check out. At all. Since a few people brought this up, let me make it clear: I have no issue with exaggerating on a TV show for the sake of good entertainment. I don't even mind bogus claims like "based on a true story" because, hey, Fargo was pretty awesome. If that's all that was going on, it wouldn't be a big deal and everyone could get on with their lives.

What concerns me about the bogus Walter O'Brien story is twofold: (1) Gullible reporters simply repeat his claims without even the slightest bit of skepticism, which is just shameful reporting and (2) O'Brien and his friends aren't just making a TV show: they're trying to spin the TV show (which, as far as we can tell has close to no basis in reality) into a way to promote O'Brien's "business" with claims that are wholly unbelievable -- in that, literally, I don't think most of the claims are true. It worries me that some people will take the TV show's inflated claims at face value and think that throwing gobs of money O'Brien's way will get them the clearly exaggerated solutions the show is pitching.

Last week, O'Brien appeared with Scorpion producer (and Justin Bieber manager) Scooter Braun at the "Techmanity"* conference in San Jose, and I went to the show hoping to talk to O'Brien and/or the producers of the show to see if they could help clear up the inconsistencies in his story (many of which we detailed in the original post). Instead, despite multiple requests, I was denied an opportunity to interview them before or afterward. They did appear to show up right before going on stage, and then I was told they had to leave immediately after (though, at least one other conference attendee posted a selfie with O'Brien well over an hour after O'Brien got off stage). Despite the agenda specifically promising a Q&A with O'Brien and multiple producers, there was no Q&A (and those other producers weren't even there). A microphone stand that had been present for Q&A during earlier sessions was removed prior to the panel, so it was clear that there was no intention of a Q&A at all.

Instead, there were just more questionable claims from O'Brien, on a panel moderated by Fast Company's Chuck Salter, an "award winning" reporter who didn't seem interested in challenging a single claim from O'Brien, taking them all at face value. Fast Company, which co-produced the conference, and thus, perhaps, had business reasons for suppressing all skepticism, also wrote a big article again repeating the O'Brien myth, though that article appears to have been dropped behind a paywall.
O'Brien tells some of the same stories he's told before -- claiming the company only hires people with IQs over 150 and that people with high IQs have "low EQs" and they try to help them on that front. This leaves aside the whole fact that the concept of "EQ" is pretty questionable in the first place and that even IQ is a pretty limited and misleading tool, which may be useful for determining some innate problem solving skills in kids, but means little once they reach adulthood. Once you're an adult, however, IQ is somewhat meaningless. That doesn't stop O'Brien from continuing to assert that he has an IQ of 197, and multiple publications to claim that he's either the "fourth smartest man" in the world or has the "fourth highest IQ ever recorded."

As we noted in our original post, there is no public evidence that O'Brien actually even has such an IQ, let alone that it's the 4th highest ever recorded. In his Reddit AMA, Walter admits that the "4th highest" claim comes from just getting a 197 (still no proof shown) and using this table on the distribution of IQ to assume that he must be the 4th because a 197 IQ only should occur in 1 out of every 1.5 billion people, and then he estimated based on the number of people on the planet. Of course, for someone with such a high IQ, that shows a surprising lack of understanding how IQ actually works. He also notes that he took the Stanford-Binet IQ test, though he doesn't say when. If it was while he was a child (as suggested by his claim to have been "diagnosed" as a "child prodigy") then it's likely he took an earlier version of the Stanford-Binet test -- either the SBIV or the L-M, depending on when he took the exam. It seems noteworthy that modern research has noted that scales on the results of those two versions of the test should equal lower scores on the current SB5. The 197 score (assuming it's true), strongly suggests he took the L-M, which used a ratio scoring system, as opposed to the IV, which was standardized. As such, it also would mean that using the deviation chart Walter uses would be inaccurate, since the ratio score wasn't based on the same scoring system (you'd think someone with such a high IQ would recognize that). And, about all that would suggest was that, at a young age, he was likely far ahead of his peers, but that's about it. Either way, the whole "4th smartest man" in the world claim is clearly ridiculous.

After some other chatter, O'Brien talks (again) about hacking NASA at age 13 (he still hasn't explained how Homeland Security came to get him at the time considering Homeland Security didn't exist and wouldn't be operating in Ireland, but details, details) and then hacking into banks at age 16. Then he says he was developing some "image recognition software," which he notes he developed "for peaceful purposes" related to autonomous vehicles around that time "for the government and a private contracting group underneath the government" (not sure what that even means). Then he says that project got scrapped, and "the software got reused, without my permission, in the Gulf War," leading to "2600 casualties for civilians, because it was built for speed over accuracy." He notes that he "took that pretty hard." He then says he "didn't talk to anyone for about 18 months, I became scared of my own abilities."

I can't see how any of that is even close to accurate. The timing of the first Gulf War would have coincided with Walter being in high school, which matches his story about being recruited by the non-existent DHS, but even if he was developing image recognition software at the time, from Ireland, for the US government (really?), the idea that even after his project would be scrapped he'd then be told (as an Irish high schooler) that the same software was misused, leading to 2,600 casualties? That's not happening.

That leads to a discussion about how his company, Scorpion Computer Services, came about. He claims he was just being asked to do usual computer things -- set up computers, install operating systems, set up printers, etc and the business just grew -- to the point that he was doing work on "localization." Of course, to some extent much of that might be accurate, and Walter's own LinkedIn page suggests he was working on a bunch of fairly straightforward (i.e., no "genius IQ" required) projects around localization. This is further supported by the "references" page on the Scorpion Computer Services website, which is basically just a bunch of reference letters from the late 90s referring to what appear to be fairly mundane computer jobs he held -- often with fairly muted praise. My favorite is this one in which a development manager merely "confirms" that Walter O'Brien worked there.
Not explained is why the genius who is building amazing image recognition software for the US military is now working on Word Basic and Visual Basic for projects in Ireland... and apparently desperate for references to get a new job. Something doesn't add up. And of course, Walter still posts this letter from Steven Messino, claiming Messino is a "co-founder of Sun Microsystems." Yet, as we noted last time, Messino joined Sun years after it was a public company, and then as a "regional sales manager."

O'Brien also leaves out the fact -- as seen on his own LinkedIn page, that he was a QA guy at The Capital Group from 2002 to through March of 2009 -- at which point, in the storyline, we're supposed to be believing that he was saving the world at Scorpion Computer Services. But, no matter, at the conference, O'Brien lists out the kinds of "projects" Scorpion was supposedly handling around this time: "Handle my divorce, put a shark tank in my office, build a casino overseas, choose winning race horses based on their DNA." I'm guessing these are plotlines for future episodes of the TV show. How much they're based in reality, well, that's anyone's guess.
In past interviews, O'Brien has shied away from saying how much of the actual show is true, pretending that he can't really reveal it. Yet here, he at least suggests that the plots of the shows are almost entirely fictional (which makes sense, given the pure ridiculousness of the plots). So, for example, after a clip is shown of the TV version of Scorpion making a bunch of ridiculous assumptions to find a guy on an airplane with an analog phone turned on, O'Brien just says that "out in the desert" doing some testing they have to use "old Nokia analog phones, because it's the only thing that will pick up a signal -- so I knew that those old phones have a stronger signal." So, first of all, he seems to be admitting that the whole premise of calling the guy in the plane is made up -- it's just based on his personal experience with old analog phones out in the desert. Second, for a technical genius problem solver, he doesn't seem to have the faintest idea why analog works better out in the desert, or have much knowledge about wireless frequencies and the different ways in which analog and digital phones work. He later admits that the story of the plane flying low with the car driving under it was his "idea" (not based on reality) and that the director added the ethernet cable concept to make it "more exciting."

In other words, Walter appears to reveal that he just tosses out some ideas about technologies, and then the writers create these crazy scenarios that have almost no basis in reality (the second show appears to have been equally as unreal, focusing on a "personalized virus" that was designed for a single person. Uh, yeah).

Basically, this whole thing just continued to enforce the idea that Walter O'Brien's claims appear to be a Walter Mitty-esque imagining of the world he wants to live in, rather than one based on reality. Other stories claim that Scorpion Computer Services has "2600 people in 20 countries and over $1.3 billion in revenue" (that's from the Fast Company story). Yet, on LinkedIn I can find only 10 people who list Scorpion as an employer -- and some are merely "advisors." No, you don't expect everyone to list Scorpion or even be on LinkedIn, but 10 out of 2600 people? That's not particularly believable. Then there's the fact that the company's address is a UPS Store in Burbank, and the building shown on its website is actually a photoshopped image of the headquarters of German glass manufacturer, Glaskoch, based in Bad Driburg, Germany:


In other interviews, he's directly said -- or often coyly implied -- that his work helped "stop two wars" (at 3:09 in this video), caught the Boston bombers (though this video just says the FBI used "the kind of technology" that was developed by O'Brien -- not that he actually developed, and presents no evidence the FBI even used similar tech, let alone O'Brien's), and searched for the downed Malaysian Airlines plane, saying his software was used "to make sure the crash site wasn't tampered with."

O'Brien frequently plays up the fact that he's in the US on an EB1-1 visa, which he always notes is the "same one given to Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill." That may be true, but he makes it out like he and those two are the only ones who got this visa. Actually, thousands of people get one every year. In O'Brien's visa application he claims "he placed among the top programmers in the world in several international high-speed programming competitions, including a sixth-place finish in the 1993 Information Olympics, and first-place showings in the 1991 and 1992 Wisconsin International Computer Problem Solving Competition." Except, elsewhere reports have him coming in 90th in the 1993 Informatics Olympiad and sixth (not first) in Wisconsin. So, did he lie on his visa application too?
The various companies that O'Brien is associated with have websites that are filled with gibberish rather than actually supportable claims. "We saved $43 billion in opportunity risks over a five-year period." That doesn't make any sense. "We invented an efficiency engine that performs 250 human years of work every 1.5 hrs with over 99% improvement over human error."
An old, now deleted, part of the Scorpion website hilariously claimed that Scorpion Computer Services was a venture fund with $204 billion (with a b) under management. It also claims that it had a 7200% return in 1999. This was on his website in 2003 -- the very same time he was doing QA for The Capital Group. Odd.
The "ScenGen" software that Walter frequently touts as being able to "exhaustively... think of" and then "execute... all user actions" appears to just be a rather straightforward system for inputting a bunch of variables and brute forcing every possible combination. The documentation on it suggests that you can solve NP-complete problems, like the traveling salesman problem, just by running every possible solution through a computer program. While you, of course, could run through all possible scenarios, that's... not a particularly useful or intelligent way to solve complex problems.

Walter has hinted that one of the reasons he "went public" now is because Wikileaks revealed some of the projects he's worked on. Indeed, there is this page on Wikileaks from the hacked and leaked Stratfor emails, showing Walter trying to reach out to the founder of Stratfor, George Friedman, in 2009 saying "we should talk" and including a PowerPoint about ScenGen... and a resume for Walter which does not mention Scorpion Computer Services (and also lists himself as a "tech specialist" at Capital Group, rather than "Tech Executive" as his LinkedIn now claims). In 2009 -- at which point we're now supposed to believe Scorpion has been in business for 25 years. Yet, the email is sent from Walter's MSN.com email address. It also says nothing of his supposed image recognition skills, but focuses on his QA, compliance and globalization work. It also includes the same 1990s press clippings that Walter promotes on his website. There doesn't appear to be any reply or any other Walter-related info on Wikileaks.

In the presentation, though, we learn that this masterful bit of programming called ScenGen is less than 200kb in size and produces output like this:
The more you dig, the more of the same you find. Former co-workers of O'Brien's have shown up in comments or reached out to me and others directly -- and they all say the same thing. Walter is a nice enough guy, works hard, does a decent job (though it didn't stop him from getting laid off from The Capital Group), but has a penchant for telling absolutely unbelievable stories about his life. It appears that in just repeating those stories enough, some gullible Hollywood folks took him at his word (and the press did too), and now there's a mediocre TV show about those made up stories. Again, I'm all for fictionalized TV. And O'Brien, Braun and others associated with the show keep claiming that they're doing this to help "smart kids" not feel like outcasts (though, I'd think the success of Silicon Valley and the internet in general, is doing a much better job of that...). And that's great. But, telling highly questionable stories that seem easily debunked doesn't seem like a good way of helping people. It just feels... like a fraud.

In fact, the story continues to remind me of the similar case of Shiva Ayyadurai. In both cases, you seem to have guys who had a certain amount of fame about their computer programming prowess as teenagers, and where both of them still keep those newspaper clippings from their youth around and frequently highlight them and show them off as if it's proof that they did, in fact, amount to something great later in life even if the actual details of their lives don't quite match the hype. They both seem to cling to those predictions of their youth as if they had to come true. In both cases, they successfully convinced some folks -- notably, a gullible press -- to spin the fictionalized account as being something more. I have no problem with people exaggerating and puffing up their own stories -- that's pretty common. But when it's being used in a way to fool the press and the public and take credit where little is deserved, often with ulterior motives in mind, that seems problematic.
* Side note: in nearly 20 years of conference attending, Techmanity appeared to be one of the worst organized events I've ever attended. In many ways, it felt like the Walter O'Brien of conferences -- making lots of fantastical claims that didn't hold up to much scrutiny ("Silicon Valley's Biggest Annual Gathering"? Not even close. They held the "Techmanitarian Awards", which was described as an "Exclusive, VIP celebration," yet anyone could have just wandered in -- and, even then, not too many people did. "The most dangerous and disruptive startups on the planet"? Again, not even close). The event organizers appeared to figure out a way to get a few famous Hollywood/music industry folks (Jared Leto, Weezer, Troy Carter, Scooter Braun, Thievery Corporation), but very few actual tech minds. The whole thing seemed designed to get as much money out of sponsors as possible, with little thought to the actual content of the event, beyond "ooh, famous people, the sponsors will love that!"

There was lots of talk about "bottom up" creations and the end of powerful top down efforts, yet almost no sessions had any interactions (only a few even had basic Q&A). The pinnacle of poor organizing was highlighted by the scheduled promise of a free showing of Brian Knappenberger's documentary on Aaron Swartz, The Internet's Own Boy, at a local movie theater in San Jose. A bunch of attendees trekked over to the theater only to be told the theater had no idea what any of us were talking about. On contacting the media relations people at the conference, we were told that someone "forgot" to actually set that up, despite it being on the agenda. A bunch of angry conference-goers were left pondering what to do outside the theater. I feel particularly bad for the various startups who must have paid a pretty penny to be part of "Startlandia", a bunch of startup kiosks that went mostly ignored. Some I spoke to flew in especially for this event, expecting something with a lot more substance. Instead, they got a Potemkin Village of a tech conference.

Finally, at least the "media" side of the event was organized by Racepoint Group. I knew the name sounded familiar -- and then remembered that the CEO of Racepoint is Larry Weber, the PR "guru" behind the Shiva Ayyadurai story. I don't know if/how Racepoint is connected to the whole Scorpion thing, but at the very least, the connection is an amusing coincidence. Perhaps there's a PR business to be built in building up fake tech heroes.

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  1. identicon
    Zonker, 7 Oct 2014 @ 3:47pm

    Wouldn't the USCIS be interested to know that Walter O'Brien lied on his visa application? As I understand it, materially and knowingly lying on a US visa application can get you excluded from the US forever.

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