Ben Lorica

Ben Lorica is the Chief Data Scientist and Director of Content Strategy for Data at O'Reilly Media, Inc. He has applied Business Intelligence, Data Mining, Machine Learning and Statistical Analysis in a variety of settings including Direct Marketing, Consumer and Market Research, Targeted Advertising, Text Mining, and Financial Engineering. His background includes stints with an investment management company, internet startups, and financial services.

Pattern recognition and sports data

The O'Reilly Data Show Podcast: Award-winning journalist David Epstein on the (data) science of sports.

Sign-up now to receive a free download of the new O’Reilly report “Data Analytics in Sports: How Playing with Data Transforms the Game” when it publishes this fall.


Julien Vervaecke and Maurice Geldhof smoking a cigarette at the 1927 Tour de France. Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons.

One of my favorite books from the last few years is David Epstein’s engaging tour through sports science using examples and stories from a wide variety of athletic endeavors. Epstein draws on examples from individual sports (including track and field, winter sports) and major U.S. team sports (baseball, basketball, and American football), and uses the latest research to explain how data and science are being used to improve athletic performance.

In a recent episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast, I spoke with Epstein about his book, data science and sports, and his recent series of articles detailing suspicious practices at one of the world’s premier track and field training programs (the Oregon Project).

Nature/nurture and hardware/software

Epstein’s book contains examples of sports where athletes with certain physical attributes start off with an advantage. In relation to that, we discussed feature selection and feature engineering — the relative importance of factors like training methods, technique, genes, equipment, and diet — topics which Epstein has written about and studied extensively:

One of the most important findings in sports genetics is that your ability to improve with respect to a certain training program is mediated by your genes, so it’s really important to find the kind of training program that’s best tailored to your physiology. … The skills it takes for team sports, these perceptual skills, nobody is born with those. Those are completely software, to use the computer analogy. But it turns out that once the software is downloaded, it’s like a computer. While your hardware doesn’t do anything alone without software, once you’ve got the software, the hardware actually makes a lot of a difference in how good of an operating machine you have. It can be obscured when people don’t study it correctly, which is why I took on some of the 10,000 hours stuff. Read more…


Understanding neural function and virtual reality

The O'Reilly Data Show Podcast: Poppy Crum explains that what matters is efficiency in identifying and emphasizing relevant data.


Like many data scientists, I’m excited about advances in large-scale machine learning, particularly recent success stories in computer vision and speech recognition. But I’m also cognizant of the fact that press coverage tends to inflate what current systems can do, and their similarities to how the brain works.

During the latest episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast, I had a chance to speak with Poppy Crum, a neuroscientist who gave a well-received keynote at Strata + Hadoop World in San Jose. She leads a research group at Dolby Labs and teaches a popular course at Stanford on Neuroplasticity in Musical Gaming. I wanted to get her take on AI and virtual reality systems, and hear about her experience building a team of researchers from diverse disciplines.

Understanding neural function

While it can sometimes be nice to mimic nature, in the case of the brain, machine learning researchers recognize that understanding and identifying the essential neural processes is much more critical. A related example cited by machine learning researchers is flight: wing flapping and feathers aren’t critical, but an understanding of physics and aerodynamics is essential.

Crum and other neuroscience researchers express the same sentiment. She points out that a more meaningful goal should be to “extract and integrate relevant neural processing strategies when applicable, but also identify where there may be opportunities to be more efficient.”

The goal in technology shouldn’t be to build algorithms that mimic neural function. Rather, it’s to understand neural function. … The brain is basically, in many cases, a Rube Goldberg machine. We’ve got this limited set of evolutionary building blocks that we are able to use to get to a sort of very complex end state. We need to be able to extract when that’s relevant and integrate relevant neural processing strategies when it’s applicable. We also want to be able to identify that there are opportunities to be more efficient and more relevant. I think of it as table manners. You have to know all the rules before you can break them. That’s the big difference between being really cool or being a complete heathen. The same thing kind of exists in this area. How we get to the end state, we may be able to compromise, but we absolutely need to be thinking about what matters in neural function for perception. From my world, where we can’t compromise is on the output. I really feel like we need a lot more work in this area. Read more…

Comments: 2

6 reasons why I like KeystoneML

The O'Reilly Data Show Podcast: Ben Recht on optimization, compressed sensing, and large-scale machine learning pipelines.


As we put the finishing touches on what promises to be another outstanding Hardcore Data Science Day at Strata + Hadoop World in New York, I sat down with my co-organizer Ben Recht for the the latest episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast. Recht is a UC Berkeley faculty member and member of AMPLab, and his research spans many areas of interest to data scientists including optimization, compressed sensing, statistics, and machine learning.

At the 2014 Strata + Hadoop World in NYC, Recht gave an overview of a nascent AMPLab research initiative into machine learning pipelines. The research team behind the project recently released an alpha version of a new software framework called KeystoneML, which gives developers a chance to test out some of the ideas that Recht outlined in his talk last year. We devoted a portion of this Data Show episode to machine learning pipelines in general, and a discussion of KeystoneML in particular.

Since its release in May, I’ve had a chance to play around with KeystoneML and while it’s quite new, there are several things I already like about it:

KeystoneML opens up new data types

Most data scientists don’t normally play around with images or audio files. KeystoneML ships with easy to use sample pipelines for computer vision and speech. As more data loaders get created, KeystoneML will enable data scientists to leverage many more new data types and tackle new problems. Read more…

Comments: 2

Why data preparation frameworks rely on human-in-the-loop systems

The O'Reilly Data Show Podcast: Ihab Ilyas on building data wrangling and data enrichment tools in academia and industry.


As I’ve written in previous posts, data preparation and data enrichment are exciting areas for entrepreneurs, investors, and researchers. Startups like Trifacta, Tamr, Paxata, Alteryx, and CrowdFlower continue to innovate and attract enterprise customers. I’ve also noticed that companies — that don’t specialize in these areas — are increasingly eager to highlight data preparation capabilities in their products and services.

During a recent episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast, I spoke with Ihab Ilyas, professor at the University of Waterloo and co-founder of Tamr. We discussed how he started working on data cleaning tools, academic database research, and training computer science students for positions in industry.

Academic database research in data preparation

Given the importance of data integrity, it’s no surprise that the database research community has long been interested in data preparation and data wrangling. Ilyas explained how his work in probabilistic databases led to research projects in data cleaning:

In the database theory community, these problems of handling, dealing with data inconsistency, and consistent query answering have been a celebrated area of research. However, it has been also difficult to communicate these results to industry. And database practitioners, if you like, they were more into the well-structured data and assuming a lot of good properties around this data, [and they were also] more interested in indexing this data, storing it, moving it from one place to another. And now, dealing with this large amount of diverse heterogeneous data with tons of errors, sidled across all business units in the same enterprise became a necessity. You cannot really avoid that anymore. And that triggered a new line of research for pragmatic ways of doing data cleaning and integration. … The acquisition layer in that stack has to deal with large sets of formats and sources. And you will hear about things like adapters and source adapters. And it became a market on its own, how to get access and tap into these sources, because these are kind of the long tail of data.

The way I came into this subject was also funny because we were talking about the subject called probabilistic databases and how to deal with data uncertainty. And that morphed into trying to find data sets that have uncertainty. And then we were shocked by how dirty the data is and how data cleaning is a task that’s worth looking at.

Read more…

Comment: 1

Building self-service tools to monitor high-volume time-series data

The O'Reilly Data Show Podcast: Phil Liu on the evolution of metric monitoring tools and cloud computing.

One of the main sources of real-time data processing tools is IT operations. In fact, a previous post I wrote on the re-emergence of real-time, was to a large extent prompted by my discussions with engineers and entrepreneurs building monitoring tools for IT operations. In many ways, data centers are perfect laboratories in that they are controlled environments managed by teams willing to instrument devices and software, and monitor fine-grain metrics.

During a recent episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast, I caught up with Phil Liu, co-founder and CTO of SignalFx, a SF Bay Area startup focused on building self-service monitoring tools for time series. We discussed hiring and building teams in the age of cloud computing, building tools for monitoring large numbers of time series, and lessons he’s learned from managing teams at leading technology companies.

Evolution of monitoring tools

Having worked at LoudCloud, Opsware, and Facebook, Liu has seen first hand the evolution of real-time monitoring tools and platforms. Liu described how he has watched the number of metrics grow, to volumes that require large compute clusters:

One of the first services I worked on at LoudCloud was a service called MyLoudCloud. Essentially that was a monitoring portal for all LoudCloud customers. At the time, [the way] we thought about monitoring was still in a per-instance-oriented monitoring system. [Later], I was one of the first engineers on the operational side of Facebook and eventually became part of the infrastructure team at Facebook. When I joined, Facebook basically was using a collection of open source software for monitoring and configuration, so these are things that everybody knows — Nagios, Ganglia. It started out basically using just per-instance instant monitoring techniques, basically the same techniques that we used back at LoudCloud, but interestingly and very quickly as Facebook grew, this per-instance-oriented monitoring no longer worked because we went from tens or thousands of servers to hundreds of thousands of servers, from tens of services to hundreds and thousands of services internally.

Read more…


Apache Spark: Powering applications on-premise and in the cloud

The O'Reilly Data Show Podcast: Patrick Wendell on the state of the Spark ecosystem.


As organizations shift their focus toward building analytic applications, many are relying on components from the Apache Spark ecosystem. I began pointing this out in advance of the first Spark Summit in 2013 and since then, Spark adoption has exploded.

With Spark Summit SF right around the corner, I recently sat down with Patrick Wendell, release manager of Apache Spark and co-founder of Databricks, for this episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast. (Full disclosure: I’m an advisor to Databricks). We talked about how he came to join the UC Berkeley AMPLab, the current state of Spark ecosystem components, Spark’s future roadmap, and interesting applications built on top of Spark.

User-driven from inception

From the beginning, Spark struck me as different from other academic research projects (many of which “wither away” when grad students leave). The AMPLab team behind Spark spoke at local SF Bay Area meetups, they hosted 2-day events (AMP Camp), and worked hard to help early users. That mindset continues to this day. Wendell explained:

We were trying to work with the early users of Spark, getting feedback on what issues it had and what types of problems they were trying to solve with Spark, and then use that to influence the roadmap. It was definitely a more informal process, but from the very beginning, we were expressly user-driven in the way we thought about building Spark, which is quite different than a lot of other open source projects. We never really built it for our own use — it was not like we were at a company solving a problem and then we decided, “hey let’s let other people use this code for free”. … From the beginning, we were focused on empowering other people and building platforms for other developers, so I always thought that was quite unique about Spark.

Read more…


Announcing Cassandra certification

A new partnership between O’Reilly and DataStax offers certification and training in Cassandra.

apache-cassandra-certified-300x300I am pleased to announce a joint program between O’Reilly and DataStax to certify Cassandra developers. This program complements our developer certification for Apache Spark and — just as in the case of Databricks and Spark — we are excited to be working with the leading commercial company behind Cassandra. DataStax has done a tremendous job growing and nurturing the Cassandra community, user base, and technology.

Once the certification program is ready, developers can take the exam online, in designated test centers, and at select training courses. O’Reilly will also be developing books, training days, and videos targeted at developers and companies interested in the Cassandra distributed storage system.

Cassandra is a popular component used for building big data and real-time analytic platforms. Its ability to comfortably scale to clusters with thousands of nodes makes it a popular option for solutions that need to ingest and make sense of large amounts of time series and event data. As noted in an earlier post, real-time event data are at the heart of one of the trends we’re closely following: the convergence of cheap sensors, fast networks, and distributed computation. Read more…

Comments: 2

Data science makes an impact on Wall Street

The O'Reilly Data Show Podcast: Gary Kazantsev on how big data and data science are making a difference in finance.

Learn more about Next:Money, O’Reilly’s conference focused on the fundamental transformation taking place in the finance industry.

Charging_Bull_Sam_valadi_FlickrHaving started my career in industry, working on problems in finance, I’ve always appreciated how challenging it is to build consistently profitable systems in this extremely competitive domain. When I served as quant at a hedge fund in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I worked primarily with price data (time-series). I quickly found that it was difficult to find and sustain profitable trading strategies that leveraged data sources that everyone else in the industry examined exhaustively. In the early-to-mid 2000s the hedge fund industry began incorporating many more data sources, and today you’re likely to find many finance industry professionals at big data and data science events like Strata + Hadoop World.

During the latest episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast, I had a great conversation with one of the leading data scientists in finance: Gary Kazantsev runs the R&D Machine Learning group at Bloomberg LP. As a former quant, I wanted to know the types of problems Kazantsev and his group work on, and the tools and techniques they’ve found useful. We also talked about data science, data engineering, and recruiting data professionals for Wall Street. Read more…

Comments: 3

The tensor renaissance in data science

The O'Reilly Data Show Podcast: Anima Anandkumar on tensor decomposition techniques for machine learning.


After sitting in on UC Irvine Professor Anima Anandkumar’s Strata + Hadoop World 2015 in San Jose presentationI wrote a post urging the data community to build tensor decomposition libraries for data science. The feedback I’ve gotten from readers has been extremely positive. During the latest episode of the O’Reilly Data Show Podcast, I sat down with Anandkumar to talk about tensor decomposition, machine learning, and the data science program at UC Irvine.

Modeling higher-order relationships

The natural question is: why use tensors when (large) matrices can already be challenging to work with? Proponents are quick to point out that tensors can model more complex relationships. Anandkumar explains:

Tensors are higher order generalizations of matrices. While matrices are two-dimensional arrays consisting of rows and columns, tensors are now multi-dimensional arrays. … For instance, you can picture tensors as a three-dimensional cube. In fact, I have here on my desk a Rubik’s Cube, and sometimes I use it to get a better understanding when I think about tensors.  … One of the biggest use of tensors is for representing higher order relationships. … If you want to only represent pair-wise relationships, say co-occurrence of every pair of words in a set of documents, then a matrix suffices. On the other hand, if you want to learn the probability of a range of triplets of words, then we need a tensor to record such relationships. These kinds of higher order relationships are not only important for text, but also, say, for social network analysis. You want to learn not only about who is immediate friends with whom, but, say, who is friends of friends of friends of someone, and so on. Tensors, as a whole, can represent much richer data structures than matrices.

Read more…


More tools for managing and reproducing complex data projects

A survey of the landscape shows the types of tools remain the same, but interfaces continue to improve.


As data projects become complex and as data teams grow in size, individuals and organizations need tools to efficiently manage data projects. A while back, I wrote a post on common options, and I closed that piece by asking:

Are there completely different ways of thinking about reproducibility, lineage, sharing, and collaboration in the data science and engineering context?

At the time, I listed categories that seemed to capture much of what I was seeing in practice: (proprietary) workbooks aimed at business analysts, sophisticated IDEs, notebooks (for mixing text, code, and graphics), and workflow tools. At a high level, these tools aspire to enable data teams to do the following:

  • Reproduce their work — so they can rerun and/or audit when needed
  • Collaborate
  • Facilitate storytelling — because in many cases, it’s important to explain to others how results were derived
  • Operationalize successful and well-tested pipelines — particularly when deploying to production is a long-term objective

As I survey the landscape, the types of tools remain the same, but interfaces continue to improve, and domain specific languages (DSLs) are starting to appear in the context of data projects. One interesting trend is that popular user interface models are being adapted to different sets of data professionals (e.g. workflow tools for business users). Read more…

Comments: 4