Defrag Keynotes


My notes from the keynotes at Defrag by Tim Bray, Roger Ehrenberg, and James Altucher.


Defrag always has great keynotes. Here are my notes from the day one keynotes:

Tim Bray

Tim Bray was first up on "Mysteries of the Internet." No slides, just Web pages. His message is a Call to Inaction. We don't understand the Internet or how it works. It's not like anything else. He brings up Ted Nelson who asked "what if we had real micropayments?" One of the top five Web sites is not like the others: Wikipedia. Somehow it works. Wikipedia can't be explained. Tim is bothered that he doesn't know how Wikipedia works. He says that in the end the "good guys" win Wikipedia edit wars and the entries are remarkably accurate, but we don't know why that's so.

Another mystery: there is little consensus on how the Internet should be built. This is not like other engineering disciplines where there is broad consensus on how, for example, to build a bridge. He illustrates this by discussing the debate over static typing and dynamic typing in programming languages. How can the Internet work when its built on such shifting sands?

The third and final mystery: Tim references this post on communication. We keep inventing new modes of human communication. The question? Are we done yet? People who have adopted new communicated patterns (think IRC, Email, Twitter, etc.) quickly find they can't give them up. They become essential. This question is at the center of innovation on the Internet. The Internet exists to facilitate human communications. It lets is communicate in different ways, different scales, different interaction modes, and so on.

The call to inaction? do not analogize! Don't predict the future from the past because it's not going to work. Tim references David Weinberger's Internet Exceptionalism. The Internet is where the new things are. He finishes "I want to be an explorer"

Roger Ehrenberg

Roger speaks on "Creating Competitive Advantage Through Data." Big data is all the rage now. Big data is the new Why? Data is pervasive. There's more data available than ever before. That awesome, but the volume, velocity and complexity make it difficult to extract meaning. Companies that can do that (think Amazon recommendations) turn data into profits.

Big data is big. Big data can't fit in a single database. Big data requires distributed storage on at least the terabyte scale. Big data isn't necessarily better than small data. It's just different. How you treat it and analyze it changes. Big data is often unstructured. Big data often has an element of real-time that shortens decision windows and increases information decay.

Large, unstructured, real-time data isn't just big data. It's complex data. Roger classifies companies by looking at them on two axes: What is the source of data (yours vs. other's)? (Y-Axis) and What's the final product (data product vs. data driven)? (X-Axis) So, imagine Twitter in the lower left, GNIP in the upper left, Amazon in the lower right, and Renaissance (investments) in the upper right (along with, interestingly, Wal-Mart and State Farm Insurance). As we move to the right, we see companies that are focused on increased insight.

Technical advantages create differentiation, but become commoditized. The cycle of disruption is so rapid, that companies can lose their edge in months. That period is shrinking. Rather, create intrinsic advantages. Leveraging big data assets can create a barrier to entry. Data analysis that leads to insight, that leads to improvements, that leads to increased user engagement, which leads to more data creates a virtuous cycle. The process creates the data asset and it becomes more and more valuable over time.

The bottom line: You have data, but so what? Is it core to your business or just exhaust? Valuable data is active data. Big data companies have data-centric people.

James Altucher

James speaks on "Success is a Sexually Transmitted Disease". James in on a news diet. He says "everytime I see a headline, I feel like they're lying to me." He feels like news organizations sucker you into viewing their sites by lying. We've set up an implicit agreement between corporations and the public where it's OK for them to lie as long as it's entertaining.

He shows a Diet Coke commercial. There is a huge difference between the product and the image that Coke portrays. There's a trend on "personal branding." He says all that phrase means is "I'm going to lie to you and steal all your money." An example: Barbara Walters asks Kim Kardashian "Why are you famous?". The 'Net has a way of outting people.

We are witnessing the collapse of branding. Google has largely avoided the corporate branding game. Google has a straightforward, honest Web site. They have to be because they refer people to their competitors (for ad revenue). Google loses $175 million per year because of the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button. The Wall Street Journal had the original idea on using incoming links to rank pages. Larry Page tweaked the idea and patented it. Why didn't the WSJ become Google? They are trapped in a cage called the "Wall Street Journal brand." The guy who wrote the original Dow Jones patent was Robin Li, the creator of Baidu--the Chinese search engine.

Some unconventional wisdom: James tells people "don't buy stocks." You can't compete with the big guys and you're psychologically not equipped to own stocks. People buy at the high and sell at the low. Never buy a home. Don't go to college (student loan debt makes it a losing proposition). War is bad. Abolish the presidency. Money is not the goal. Being an entrepreneur is great, but it's hard work.

James says that his blog and other writings are more popular and he has more deal flow since he started honestly expressing his opinions. Honesty is freedom. A lesson for brands.