Alistair Croll

Alistair has been an entrepreneur, author, and public speaker for nearly 20 years. He’s worked on a variety of topics, from web performance, to big data, to cloud computing, to startups, in that time. In 2001, he co-founded web performance startup Coradiant (acquired by BMC in 2011), and since that time has also launched Rednod, CloudOps, Bitcurrent, Year One Labs, the Bitnorth conference, the International Startup Festival and several other early-stage companies. Alistair is the chair of O’Reilly’s Strata conference, Techweb's Cloud Connect, and the International Startup Festival. Lean Analytics is his fourth book on analytics, technology, and entrepreneurship. He lives in Montreal, Canada and tries to mitigate chronic ADD by writing about far too many things at Solve For Interesting.

Decide Better

A Call for Proposals for Strata Conference + Hadoop World 2014

When we launched Strata a few years ago, our original focus was on how big data, ubiquitous computing, and new interfaces change the way we live, love, work and play. In fact, here’s a diagram we mocked up back then to describe the issues we wanted the new conference to tackle:

agile_graphic

Read more…

Comment |

A world where everything is hackable

​It’s been a weird couple of weeks for the Internet of Things. As we connect everything to everything else, we inadvertently create a huge attack surface for hackers, and we’re starting to see the chinks in the armor.

Let’s say you fancy a fast car. Flavio Garcia, a University of Birmingham computer scientist, discovered the algorithim that verifies the ignition key for luxury cars like Porsches, Audis, Bentleys, and Lamborghinis. He was slapped with an injunction to ban him from disclosing his findings at the Usenix Security Symposium in order to prevent sophisticated criminal gangs from having the analytics tools for widespread car theft.

You might need Garcia’s algorithm to steal a car, but soon, with an entirely different algorithm, you may be able to crash one into a tree or disable its brakes from a distance. ​Or maybe it’s a fast boat you’re after. Mess with its GPS, and you can steer it where you want without the crew noticing.

Read more…

Comment: 1 |

Make us think: a call for Strata keynote videos

Submit your suggestions for videos that make us think about how data, visualizations, and technology are changing us

Each year at Strata, we warm up the crowd in the main keynote sessions with short videos that will make people think. These videos demonstrate the ways that data, technology, and visualization are changing us. Some are funny; some are clever; some are downright disturbing.

For Strata New York + Hadoop World in October, we’re hoping you’ll join in and suggest some videos for us. If you’ve got something you feel captures the zeitgeist of technology at the fringes, then complete this form, and we’ll check it out. We’ll choose some of them as we kick off the event this fall.

Read more…

Comment |

Strata Conference in Santa Clara 2013 Startup Showcase

We asked the Startup Showcase judges three questions about the big data industry.

The Startup Showcase returns to Strata this month, with 10 startup finalists pitching our panel of judges. We’ve assembled an enviable— and somewhat intimidating— lineup of experts to help narrow down the field.

judges

In the interest of giving our finalists a head start, we asked the judges three questions about the big data industry.

Read more…

Comment |

Design matters more than math

Design compels. Math is proof. Both sides will defend their domains at Strata's next Great Debate.

At Strata Santa Clara later this month, we’re reprising what has become a tradition: Great Debates. These Oxford-style debates pit two teams against one another to argue a hot topic in the fields of big data, ubiquitous computing, and emerging interfaces.

What matters more? Our teams for the Great Debate.Part of the fun is the scoring: attendees vote on whether they agree with the proposal before the debaters; and after both sides have said their piece, the audience votes again. Whoever moves the needle wins.

This year’s proposition — that design matters more than math — is sure to inspire some vigorous discussion. The argument for math is pretty strong. Math is proof. Given enough data — and today, we have plenty — we can know. “The right information in the right place just changes your life,” said Stewart Brand. Properly harnessed, the power of data analysis and modeling can fix cities, predict epidemics, and revitalize education. Abused, it can invade our lives, undermine economies, and steal elections. Surely the algorithms of big data matter!

But your life won’t change by itself. Bruce Mau defines design as “the human capacity to plan and produce desired outcomes.” Math informs; design compels. Without design, math can’t do its thing. Poorly designed experiments collect the wrong data. And if the data can’t be understood and acted upon, it may as well not have been crunched in the first place.

This is the question we’ll be putting to our debaters: Which matters more? A well-designed collection of flawed information — or an opaque, hard-to-parse, but unerringly accurate model? From mobile handsets to social policy, we need both good math and good design. Which is more critical? Read more…

Comment |

The business singularity

How the inevitable rise of software means cycle time trumps scale.

An example of a simple function with a vertical asymptote

An example of a simple function with a vertical asymptote

Exponential curves gradually, inexorably grow until they reach a limit. The function increases over time. That’s why a force like gravity, which grows exponentially as objects with mass get closer to one another, eventually leads to a black hole. And at the middle of this black hole is a point of infinite mass, a singularity, within which the rules no longer apply.

Financiers also like exponents. “Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe” is a quote often attributed to Einstein; whoever said it was right. If you pump the proceeds of interest back into a bank account, it’ll increase steadily.

Computer scientists like to throw the term “singularity” around, too. To them, it’s the moment when machines become intelligent enough to make a better machine. It’s the Geek Rapture, the capital-S-Singularity. It’s the day when machines don’t need us any more, and to them, we look like little more than ants. Ray Kurzweil thinks it’s right around the corner — circa 2045 — and after that time, to us, these artificial intelligences will be incomprehensible.

Businesses need to understand singularities, because they have one of their own to contend with. Read more…

Comments: 6 |

Stacks get hacked: The inevitable rise of data warfare

The cycle of good, bad, and stable has happened at every layer of the stack. It will happen with big data, too.

First, technology is good. Then it gets bad. Then it gets stable.

This has been going on for a long time, likely since the invention of fire, knives, or the printed word. But I want to focus specifically on computing technology. The human race is busy colonizing a second online world and sticking prosthetic brains — today, we call them smartphones — in front of our eyes and ears. And stacks of technology on which they rely are vulnerable.

When we first created automatic phone switches, hackers quickly learned how to blow a Cap’n Crunch whistle to get free calls from pay phones. When consumers got modems, attackers soon figured out how to rapidly redial to get more than their fair share of time on a BBS, or to program scripts that could brute-force their way into others’ accounts. Eventually, we got better passwords and we fixed the pay phones and switches.

We moved up the networking stack, above the physical and link layers. We tasted TCP/IP, and found it good. Millions of us installed Trumpet Winsock on consumer machines. We were idealists rushing onto the wild open web and proclaiming it a new utopia. Then, because of the way the TCP handshake worked, hackers figured out how to DDOS people with things like SYN attacks. Escalation, and router hardening, ensued.

We built HTTP, and SQL, and more. At first, they were open, innocent, and helped us make huge advances in programming. Then attackers found ways to exploit their weaknesses with cross-site scripting and buffer overruns. They hacked armies of machines to do their bidding, flooding target networks and taking sites offline. Technologies like MP3s gave us an explosion in music, new business models, and abundant crowd-sourced audiobooks — even as they leveled a music industry with fresh forms of piracy for which we hadn’t even invented laws. Read more…

Comments: 3 |

New ethics for a new world

The biggest threat that a data-driven world presents is an ethical one.

Since the first of our ancestors chipped stone into weapon, technology has divided us. Seldom more than today, however: a connected, always-on society promises health, wisdom, and efficiency even as it threatens an end to privacy and the rise of prejudice masked as science.

On its surface, a data-driven society is more transparent, and makes better uses of its resources. By connecting human knowledge, and mining it for insights, we can pinpoint problems before they become disasters, warding off disease and shining the harsh light of data on injustice and corruption. Data is making cities smarter, watering the grass roots, and improving the way we teach.

But for every accolade, there’s a cautionary tale. It’s easy to forget that data is merely a tool, and in the wrong hands, that tool can do powerful wrong. Data erodes our privacy. It predicts us, often with unerring accuracy — and treating those predictions as fact is a new, insidious form of prejudice. And it can collect the chaff of our digital lives, harvesting a picture of us we may not want others to know.

The big data movement isn’t just about knowing more things. It’s about a fundamental shift from scarcity to abundance. Most markets are defined by scarcity — the price of diamonds, or oil, or music. But when things become so cheap they’re nearly free, a funny thing happens.

Consider the advent of steam power. Economist Stanley Jevons, in what’s known as Jevons’ Paradox, observed that as the efficiency of steam engines increased, coal consumption went up. That’s not what was supposed to happen. Jevons realized that abundance creates new ways of using something. As steam became cheap, we found new ways of using it, which created demand.

The same thing is happening with data. A report that took a month to run is now just a few taps on a tablet. An unthinkably complex analysis of competitors is now a Google search. And the global distribution of multimedia content that once required a broadcast license is now an upload. Read more…

Comment |

Startup Showcase: And the finalists are …

A compelling crop of companies will present at the Strata Conference + Hadoop World Startup Showcase.

We had a wide range of startups apply for a slot in the Strata Conference + Hadoop World Startup Showcase. Our selection committee, which included investors, entrepreneurs, and executives from SAP — which is sponsoring the event — whittled these down to just a few, who will get a chance to strut their stuff in the Big Apple next week.

All sorts of early-stage firms applied, both those using data as a key differentiator, and those building the next-generation infrastructures that can handle the torrent of information our world produces. We also had applicants who visualize, communicate, and democratize, turning complex, chewy data into bite-sized, interactive nuggets that are easier to digest.

It’s a compelling crop of new entrants into today’s vibrant big data ecosystem, and we’re thrilled to welcome them to next week’s event, where Tim O’Reilly and Fred Wilson face the unenviable task of choosing the top three.

Startup Showcase finalists

Comment |

Follow up on big data and civil rights

Further reading and discussion on the civil rights implications of big data.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about big data and civil rights, which seems to have hit a nerve. It was posted on Solve for Interesting and here on Radar, and then folks like Boing Boing picked it up.

I haven’t had this kind of response to a post before (well, I’ve had responses, such as the comments to this piece for GigaOm five years ago, but they haven’t been nearly as thoughtful).

Some of the best posts have really added to the conversation. Here’s a list of those I suggest for further reading and discussion:

Nobody notices offers they don’t get

On Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog, Anders Sandberg argues that transparency and reciprocal knowledge about how data is being used will be essential. Anders captured the core of my concerns in a single paragraph, saying what I wanted to far better than I could:

… nobody notices offers they do not get. And if these absent opportunities start following certain social patterns (for example not offering them to certain races, genders or sexual preferences) they can have a deep civil rights effect

To me, this is a key issue, and it responds eloquently to some of the comments on the original post. Harry Chamberlain commented:

However, what would you say to the criticism that you are seeing lions in the darkness? In other words, the risk of abuse certainly exists, but until we see a clear case of big data enabling and fueling discrimination, how do we know there is a real threat worth fighting?

Read more…

Comment: 1 |